Stitt, Lawmakers Clash Over Budget Cuts

by Scott Carter

OKLAHOMA CITY — Republican Governor Kevin Stitt said Tuesday he wants a one to two percent budget cut for all state agencies and wants to use state reserve funds to backfill a budget hole for the remainder of the 2020 fiscal year. Stitt said he also wants spending cuts and access to reserve funds for the 2021 fiscal year.

Speaking at a press conference at the state’s strategic national stockpile center, Stitt said he wants to protect core state services but added that Oklahomans were struggling. He said it was prudent to ask state government to cut expenses by one or two percent.

“Asking state agencies to cut expenses by one or two percent seems very reasonable to me,” he said.

House Speaker
Charles McCall

Lawmakers, however, pushed back against the governor’s proposal with a loud ‘no thanks.’ In a terse joint media statement issued shortly after the governor’s press conference, House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat said the Republican-controlled Legislature had no intention of cutting agency budgets for the 2020 fiscal year.

“The position the Legislature stated by veto-proof majorities Monday is not changing,” McCall, R-Atoka, said. “The Legislature will not authorize cuts to core services during a pandemic response because the public needs its services right now. The state’s reserves, which exist for emergencies just like this, are sufficient for services to continue uninterrupted. The legislative branch controls the power of the purse, and we have made our position clear on behalf of our constituents across the state.”

The Senate’s Democratic Leader, Kay Floyd of Oklahoma City, said lawmakers of both political stripes had come together to pass bills with strong bipartisan support. Floyd said she was disappointed by the governor’s proposal to reduce agency budgets.

Senate Minority Leader
Kay Floyd

“Today, Governor Stitt floated a proposal to cut funding for state agencies by one to two percent. Oklahoma Senate Democrats were disappointed to hear this and are strongly opposed to budget cuts to core services,” Floyd said. “Every day, dedicated and hard-working state employees are on the frontlines of Oklahoma’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. Now is not the time to be reducing much needed resources for state agencies. Oklahoma Senate Democrats call on Governor Stitt to act quickly to prevent a revenue failure by convening the State Board of Equalization and signing the budget bills passed by the Legislature.”

On Monday, the Legislature returned to the Capitol after Stitt issued a new executive order that declared a health emergency for all 77 counties and called the House and Senate into special session.

During the session, the Legislature endorsed Stitt’s call to activate the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act and passed several measures that would allocate about $500 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

However, before the Board of Equalization could meet, the meeting was postponed. Without a declaration of revenue failure by the board, the legislature can’t tap the reserve fund.

Treat, the Senate’s Republican leader, pushed Stitt to sign the three budget bills passed by lawmakers on Monday. Echoing McCall, he said the Legislature took the steps necessary to protect state services.

Senate Pro Tempore
Greg Treat

“The Legislature, both Republicans and Democrats by overwhelming margins, took the necessary actions to protect state services from deep budget cuts,” Treat said. “In the midst of a catastrophic health emergency, we must prevent budget cuts to public schools, health care, first responders and other core state services. The Legislature is a co-equal branch of government vested with the authority to write the budget. We take that role seriously. I am hopeful that the governor signs all the legislation that was sent to his desk this week.”

Stitt also said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ that hospitalizations for the Covid-19 virus had started to flatten. He urged any Oklahoman who had symptoms of the Covid-19 virus to get tested and to continue to practice social distancing.

“What we do together over the next three weeks will significantly impact what we do after April 30,” he said. “Oklahomans are doing a good job,” he said. “The tracking curves more like Oregon. It’s really exciting but we have to take this seriously. We cannot get lax.”

With the virus’ spread and an on-going oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, state unemployment claims have skyrocketed. Officials with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission announced they had been fielding more than 10,000 calls per day.

Four weeks ago, the agency processed about 1,500 to 2,000 claims per week. Today, officials said that number stands at about 135,000.

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