MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

May 9, 2013

State House approves general appropriations bill

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma House on Thursday easily passed a $7.1 billion bill to fund state government for the upcoming fiscal year over the objection of Democrats and some Republicans who complained the bill doesn’t adequately fund public safety entities like prisons and state troopers.

The Republican-controlled House voted 59-40 for the general appropriations bill that funds state agencies for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The bill next heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved next week and sent to the governor.

The budget, which reflects an agreement between the governor and GOP legislative leaders, increases spending by nearly $270 million over the current year’s budget, with growth in funding focused mostly on education, health care and human services.

Rep. Scott Martin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and key budget negotiator for the House, acknowledged not everyone would be happy with the budget agreement, but said he believed it reflected the priorities of both Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s amazing to me to see just how close we’ve come to the priorities we laid out,” said Martin, R-Norman. “While there are detractors here and there ... we are a united body.”

But no Democrats voted for the bill, and several members argued that too much of an emphasis was placed on renovations of state-owned buildings, including $60 million for improvements to the Capitol, a $30 million fund to pay for other building improvements, and $5 million to for renovations and upgrades to legislative space in the building.

“There is $95 million for office space and renovating buildings,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City. “The money’s there to take care of state employees. The money’s there to take care of education. The money’s there to pay for higher education so tuition doesn’t need to go up. It’s all there. It’s just a matter of where your priorities are.”

The Department of Corrections received a standstill budget despite the agency’s repeated pleas to legislators that staff continues to decline while the number of inmates is on the rise. A House committee earlier this session approved a $20 million bill that would fund raises for prison workers and Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers, but Martin said he was unsuccessful in getting the funding in the final version of the budget agreement.

“In negotiations, you win some, you lose some,” Martin said. “When it comes to education funding, I think we won one.”

Rep. Sean Roberts, one of about a dozen Republicans who opposed the measure, said he couldn’t support an increase in state spending that didn’t include raises for prison workers.

“There are a few flaws that we can’t overlook,” said Roberts, R-Hominy. “Spending $5 million to fix offices downstairs and not being able to give troopers or corrections a raise ... if we put a yes vote, we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

After the measure passed, Democrats objected that a vote was cast on behalf of a Republican legislator who had left the building, which is a violation of House rules. Inman said Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Tulsa, had left the Capitol when two separate votes were held on the bill. O’Donnell, who did not immediately respond to telephone messages left Thursday at his home and office, was shown voting yes on both votes.

Joe Griffin, a spokesman for House Speaker T.W. Shannon, said House leaders were investigating the matter.

“Right now we’re looking into the situation, if indeed there is a situation,” Griffin said. “This would have no significant impact on the overall vote.”

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