Battle Focuses on Education, Social Services

Article excerpt

Debate at the Capitol frequently revolves around how to spend millions of dollars in new revenue.

But the focus of this year's appropriations debate will be different. Predictions of a $350 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1 will force the Legislature to find ways to shrink the state budget, not expand it.

State revenues have shrunk below expectations due to a faltering economy and lower oil and gas prices. Revenues are predicted to decline next year and already are affecting the current year's budget.

The Office of State Finance borrowed $59 million from the constitutional reserve fund earlier this month just to make ends meet. The action was blamed on lower-than-expected revenue collections in February.

Finance officials said additional money was needed to avoid cutting the budgets of state agencies, which have already been ordered to reduce spending by $25.2 million.

As the 2002 Legislature nears the halfway point, lawmakers are developing spending priorities for the 2003 fiscal year, when the state will have between 5 percent and 7 percent less revenue to spend.

The state's shrinking resources could result in a fiscal collision between those who want to support public education at current spending levels and others who choose to preserve social service programs that serve the health care needs of thousands of needy Oklahomans.

"It's going to force us to make some decisions," said House Minority Leader Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City.

Budgetary analysts have said budget cuts could lead to a $189 million reduction in state and federal support for social services in Oklahoma.

If education is shielded from cuts, social services would experience an even greater cut of $200 million in state dollars and $371 million in federal matching funds.

Which budgets to cut and how deeply is creating a legislative tug- of-war between leaders of the Senate, who oppose cutting education dollars, and the House, who are opposed to deep cuts in social services. …