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Lawmakers Talk of Cuts, Then Spend

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Two Oklahoma Senate committees have cleared bills totaling $1 billion. Two Oklahoma Senate committees have cleared bills totaling $1 billion.

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's as if committees of the first Republican-led Oklahoma Legislature were oblivious to a $600 million budget gap they have to fill as they passed two bills alone that would cost more than $1 billion.

One bill approved by a Senate committee last week would eliminate the 4.5 percent state sales tax on groceries, a $242 million annual reduction.

Another that flew out of a Senate education panel would give teachers $9,000 in pay raises and cost more than $800 million over three years.

The measures may be wildly popular and look good on lawmakers' voting records, but their chances of enactment appear to be nil.

Even before the session began, Democratic Governor Brad Henry warned it will be a budget-cutting year with no money for new expensive programs.

Senator Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore, said eliminating the grocery tax would be great and help a lot of people, but added that lawmakers were fostering "a fairly tale" on the public by passing the bill out of committee.

Senator Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso, chief sponsor of one of the grocery tax removal bills, argues the tax cut is doable and the "moral" thing to do. He says the savings taxpayers get would be plowed back into the economy.

The problem, however, is it would increase the state's budget woes for now. That's because the state has a budget-balancing amendment and tax cuts must be factored into the final estimates of revenues upon which appropriations to agencies and programs are based.

As lawmakers prepared to head for home on Thursday, Senator Glenn Coffee -- the first GOP Senate president pro tem -- was asked about the big tax-cut measures and the massive education spending plan.

Coffee responded he doubts there will be much change in final revenue estimates later this month so it "is not likely those bills will go much farther."

Speaking to the Oklahoma Press Association on Friday, Henry said he has always favored doing away with the grocery tax but it is "unrealistic" this year.

Removing the state sales tax on groceries would eventually cause a $245 million drop in state revenue. The bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee, along with Senator Mike Mazzei's bill to make a $44 million reduction in the state income tax rate.

Under Mazzei's bill, the maximum rate would fall from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent for the 2010 tax year.

It is unclear whether significant tax-cut proposals will continue as a topic of discussion as the session moves along. Lawmakers will get a final picture of how much money they have to spend when the Equalization Board meets at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, Senate education leaders say they favor keeping an open dialogue about education needs.

House Appropriations Chairman Ken Miller, R-Edmond, had little to say on the Senate tax-cut and education bills. House members, he said, "are working and concentrating on bills that originated in the House."

The amount of money that would be required to pay for Rep. Kenneth Corn's education bill roughly mirrors the amount being sought for schools in a successful initiative petition sponsored by the Oklahoma Education Association.

The issue will be headed for a vote at a special election or at the general election in 2010.

Several legislators have questioned the wisdom of earmarking such large amounts of the state revenue pie to any one area on the theory it will tie the Legislature's hands in dealing with emergency problems.

The Legislature's first week was relatively uneventful, with little floor action. Henry's State of the State speech took up most of Monday. The governor's budget called for more than $100 million in agency budget cuts, zeroing in on travel expenses, while proposing $45 million in cost savings through purchasing and technology reforms.

A Senate committee did pass a bill to allow for bear hunting this fall, while a House committee rejected an autism mandate bill, one of the hottest issues from 2008. The panel voted for an alternative plan to increase the number of autism therapists in the state.

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