By Michael McNutt - Capitol Bureau
Published: February 2, 2009
Addressing the first-ever Republican-controlled Legislature, Gov. Brad Henry told lawmakers today they must exercise thrift and sacrifice to tackle a $600 million budget shortfall.
The governor, in a speech to kick off the first session of the 52nd Legislature, said his budget proposal calls for “precise, surgical cuts while protecting vital state functions such as education, health care, transportation and public safety.”
“As Oklahoma families take a hard look at their own expenses and cut where they can, we must do the same,” Henry said in prepared remarks released in advance.
“State agencies must tighten their budgets. Some projects must be put on hold.”
He’s proposing state purchasing reforms and consolidating information technologies, including services the state offers online, to also tackle the shortfall.
Henry, a Democrat, spoke to a joint session of the House, controlled by Republicans since the November 2004 elections, and the Senate, which the GOP took control of for the first time ever after November’s elections.
Despite the state’s budget woes, Henry, making his seventh State of the State address, sprinkled optimism through his address and quoted Oklahoma favorite son Will Rogers and Mahatma Gandhi, the historic political and spiritual leader of India.
Borrowing Rogers’ line that if you don’t like Oklahoma’s weather to just wait five minutes because it will change, the economy also is uncertain, Henry said.
“Today’s showers could be tomorrow’s tempest,” the governor said, “and so we must resist the urge to raid the Rainy Day Fund.”
The Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account, is full, with nearly $600 million, Henry said. Henry said legislators need to keep it in reserve because the 2011 fiscal year could be worse.
Henry, who faced a tough economic shortfall in his first year as governor in 2003, said legislators this year – just as six years ago – will be able to craft a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year without passing tax increases. The state then had only about $70 million in the Rainy Day Fund, and legislators spent all but $100,000 of it.
The nation’s recession, which appears to be tightening its grip on Oklahoma, shouldn’t overwhelm legislators, the governor said.
“We should also remember that the sun will shine again,” he said. “This session must be about more than simply seeing our state through a troubled today; we must also plan ahead to ensure prosperity and promise for tomorrow.”
He proposed legislators find a permanent funding source for the state’s research endowment fund, which can help produce high-paying jobs.
“Each year we fail to act put us at a greater competitive disadvantage,” Henry said. “Biotech, aerospace, renewable energies, knowledge-based industries – these are the gateways to a thriving economy in the global age.”
Henry also brought up the topic of insurance coverage for autistic children, a divisive, emotional issue last year fueled by a House committee twice refusing to let parents of autistic children speak.
He complimented the House for its proposal to increase the number of autism service providers in Oklahoma, but called on legislators to ensure all insurance companies follow the lead of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and include autism coverage in its policies. Blue Cross and Blue Shield has said it would add benefits for autism to its coverage beginning next year.
“Too many of our families face the daunting task of raising autistic children with little or no help,” he said.
Henry, who has preached nonpartisanship throughout his administration, urged lawmakers “to shrug off the perceived slights that sometimes tarnish the business of this building.”
Gandhi noted an “‘eye for an eye’ makes the whole world blind,” the governor said. “The challenges of 2009 and beyond will require clear vision.”