OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma lawmakers will convene Monday at the State Capitol to begin planning and passing legislation for the 2017 session while dealing with an estimated $900 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year.
Gov. Mary Fallin will preside over a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate Monday afternoon for her traditional State of the State address and present to legislators her budget proposal. But what that address and budget will look like is still not fully known.
Local lawmakers, Rep. Earl Sears, Rep. Travis Dunlap and Sen. Julie Daniels, said the governor’s address to the joint session will be one they will look forward to, but with the budget crisis facing Oklahoma, they are unsure of the direction they will take after the address.
“The State of the State will be, as always, straight forward and the governor will do a great job,” Sears,R-Bartlesville, said. “She will lay out a plan, and just as soon as we get done applauding and thanking the governor, we probably won’t even look at her budget again.
“I don’t mean that disrespectfully because the governor, by the state constitution, is supposed to give us a balanced budget. There will be things in that budget that the House and the Senate will not agree with the governor on and how she balanced this budget. From there, the work will begin.”
Daniels, R-Bartlesville, will be attending the State of the State address as a first-time senator. Daniels said she is excited to hear Fallin’s proposals. Voters in November 2016 approved two state questions, 780 and 781, that will reduce certain drug possession charges to misdemeanors. Daniels said there may be some confusion on those laws that need to be addressed as well.
“I think the budget will be first and utmost on her mind and I know she is very interested in criminal justice reform,” Daniels said. “After the passage of (State Questions) 780 and 781, now there is some question about the wording of those state questions and what was really intended. She may speak a bit more to criminal justice reform, which is so important to her.”
Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, said he thinks Fallin will focus on the biggest public issue in discussion across the state — Oklahoma’s low pay for teachers.
“What everyone is talking about and what everyone wants to get done is a pay raise for teachers,” Dunlap said. “That’s going to be a very big priority. Internally, (within the capitol) that is also felt and talked about. Something that’s not talked about (in homes across Oklahoma) that’s probably just as important are the structural issues that contribute to these budget deficits, where the legislature has less discretion over the tax dollars, year after year.”
Daniels, Sears and Dunlap all say they will focus on dealing with the budget deficit as best as they can without gutting state agencies who need the funding. Additionally, all three support plans to increase teacher pay, but will have to find the way to do it and compromise on some plans.
“This is a tough year,” Sears said. “We are going to have to be better stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars. Some of us in the legislature may have to swallow a bitter pill that we may not totally agree on, but make the decisions that put the needs of Oklahoma first and foremost. We have less money. We will have to live within our means.”