OPINION

State senators focus on revenue, budget

Staff Writer
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The 2016 Legislative session began this last Monday. Nearly 1,170 Senate bills along with nearly 1,250 House bills were requested in December but less than 800 Senate bills and roughly 950 House bills ended up getting filed, which is less than normal.

Because of the more than $900 million revenue shortfall (that could grow to as much as $1.5 billion) that we’ll be facing, legislators want to focus on budgetary issues. Less bills were filed also because legislators realize that any legislation asking for new or increased spending more than likely won’t get heard this session.

We’ve been hard at work discussing the budget the last few months. The appropriation subcommittees have already had their committee hearings to get input from the particular agencies that they oversee. This is going to be a very difficult budget year and it’s important that we approach this shortfall with a positive attitude and look for ways to make our state government more efficient at all levels.

The State Equalization Board will meet in the next couple of weeks to finalize their revenue estimates. We’re hoping that the number is closer to $1 billion than $1.5 billion. State agencies have already had to be cut three percent from their budgets to get them through the current fiscal year, which ends in June, and close the current $157 million budget hole.

This session, we’ll be focusing on operating more efficiently with fewer funds. With the downturn in the economy, due mainly to recent declines in the oil and gas sector, that’s exactly what most Oklahoma businesses and families are trying to do as well.

Some of the areas of potential savings that may be considered are agency consolidation or streamlining; reforming the state’s tax incentive and credit process (tax incentives cost the state more than $1 billion a year); requiring agencies to become more efficient in whatever ways possible; eliminating programs that haven’t proven beneficial to the state; and selling or privatizing state assets. We also may need to look at those regulatory agencies that generate sufficient fees to support themselves but yet receive appropriations.

Fortunately, we do have $385 million in the Rainy Day Fund that can be used in part to help soften this fiscal blow. However, using the fund should always be a last resort as we never know if the next fiscal year might be even worse. The legislature and state agencies must get creative and find ways to be as efficient as possible with the resources available.

Should the legislature choose to utilize the savings account, up to $144.4 million can be used for the current fiscal year and another $144.4 million can be withdrawn to help fill next year’s budget hole. Also the remainder of the fund, $96.3 million, could be used if the governor declares an emergency and two-thirds of both chambers approve the declaration. The legislature can also access the emergency funds with the governor’s declaration with a three-fourths vote by the Senate and House.

Gov. Fallin’s proposed budget doesn’t use any money from this fund because she feels that next year could be worse financially.

This session, I’ve filed 15 bills and have 18 that carried over from last session. Some of the issues in my bills include public records, county zoning, driver licenses, the cigarette tax, the Open Meeting Act, tourism improvement districts, water rights, burns bans and tax credits just to name a few.

To learn more about the session and legislation, you can visit our website at www.oksenate.gov.

You can contact me at the state Capitol by calling (405) 521-5581 or by email at efields@oksenate.gov.

State Sen. Eddie Fields represents District 10, which includes Osage and Kay counties.