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Oklahoma budgets could be cut up to 10 percent

January 16, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY — The head of the Senate committee overseeing the state budget is warning agency heads to prepare for funding cuts of up to 10 percent and directed them to produce plans on how to make the reductions.

Sen. David Myers, the new head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said Thursday he has begun giving agency heads the bad news as legislative leaders consider ways of filling a deficit estimated at nearly $600 million, or 10 percent of the overall state budget.

Some agency officials were shaken by the magnitude of the potential cuts, he said. “They’re giving us those responses, which in some cases are pretty painful,” Myers, R-Ponca City, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We’re going to have to look at those and evaluate how much pain do we want to put here or there. We’re going to be looking at that very steadily over the next few months.”

Although lawmakers have known the size of the estimated deficit for months, Myers’ comments are the first to specify the potential cutbacks envisioned in state programs.

Alex Weintz, spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, said the extent of the reductions needed won’t be known until the budget figures are certified, but added: “The reality of the budget situation is that every agency is going to have to find ways to tighten its belt and save money.”

Myers said he directed the agency heads to develop scenarios for cuts ranging from 5 percent to 10 percent.

Any significant reductions would be expected to land heavily on education, which consumes more than 50 percent of state funding.

Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson asked lawmakers this week for a 6 percent increase in state funds for Oklahoma‘s colleges and universities. A cut of 5 percent or more would likely require tuition increases.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, and it looks like it’s going to be another tough year ahead,” said Stephen Crawford, who heads the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.

Fallin, who took office Monday, campaigned for governor last year by emphasizing that Oklahoma must solve its budget problems by expanding its economy. She has offered no details yet on possible new revenue sources or spending cuts, but she and GOP legislative leaders have said they will not halt an automatic one-quarter percent reduction in the state’s top income tax rate that will take effect Jan. 1, 2012. The tax cut would reduce revenues by an additional $120 million a year.

Fallin has singled out supporting education as one of her top priorities, but she noted this week, “I think every agency should tighten its belt and look at ways for continuous improvement in the services they deliver and how they spend their money.”

Budgets of public schools have been cut by more than 10 percent over the last two years because of slumping revenues tied to the national recession and low energy prices. Schools have laid off about 1,500 teachers and 1,000 support personnel, like bus drivers, custodians and school nurses, said Joel Robison, chief lobbyist for the Oklahoma Education Association.

Angela Monson, a former Democratic state senator who now chairs the board of education for Oklahoma City Public Schools, the largest district in the state, said she remains optimistic that Fallin and Republican leaders in the House and Senate will find a way to avoid deep cuts to education.

“If education is their priority, then it will be protected,” she said. “If education is not as important as tax credits or tax reductions, then it won’t be protected.”

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