By Rob W. Anderson
TAHLEQUAH — State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, took office for the first time in 2004, and he says the projected budget for the coming year looks much like it did nearly a decade ago.
As legislators returned to work Monday, Brown is concerned that funding for education and infrastructure may be affected.
“We’re just about back to a $7 billion budget. The problem is, the governor says that we’re going to have a flat budget,” he said. “Whenever I was first elected, we actually gave teachers a $3,000 pay raise the first year. The second year we came back and actually gave them another $1,200 pay raise. We spent about $50 million extra on infrastructure needs — roads, bridges and transportation.”
Brown said that during his early years as a lawmaker, access to mental health care was expanded, as were services in other agencies.
“In the past eight years, though, it’s been total cuts in each one of these agencies, including education. Education is probably taking one of the biggest cuts. Now we’re back to the point that we can actually start filling those gaps once again, yet we’re at a flat budget. The electorate needs to be asking why.”
Brown said the legislative leadership has burdened the state through its tax credits and cuts.
“We all enjoy a tax cut,” he said. “I think I enjoyed a $40 tax rebate the first or second year I was there.
“The second year, I think, we got a $20 tax cut or something like that, but education received about $200 million in cuts because of that.”
Brown said local mental health services are coming under fire, too.
“They’re fixing to shut down another one of my programs out at Lake Tenkiller, and it’s not that there’s not money for it,” he said. “We’ve had a problem with one person who doesn’t want that type of program in her neighborhood. So it’s going to cost about 43 jobs and half a million dollars in payroll to leave this area. These are just a few of the things that go on at the Capitol.”
Brown indicated that House members submitted fewer bills this session.
“I think there were roughly 1,900 bills filed this year,” he said. “There are 19 or 20 bills dealing with carrying firearms and whether we allow school officials to carry firearms, but we’re not worried about funding for teacher preparedness or some of the other areas like reading sufficiency. We’re not going to be talking about funding for those.”
Brown anticipates that legislators will spend another session seeking reforms in areas such as workers’ compensation and/or health care. He said he reviewed newspaper clippings from the past 10 years and noticed there was a reform theme at every legislative session.
Brown noted the Legislature has about a 3.2 percent higher income this year than what it was projected to be, but he said the challenge will be in keeping the hands out of the pot.
“We’ve become pretty good at transferring those funds out of the rainy day fund and special funds for use in this year’s budget, which we’re not supposed to do,” he said. “We should be able to get through this year, but as I said, the governor is going to come out with a flat budget.”
Rob W. Anderson writes for the Tahlequah Daily Press.