Ardmore was featured at the State Capitol Wednesday as chamber of commerce members and Leadership Greater Ardmore were briefed on state affairs by some of the highest-ranking political figures in the state. Subjects such as pension reform and budgetary matters headlined the discussions, as attendees were also able to ask questions in an effort to become better informed about the current legislative session.
Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, and Reps. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, and Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, also joined the Ardmore contingent throughout the day, and received high praise from Gov. Mary Fallin and the leaders of both the House and Senate.
“We have an extraordinary group of legislative leaders,” said Mita Bates, president and CEO, Ardmore Chamber of Commerce. “They delivered information that was extremely important, and the feedback was extremely impressive.”
Fallin spoke prior to lunch and took a picture with the Ardmore delegation. In briefing the room, Fallin talked about Oklahoma’s rebound from the recession and the challenges that lie ahead. Prior to taking office in 2011, Fallin said the legislature faced a deficit of $1 billion in the budget twice and a deficit of $500 million upon taking office. The state has rebounded and implemented some successful programs, such as lowering the income tax, which Fallin would like to see take place during the current session. Fallin said the first tax cut created $188 million in new revenue.
The governor stressed education as being “critical to our future, critical for economic development and critical for our children.” As a result, standards have been put in place to create more accountability, which includes an initiative for third graders to have reading fluency in order to advance grades.
“We need to put more resources in education,” she said.
Fallin said she supports making the government more efficient and eliminating the duplication of services.
“We are making government more efficient to raise money to spend on education and transportation,” Fallin said.
Challenges do lie ahead as education will become more significant in the coming years as the majority of the workforce will need some education beyond high school to ensure a salary to live on, Fallin said. She also said the state’s economical outlook has improved and allowed the state to build up its rainy day fund to $500 million.
Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, had the first briefing, and led off with the coming issues on the budget. He said the budget is the number one issue, as the state will have $188 million less to spend, necessitating cuts.
“Revenue sources are up, but funding in the general revenue account goes into items such as education,” Bingman said. “We are going to have to make some tough decisions to cuts.”
Bingman said of the appropriated dollars, which is money that comes off the top and not figured into spending, education takes half of the amount. And to keep education spending flat, the legislature will need to add $56 million more in spending because of benefits. He also described water infrastructure as a challenge leading into the next quarter century.
“The state needs to be protective of resources and protective of water infrastructure,” Bingman said. “In the next 25 years, there will be $85 billion of capital needs in water infrastructure.”
Bingman said he would like to see a plan put into place to give state employees a pay raise, which has not happened since 2006. He said the first priority should be the teachers.
Oklahoma Secretary of Finance and Revenue Preston Doerflinger spoke specifically on the budget, noting the state receives $11 billion in taxes and $6 billion in federal grants and fees to serve 4 million people. Revenues are primarily spent on education, public safety, transportation and health. Despite a $188 million shortfall, state agencies have asked for an additional $800 million that will lead legislators to focus on needs rather than wants.
Doerflinger explained why the state is bringing in more revenue yet having a shortfall, comparing it to problems in Washington, D.C.
“Every year, legislators are passing laws which dedicate money,” he said. “It gives them less money for discretionary spending.”
New House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, also spoke about the focus on the budget and issues that need to be addressed.
“We have a crisis in our prisons, a crisis in DHS and a need to fund the Highway Patrol troopers and education,” he said.
Hickman said there is a proposed bill to cut the state income tax from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, but it would not take place until there is growth in state revenues. There is a concerted push for pension reform, which would affect new state employees only. The bill proposes a 401K plan in which the state matches up to 7 percent of the salary. Hickman said it would benefit the new generation of employees who want portability and are expected to change careers several times during the course of their lives.
Hickman also stressed the need to repair the Capitol building. A bond issue for $160 million has been proposed, which would include shoring up the exterior of the building so that the front entrance can be used. It is currently closed because of falling objects from the building. The sewer system would also be replaced, as well as the original wiring, which is still in use. The building was built in 1917.
“It is estimated that within a year, people will flush the toilets and nothing will happen,” Hickman said.