The Norman Transcript

Opinion

December 19, 2013

Low budget estimate puts agencies in bind

NORMAN — State agencies and their employees got the end-of-year news they didn’t want to hear this week. Despite reports of an early boost in some revenue categories, the state expects to have fewer tax dollars to appropriate next year.

The state Board of Equalization certified about $6.96 billion for lawmakers to use when crafting a budget for the state beginning July 1. The amount could change when the board meets again in February. As it stands, that’s about $170 million less than was appropriated this fiscal year.

That’s not welcome news for higher education, which has requested an increase just to cover higher expenses for utilities and employee insurance and for faculty members to cover an increasing number of classes designed to meet the challenges of raising the state’s college graduation rate.

Neither is it welcome for state employees who were hoping to catch up on pay this legislative session. A recently released compensation study showed base salaries for state employees are 22 percent behind the private sector. Job vacancies in some areas are up, too. The state employees association said that only 57 percent of the Corrections Department’s approved positions are filled.

Gov. Mary Fallin told The Associated Press that it was too early to tell whether she would push for a tax cut next year. The Oklahoma Supreme Court this week ruled unconstitutional a bill that cut the state’s top personal income tax rate, something Fallin championed during the last legislative session.

The state’s General Revenue fund now receives about 45 percent of all gross tax collections compared to about 55 percent in 2007. That’s because legislators earmark more funds for specific appropriation areas like roads and bridges or tax credits.

More dedicated funds means fewer dollars for lawmakers to appropriate to pressing issues such as education, corrections or mental health.

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