Pay raises are on the way for more than 12,000 state workers such as prison guards and nurses, but most state agencies will face budget cuts of more than 5 percent under a budget bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Mary Fallin.
The $7.1 billion general appropriations bill that funds state agencies and government for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was one of several dozen measures Fallin signed into law. In it, the governor and Republican legislative leaders were able to carve out increases for high-priority government services, like K-12 schools, public safety and child welfare.
“This is a responsible, realistic budget that makes tough, necessary cuts while adequately funding core government services,” Fallin said in a statement. “I am particularly proud of the extraordinary lengths taken to deliver a substantial increase to education funding, even in a very tight budget year.”
Public schools in Oklahoma received an increase of $80 million, including $40 million to pay for health care costs and another $40 million for the school funding formula. The budgets for career and technology centers and the state’s public colleges and universities were held flat.
“From Day One, common education was our top priority, and we’re really proud of the fact that we were able to get a significant amount of new money there,” said Rep. Scott Martin, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and a key player in budget negotiations.
To overcome a $188 million hole in the budget, legislators tapped more than $120 million from various agency revolving accounts.
“We were able to meet those priorities, but to do that we had to be extremely creative,” Martin, R-Norman, said.
Also included in this year’s budget agreement was deal authorizing $36.8 million for pay raises for more than 12,000 state employees in 25 state agencies, including prison guards, Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers, child welfare workers and employees identified as the state’s most underpaid by a recent comprehensive employee compensation study. The raises will range from 6.25 percent to 13.5 percent.
“The targeted positions were those that were furthest below market and also experienced the highest turnover,” said Jess Callahan, a social services worker for the Department of Human Services and the president of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “You can’t expect to recruit and retain a quality public sector workforce paying the salaries we pay in Oklahoma.”
Still, critics maintain there was no need to cut state agency funding at a time when overall state revenue collections are rising.
Gene Perry, an analyst for the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the reason Oklahoma had a budget shortfall to begin with is that legislators have continued to implement new corporate tax breaks and other tax incentives that take away much needed revenue for core state government services.
“It’s troubling that we are cutting most state agencies at a time when the economy is growing and most other states are talking about what to do with surpluses,” Perry said. “We can’t expect good economic times to restore public services, because that’s happening now and the money isn’t there.”