By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Governor Brad Henry has been called on recently to dip into a special pot of set-aside funding to prevent the latest budget cuts from shutting down senior nutrition centers.
The governor has respectfully declined.
The ‘pot’ in question is not the state’s Rainy Day Fund -- the governor has made clear his belief that the time has come to tap some of that $600 million. No, this is the so-called governor's discretionary fund: $105 million in stimulus money that can be spent, largely, as Gov. Henry chooses.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), each state received Fiscal Stabilization Funds, including an amount of money to be allocated according to specific needs identified by that state’s governor. There are some restrictions placed on the use of these funds (e.g., they cannot be used to pay down debt), and the selected uses must pass federal muster.
Still, the availability of the money, in Oklahoma, recently caused some state lawmakers to ask why the Governor wouldn’t choose to spend just a few million of the $105 million on the senior nutrition centers.
Governor Henry said he understands the concern, but dismissed the question as political posturing.
"Most everyone who has called on me to use the discretionary stimulus dollars to help fund the senior nutrition centers know that those dollars have been committed, obligated, and, in many cases, already expended."
The governor explained that, as part of a deal with legislative leaders last May, he committed $48 million of the discretionary funding to help balance the current FY 2010 budget. That left about $57 million that was truly at his discretion, and he said there were no shortage of people knocking on his door, hoping to get a piece of the pie.
"I had well over one hundred requests, 100 applications for funding," Governor Henry said.
The governor said, in deciding where to put the money, he was looking for projects that would have the greatest short-term and long-term benefits for the state. He said that’s what led him to dedicate a large amount of the funding to early childhood education.
"Oklahoma leads the nation in early childhood education. We have a higher percentage of our 4-year-olds in 4-year-old, quality educational programs than any other state in the country," Henry said.
And Henry wants the state to continue leading the way.
So, with $15 million of his discretionary money and matching dollars from the George Kaiser Foundation, the Tulsa school district will build three early childhood education centers. There, the district will pilot two new early childhood programs – one for 3-year-olds and another covering birth to age five.
The governor said the construction will create jobs for the short-term, and produce a better educated workforce for the long term. “I think that's a good use of the funds."
The next largest chunk of the funding -- $14 million -- is going to Langston University to help settle a civil rights complaint against the state that dates back to the mid-1970s. It will also result in the creation of construction jobs.
"We are working toward a resolution that will get us out from under the complaint, for good. Part of that resolution requires providing a real campus for Langston University in Tulsa," Henry said.
Additional allocations include: $7 million to OU and $7 million to OSU for capital needs; $3.9 million to help Oklahoma Career Tech with capital needs and mandatory payments; $2.5 million to help build new beds for the homeless in Tulsa; and $1.8 million to OSBI.
Governor Henry said it should come as no surprise that he chose to put the bulk of his discretionary funds toward education.
"I believe that education and providing more educational opportunities to the people of Oklahoma is really the key for our state, in terms of our future economic growth and prosperity," Henry said.
See the complete breakdown of the governor's discretionary funds.