State lawmakers took a step toward protecting the health of vulnerable Oklahomans today, and also fulfilling the call of the special session that started Monday. And yet, with the state revenue picture coming into clearer focus, it seems likely that lawmakers will return for still another special session, possibly next month.
In line with the narrow focus of the governor’s call for the special session, the Senate today approved two bills to shore up Medicaid services until April. The House is expected to do the same later this week.
The moves come as Governor Fallin and legislative leaders get a better understanding of the state’s revenue picture for FY 2019, and how that fits into a longer-term solution to Oklahoma’s budget mess.
“We are cautiously optimistic about the economy at this time,” said Shelly Palk, Deputy Budget Director for Revenue at OMES.
Palk presented the latest revenue numbers at today’s meeting of the State Board of Equalization, which re-certified revenue amounts for the current fiscal year — FY 2018 — and provided the first official estimate of revenue that will be available to lawmakers for appropriation for next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2018.
“The state economy seems to be improving and our energy market, which we are highly dependent on,” said Palk, “seems to be improving.”
While the latest figures show baseline revenues increasing over last year, the increase does not appear to be enough to make up for the one-time funds legislators used to try and balance this year’s budget. As a result, documents provided at today’s meeting show next year’s appropriation estimate — $6.91 billion — approximately $118 million less than what has been appropriated for FY 2018.
Palk is quick to point out, however, that this estimated budget gap (between FY18 and FY19) is very much a moving target at this point, since the current year budget is still not final.
Following the meeting, Governor Fallin spoke to reporters and expressed frustration with the budget situation.
“We just cannot keep going down this path,” Governor Fallin stated, “especially when I’m trying to recruit new businesses here and they are saying to me, ‘Well, you have four-day school weeks, you’re not paying your teachers enough — why should I bring my business to Oklahoma?’”
Fallin also explained that a group of local business and community leaders recently met with her and legislative leaders and shared their own frustrations, which culminated with them presenting their own long-term budget solution, which would raise new revenues and implement new government reforms.
“Basically, the message to us,” Fallin related, “was, ‘Solve the problem, fix the issue, quit kicking the can down the road, fill the hole, give a raise!’”
Governor Fallin says the group’s proposal is one where everyone would have to make a sacrifice. It includes many of the measures contained in legislation that came within five votes of passing during the first special session last month, such as increases in the gross production tax, fuel tax, and cigarette tax.
Legislative leaders familiar with the plan, like Rep. Jon Echols, R-House Floor Leader, say the group’s involvement, and the support they are offering, are most welcome.
“We have been blessed to have a group of community leaders, not just business people, but community leaders from all over the state,” said Rep. Echols, “come in with a desire to be helpful — that is very helpful.”
According to both Echols and Fallin, talks with the community group are ongoing and, if all goes well, could lead to another special session around the middle of January, at which point the plan would be publicly debated and voted on.