MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 28, 2013

Lawmakers angry at being shut out from budget talks

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Republican officials are keeping a tight lid on who would get how much money under next year’s state budget proposal, and several legislators — Democrat and Republican alike — are complaining they haven’t been included in the negotiations.

Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker T. W. Shannon and a handful of other high-level Republicans say they meet regularly to negotiate the budget’s outlines, which could be introduced to the full Legislature in the coming week or two. Several legislators said the rest of the Legislature has been left out, essentially excluding from the process the elected representatives of more than 9 in 10 Oklahomans.

“I represent the same number of people as any of the leadership, and so do you,” Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, told his House colleagues Wednesday during debate on a driver’s license fee bill. “And if we all had the same say in the budget ... public safety would be on the first things we would fund. Education would be one of the first things we would fund. Infrastructure, highways and bridges, we would fund it.”

A handful of Republicans joined in voicing their frustration, including Rep. Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City, a reliably outspoken critic of the state’s budget practices.

“You’re not even here to push a button, I guess,” he said heatedly on the House floor. “I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know why any of us are here, because the leadership has already decided.”

It’s unclear when the budget will be unveiled — only that it will be soon. The regular session must end by the last Friday of May.

In a meeting with reporters last week, Shannon said he, the governor, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and both chambers’ appropriations committee chairmen and vice chairmen have met at least once each week to go over the budget.

Shannon said the group had recently focused on agreements around a workers’ compensation overhaul and income tax cut proposal but will turn back to the broader budget this week. He added he thought the process was closer to being finished than it had been at this point in the past several years and that he still hopes to end the session a week early.

As for where the state’s roughly $7 billion for appropriations will go, Fallin and Shannon have left details vague. Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz pointed to the governor’s State of the State address in February, where she outlined priorities for mental health and human services.

Since then, state officials repeatedly have said education and public safety also need significant boosts in funding. How much they’ll get is unclear.

“I share the frustration about the budget process,” said Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, the chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety. “My understanding is, for a number of these things, we’re being told by those we’re negotiating with there’s not going to be money available. That’s the political reality.”

In response to House members’ protests of a lack of involvement, Shannon said every member is on an appropriations subcommittee and the process simply has to work that way.

“When you’re one piece of a three-legged stool — especially in the House, when you’re the largest piece — we have to share that authority more than anybody else that’s involved in the process,” he said. “You know, 101 members, if they all craft their own budgets, we’d probably have 110 budgets.”

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