Oklahoma Legislature approves $7.1 billion state budget, drops gavel on 2015 session

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Legislature wrapped up work on a $7.1 billion budget and approved a bond issue for a pop culture museum in Tulsa on Friday before ending the 2015 legislative session one week early.

The Senate easily passed a general appropriations bill on a 38-9 vote that funds state government for the fiscal year that begins July 1, despite concerns from opponents that the deal didn't do enough to rein in millions of dollars' worth of costly tax credits and incentives. That measure now heads to Gov. Mary Fallin, who is expected to sign it.

Sen. Clark Jolley, the chief Senate negotiator on the budget deal, acknowledged the plan wasn't perfect, but said it did not hurt funding for K-12 schools and increased spending for critical agencies like the Department of Corrections and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

"If there's one disappointment I have with this budget, it's that we have not figured out how to get a pay raise for teachers," said Jolley, R-Edmond. "I wish we had gotten them. We didn't."

Fallin said she was pleased to sign legislation to require more analysis of tax credits and incentives and hopes lawmakers will be able to end the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue that is spent before it reaches the state's general fund.

"I think we had a very productive session, especially considering the budget shortfall that we faced this year with the downturn in the energy sector," Fallin said.

Under the agreement reached between the governor's office, House and Senate, nearly all the $611 million budget hole was plugged with one-time sources of revenue, including $150 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund, which has a current balance of $535 million. Most agencies will receive funding cuts ranging from less than 1 percent to 7.25 percent, eight agencies will receive appropriation increases, and 12 agencies, including the Department of Education, will receive flat appropriations.

But with an increase in the number of students and an estimated shortage of more than 1,000 teachers statewide, a flat budget amounts to a cut, said Senate Democratic Leader Randy Bass.

"Everyone got elected for supporting education, and we absolutely kicked the can down the road," said Bass, D-Lawton. "You still can't go and get more teachers. You don't have the funding to do it."

Despite fierce opposition among Republicans to increasing debt backed by the state, the Legislature also managed to pass two separate $25 million bond proposals to pay for museums — one in Oklahoma City and one in Tulsa.

The House's approval on Friday of a $25 million bond issue for a museum in Tulsa's Brady Arts District came one day after the same bill failed by seven votes. It calls for the construction of a 75,000-square-foot, four-story building dedicated to the state's contributions to popular culture. The plan also includes funding for an adjacent parking garage that will be used to help fund the museum's operation.

"We can establish a world-class museum that is iconic, that is sustainable, that will prove that museum education is a core function of government if it's done properly, just as the Smithsonian," said Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, the state agency responsible for overseeing the museum.

On Thursday, the Senate gave final approval to another $25 million bond issue to fund completion of the Native American Cultural Center and Museum, an unfinished facility along the banks of the Oklahoma River near downtown Oklahoma City.


House Bill 2242: http://bit.ly/1HzfZKo

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