State business

Drew Butler

The Ardmore Chamber of Commerce brought together Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, and Representatives Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, and Tommy Hardin, R-Madill for a virtual legislative luncheon on Friday. The legislators talked about the work being done to help make up for the current state budget shortfall as well as the pandemic.

Sen. Simpson spoke first.

“As you know we’re in a period of time that we’ve probably never experienced before,” Simpson said. “I don’t recall a time in history where we have all been isolated in our homes the way we have been the last month. Those of us who are in that most affected age group are taking extra precautions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work.”

Simpson said one of the biggest issues currently facing the Oklahoma Legislature is the budget, along with a difference of opinion between the legislature and the governor about how to fix the situation.

“There are a compilation of factors outside of our control,” Simpson said. “The price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has driven gas pricing and oil pricing down to record levels. So the drop in oil prices coupled with the extraordinary extra expenses associated with the coronavirus issue have really put our budget into a state of flux. There’s been a little bit of a battle between the governor and the legislature about how we feel that shortfall should be handled.”

Simpson said the Office of Management Enterprise Services declared a budget failure a couple weeks ago, but the Board of Equalization needs to meet to certify that budget failure. Gov. Stitt, who is chair of the Board of Equalization, refused to call a meeting so the leaders from the House and the Senate filed a lawsuit against the governor to compel him to call the meeting. Simpson said he thinks the governor has ultimately decided to honor the legislature’s wishes and has now scheduled the meeting for 3 p.m. on Monday.

“I’m sure the Board of Equalization will declare a revenue failure, and that will give us the authority that we need to start in with the agencies that have experienced tremendous cost overruns during this pandemic.”

Simpson went on to point out that the governor has called for a mandatory 3% budget cut for each agency for the next fiscal next year, but the legislature has not agreed to that. Instead, the legislature generally prefers to use the state rainy day fund and cash reserves to maintain a flat budget. The new fiscal year will start on July 1.

“We’ve got to remember once this pandemic recedes this time of the year, experts are expecting another recurrence in the early fall,” Simpson said. “They don’t think it’s going to be as dramatic as what we’ve seen the last two months. So our agencies will have to combat this again in the fall which will incur extra expenses. So we’ve got to keep in mind that what we allocate right now might not be enough when we have to fight this battle again later this year.”

Both Townley and Hardin agreed with Simpson’s general summary of current events and discussed some of the things they are currently working on.

“I know that the state is very ready to get back to work as normal, and we’re all wanting that,” Townley said. “We’re all wanting to get back as soon as possible — especially to get our small businesses going. I know that the majority of my time has been spent getting our unemployment claims going. I’ve worked diligently with many constituents working on that and getting those claims filed.

“I’m so glad that we didn’t have a whole lot of bumps in Ardmore like we could have had, thank the Lord. Just know that with our budget process, we’ve continued to work. We’ve continued to keep the legislative process going and we’re ready to go. Everything is looking like it’s going to go smoothly when we go back to work.”

Hardin pointed out that no one filed to run against either he or Townley in the upcoming election. Senator Simpson began his third term in 2019, and will term out in 2022.

“I’m just thankful that last week when Tammy and I had to file — the senator didn’t — we didn’t draw opponents,” Hardin said. “I think during this time campaigning would be a pretty tough thing to do with trying to contact people and not spread anything. I’m just thankful that we didn’t draw opponents, and we can get back to work.”