There’s never a dull moment at the state Capitol. Just when you think things are moving along smoothly, the wheels fall off and someone throws a softball out of left field. While it can be frustrating, this is also the beauty of our government. All ideas and beliefs are welcome and considered.
Gov. Kevin Stitt didn’t agree with the FY’21 budget that was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature, so he vetoed four budgetary bills May 13. Fortunately, the House and Senate were united in support of our budgetary actions and quickly overrode his vetoes. It was a great example of the checks and balances in our state government. The governor has the power of the pen, but if a supermajority of the Legislature supports a bill, they can override the governor’s veto with support from two-thirds of both chambers.
No budget is ever completely perfect because we don’t live in a perfect world. If we did, we’d be overflowing with money and could fulfill every agency’s appropriation request, which would require at least twice the revenue we typically have.
But we have to work with what we’ve got, and right now we’re facing a $1.4 billion revenue shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1. We already had to make difficult decisions to fill the current budget year’s revenue shortfall and more were made to keep agency cuts in the FY’21 budget under 4%.
This is the second time in a decade that the state has faced a shortfall of over $1 billion and there were some other years that were close to that amount. Needless to say, we have to protect our state agencies. They have been through a lot in recent years, and this health crisis is just one more obstacle we’re going to have to overcome as a state.
We worked long hours last week trying to finish all our business. We heard more than 100 bills on the floor and confirmed more than 130 executive nominations. In total this session, we confirmed nearly 200 of Gov. Stitt’s executive nominations to open positions on the state’s boards and commissions. These are private citizens who voluntarily serve to help improve an agency, industry, service or address a particular issue in the state. Of the more than 500 state boards and commissions, the governor appoints members to just over 260 of them.
One of the bills we approved was HB 4018 (the Rural Broadband Expansion Act) to improve broadband access in rural Oklahoma. This will be especially beneficial in our district and the entire state, which is ranked 47th nationally for rural broadband access. A council will study broadband access around the state and decide how much it will cost to expand it.
In today’s digital world, citizens need access to internet services for school, work and to stay up on what’s happening in the world, including weather and other safety updates. Many in our state are unable to apply for jobs because a majority of businesses require online applications. We’re also seeing extremely low U.S. Census participation in areas with limited or no Internet connection. Hopefully, this will be something we can tackle and start funding next session to get more Oklahomans access to the Internet.
This week, the governor announced a bipartisan legislative committee to help his office with distributing the $1.2 billion in CARES federal funds Oklahoma received. It’s important to note, however, that the state will actually only get to disperse about half of the funds, as the rest will be split between Oklahoma City, Tulsa and the tribes.
It’s important that this money is used efficiently to help address our state agencies’ greatest issues caused by this health crisis. Gov. Stitt says he has also created a robust tracking and reporting system so the public can see how the funds are used in the coming months.
I’m also pleased that the Legislature finally approved a COLA for our dedicated and hardworking public employees. Under HB 3350, those who have been retired 2-5 years as of July 1, 2020, will get a 2% increase while those who are over 5 years will get a 4% bump. This is well deserved and long overdue.
You can contact me by calling (405) 521-5581 or emailing Bill.Coleman@oksenate.gov.