Lawmakers Push for New Spending in Time of Frugality

Monday, February 9th 2009, 6:19 pm
By: News 9

By Alex Cameron, NEWS 9

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The battle lines are already being drawn at the state Capitol, and we're just a week into the session.

Some lawmakers are pushing bills that would require significant new spending, at a time when the Governor is calling for significant spending cuts.

These are bills that have already been passed out of their respective committees and there is plenty of support for them. The question is whether it makes sense to support them now.

One bill would give Oklahoma teachers $3,000 raises each of the next three years, moving their pay above the regional average. The bill's price tag is $815 million.

Another bill would gradually do away with the state sales tax on groceries, costing the state about $240 million.

Both come with the state staring at a $600 million revenue shortfall, meaning there's little, if any, room for lawmakers to push new spending.

"The bottom line is, come May, they're going to have to pass a balanced budget and most of this stuff will fall by the wayside," Governor Henry's spokesperson Paul Sund said.

But supporters of the grocery tax measure aren't so sure.

"When people are suffering, can you think of a better time to let them keep their own money?" Senator Randy Brogdon (R-District 34) said.

Senator Randy Brogdon says the state's loss would be minimal.

"If there would be any money lost to the state at all, it would be very negligible because people are going to spend the money on other items," Brogdon said.

Supporters of the teacher pay raise bill realize its chances for passage are slim, but say lawmakers need to set their priorities.

"This proposal's no different than the proposals being passed by the Legislature to cut taxes this session or fund other big programs out here, it deserves to be on the table," Senator Kenneth Corn (D-District 4) said. "It should be a priority for us in Oklahoma to make sure our education system is of quality."

"Governor Henry would love to raise teacher pay, love to raise state employee pay, love to get rid of the grocery sales tax, but it's probably not going to happen this year, in fact, it's not going to happen," Sund said.

These aren't the only bills that would create new spending or decrease tax revenues. Another bill would pave the way for lowering the state's income tax rate; an estimated cost of $44 million.

Several lawmakers say they don't really expect these bills to pass this session, but they are laying the groundwork for success in future sessions.