Every legislative session presents its own unique challenges—this time last year, many of us were dividing our time between finishing up legislation here at the Capitol and trying to assist with the overwhelming needs following massive flooding throughout the state.
This year, we got hit by COVID-19, and it completely changed not only how we continued our work here at the Capitol, but dramatically changed the budget. While we’d anticipated a revenue gap of about $85 million for the coming budget year, when the Board of Equalization met in April, we were told that gap would instead be about $1.3 billion.
We asked to be given the data on which this projection was made—it was never shared with us. While we had serious concerns about this estimate, without that data and in an abundance of caution, we had no choice but to write the budget based on their projection. The governor had recommended simply cutting the budget by at least 7.5%. The great majority of my fellow members and I believed cutting schools, health care, public safety and other core services our citizens depend on during this pandemic was absolutely wrong for our state.
Instead, we created a budget that prioritized education, holding cuts to 2.5%, and holding cuts to other agencies to 4.1% or less. Despite rhetoric from the governor’s office, this bill does not take money from our retirement systems and it doesn’t shortchange our roads and bridges funding.
For the past several years, the Legislature has worked diligently to reform and strengthen our public retirement systems and has been making additional payments into them to accelerate those efforts. You could compare it to making double car payments each month to pay down your loan quicker, but if you needed to address other emergency bills, you may decide the most responsible thing would be to simply make the single payment, and deal with those other emergency expenses. None of the measures we approved takes one penny from the corpus of our retirement funds, despite claims to the contrary.
There were also claims that our budget bills resulted in taking money from our roads and bridges—this is also untrue. While we reallocated some earmarked funds from transportation to education, the transportation dollars are being completely replaced with bond money. Again, our roads and bridges won’t be shortchanged at all.
Furthermore, we’re still optimistic that as the economy continues to open up, revenues will begin flowing again, ultimately enabling us to return to the Capitol next session and restore some of the funds we had to cut to balance the budget. While no one would contend this is a perfect budget, it is far better than many had predicted, and we were able to minimize cuts to core services, especially to our schools. Particularly given the many challenges our citizens and our state are already facing, upholding this budget was the right thing to do.
Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to be your voice in the Oklahoma Senate. Please feel free to contact my Capitol office with any questions or concerns you may have about legislation or other issues impacting our state at 405.521.5628 or at Chuck.Hall@oksenate.gov.