Oklahoma City_Oklahoma state legislators face a budget shortage of almost $600 million started the 2009 session at the capitol on Monday. Governor Brad Henry delivered his State of the State address Monday afternoon to open the session of the 52nd State Legislature. He asked agencies and lawmakers to think about where they can make cuts. "As Oklahoma families take a hard look at their own expenses, and cut where they can, we must do the same," he said.
This isn't the first - or worst - budget deficit Governor Henry has faced. When he took office in 2003, there was a budget shortfall of almost $700 million, and a depleted Rainy Day Fund. The emergency fund is currently full - with $600 million - and the legislators must determine whether to use any of it as an answer to the economic downturn.
Members of the State House and Senate cheered the Governor. Despite the daunting and undesirable task ahead of them, the cheering was a sign of bipartisan optimism. "We've faced adversity many times, and, by pulling together, we've come through those adversities stronger and more united than before - and we'll do it again," said Henry.
Henry asked for precise, surgical cuts, without tapping into the Rainy Day Fund in the event the budget could grow worse in the future. "Expect the unexpected," he said. Today's showers could be tomorrow's tempest, and so we must resist the urge to raid the Rainy Day Fund."
Those who share his views say the Rainy Day Fund should be used only for one-time emergencies, not ongoing situations. "I'm hoping that we will protect the Rainy Day Fund, and make sure that we don't raid it for paying off programs that are continuous," said Representative Joe Dorman, (D) Rush Springs. "We're going to have to go through the budget and make sure we do have a balanced budget, make sure that everything is funded adequately, and make the cuts where we need to."
Some Republicans say they expect cuts to be made in terms of employees, and the fund could solve the problem. "We're going to try to work around it," said Representative Randy Bass, (D) Lawton. "If you can get into a Rainy Day Fund to save jobs, that would be my answer, but I don't think they're going to get into it this year."
Whether the Rainy Day Fund is used or not, both parties agree that there isn't a short-term solution. "I think it will be a multiple year process," said Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins (D). "We're not going into this downturn because of things that have happened in just one year. It's things that have built over a period of time, and mostly because of things that are happening around the country. So, Oklahoma's still in pretty good shape."
In one of his anecdotal references, Henry spoke of a particular symbol of words in written Chinese. The character for the word 'crisis' is the same as used for the word 'opportunity.' Henry says this also is true for the challenges the legislature currently faces, as it presents an opportunity to improve government.
The state may get several hundred-million dollars of relief from the Federal Government through the stimulus bill being discussed in Washington, D.C. Askins says that if the congressional package is approved by the end of February, Oklahoma legislators still will have three months in this session to work the additional funding into the state's budget.