Budget & Tax

Budget impasse discussed in dueling press conferences

May 13, 2019

Ray Carter

Gov. Kevin Stitt and House leaders announced they are at an impasse with Senate leaders in budget negotiations, but highlighted only a handful of concrete differences during a Monday press conference.

The apparent lack of major differences did not prevent the use of strong rhetoric.

“I think that they walked away from the budget table,” Stitt said, referring to Senate Republicans.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat denied that claim in strong terms, saying said Senate Republicans “never walked away from the table.”

“All we did is enunciate the Senate priority,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

Stitt and House leaders objected to Treat having unveiled a partial budget proposal during a media availability last week. Stitt said the press saw that proposal before he did.

Treat said efforts were made to provide the information to the governor last week and House leaders were looped in.

“We requested a meeting on Thursday that wasn’t granted,” Treat said. “We did give our numbers to the House on Thursday.”

Stitt said there was not agreement with the Senate on “a bunch of these items” contained in a Stitt-House agreement released to the press Monday.

“They introduced some things last week, took down some of our priorities, and increased others,” Stitt said.

Yet only a handful of specific differences were identified.

The Stitt/House plan included $200 million for education, including K-12 schools, CareerTech, and state colleges. The Senate plans called for $264 million.

While the governor, House and Senate all support providing roughly $70 million for a teacher pay raise that would average $1,200 per teacher, how to structure the pay raise has been a source of contention.

“Oklahoma has a minimum salary schedule,” Treat said. “We believe rather than raising that minimum salary schedule, let’s put it directly to teacher pay. Let’s not mess with the minimum salary schedule, and let’s save the balance for classroom funding.”

The Stitt/House plan calls for a state employee pay raise, and the governor emphasized correctional officers when discussing that idea. Treat said Senate Republicans support giving a pay raise to corrections officers, but want to reform the state employee pay system before giving raises to other government workers.

He noted Stitt vetoed a bill that would have boosted overtime pay for some state workers earlier this year. Treat point out that Stitt, in his veto message, “said before we did anything on state employee pay, we needed to look at merit and we needed to find incentives for performance.”

“The Senate agrees with him on that,” Treat said. “And we want to look at that over the interim to figure out how best to deliver a pay raise to state employees that’s not just an across-the-board, but thoughtful, and one that takes in merit and pay-for-performance.”

The budget plan put forth by Stitt and House Republicans sets aside $200 million of this year’s surplus in savings, which Stitt called “unprecedented.”

“We’re going to put Oklahoma on a very steady path when you think about savings,” Stitt said. “I’m very excited to work with the House, the Senate, and get us to over $1 billion in savings. When I came in, we had $422 million. My four-year goal is to get us to $2 billion in savings so we never have to cut a core program again.”

However, the Senate proposal unveiled last week also included $200 million in savings.

The three leaders even appeared to disagree on how long the impasse will continue. Stitt suggested it may last until the end of the state’s budget year, which concludes on June 30.

“I’m prepared to be here until June,” Stitt said.

But at the same press conference, House Speaker Charles McCall said a budget deal is near completion.

“We’re very, very close,” said McCall, R-Atoka.

Asked if a budget agreement was still likely to be announced this week, allowing the Legislature to conclude its work before its constitutionally mandated adjournment in late May, Treat answered in the affirmative.

“I think it’s possible and probable,” Treat said. “I’m very optimistic.”