Oklahoma City_Following two years of solid growth, it appears Oklahoma's economy may have reached a standstill, possibly even a deficit. State lawmakers got word from the treasurer this week. He predicts the state government may be left with $195 Million less than anticipated. Lawmakers were already expecting the budget to be tight, but thought they would have at least close to $32 Million in new funding.
Newly-elected Speaker of the House Chris Benge, of Tulsa, says it's not surprising news - it's following a national trend. But, despite having less money to spend, Benge says it's nowhere near the funding crisis the state faced in 2002 and 2003. "This is a cycle, an economic cycle," he says. "We see the economy grow, then we see it slide, and then it bottoms out at some point. That's what we're seeing."
The good news is that Speaker Benge doesn't predict any major spending cutbacks this year. Marlow Representative Ray McCarter agrees. "I wouldn't count on having to cut too much," he says. "But we sure better look out for next year, because indicators are it's going to be a long range thing."
For the time being, lawmakers are faced with the difficult tax of likely rejection of many funding requests. Some are big, like those from the Department of Corrections, and the Governor's annual plan to boost teacher salaries. Other requests may not be deemed as important. "I think our job, up here, is to look at all the issues to really see what taxpayers of Oklahoma want to provide....and, what they expect a state government to do for them," says Senator Don Barrington of Lawton.
One thing is for sure, lawmakers prepared for a downturn and deficits by filling the Rainy Day Fund with $500 Million. They're already considering tapping into it. "We're in a good position to absorb a slow down," says Barrington. "We have a good Rainy Day Fund. We have a good practice of limiting spending over the past couple of years that I think will help."
Finger pointing has already begun, and some say it's the Republican tax cuts that's led to the decrease in revenue. Speaker Benge says that's not true. He says the tax cuts have not, and cannot, affect the economy negatively.
Next Tuesday, lawmakers will get a more accurate number of how much less money they will be working with when the state's equalization board will certify the revenue.