Budget bills advance in Oklahoma Legislature
A Republican lawmaker inserted language into the proposed state budget package to scrap an April 1 statutory deadline to fund common education.
The public on Thursday got its first look at the details of a state budget agreement announced the day before by Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The series of budget bills that together, amount to a $8.3 billion budget that appropriates $8.1 billion and saves $200 million in fiscal year 2020 passed out of House and Senate money committees Thursday.
Democrats, after asking numerous questions about certain spending provisions in the budget, opposed some of the budget bills, but didn’t have the numbers to prevent any of the bills from advancing.
The budget bills include pay raises for teachers, corrections officers and other state employees.
But a provision for the Legislature to do away with a rarely followed common education budget deadline, provoked the ire of House Democrats.
State statute requires the Legislature to provide to the governor a plan to fully fund common education by April 1 every year, a requirement passed in 2003 because teachers’ contracts used to be finalized in the spring, before the school year ended.
Lawmakers met the April 1 education funding deadline last year, but have rarely met the deadline otherwise.
But in recent years, the deadline has become a rallying cry for education groups and legislative Democrats to call on the Republican majority in the Legislature to boost education funding in the state budget.
For the most part, lawmakers and the governor discuss education funding as part of a larger budget discussion. Typically, state leaders don’t reach a budget agreement until sometime in May.
In the House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on Thursday, some Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed the April 1 deadline is arbitrary.
Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, who introduced the bill to scrap the deadline, said lawmakers don’t have a clear picture of the state budget by the end of March.
“My personal opinion is it was all about politics and not about policy because it was something put in place that has never been practical,” he said.
Democrats quizzed Hilbert on whether any education groups have come out in favor of his bill. He said he was unaware on their thoughts on scrapping the deadline.
“I know a few weeks ago, there were education groups that said they wanted $150 million in common education, and then we released a budget with $157 (million) and they put out press releases saying they were disappointed, so I don’t know what they want,” he said.
He also argued that requiring the education funding piece of the budget to be complete more than a month before the rest of the budget could lead to less funding for education. Education funding makes up more than half of the state budget, and funding for the Department of Education makes for a third of the budget, Hilbert said.
"If you have to spend a third of your money before April 1, you're going to be ultraconservative in the amount that you spend," he said.
Through a series of questioning, Democrats argued the state still has more to do on common education funding and the April 1 deadline allows school districts more time to plan their budgets and make hiring decisions sooner rather than later.
“Some very smart folks got here before we got here and when they set that April 1 deadline, I don’t think they did it arbitrarily,” said Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa. A Republican lawmaker pointed out the idea originated with former Attorney General Scott Pruitt, back when he was in the state Senate.
The bill to undo the April 1 deadline passed 20-6, with Democrats opposing the measure.
Lawmakers will debate the budget bills in more depth on the House and Senate floors on Friday and early next week.