OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Senate Republicans on Thursday pledged to prioritize funding for public safety and transportation, but offered few specifics on how they would do so amid one of the state’s worst-ever budget crises.
Flanked by a half-dozen of his GOP colleagues, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee acknowledged the state faces huge funding challenges as lawmakers prepare for the 2010 legislative session that begins Feb. 1.
Senate GOP leaders say they hope to expand 911 emergency services to rural Oklahomans and complete an enhanced law enforcement communications system. Other priorities were moving the State Medical Examiner’s office from Oklahoma City to Edmond, harsher penalties for child traffickers and ways to make it easier to get a concealed carry gun license.
But Senate leaders talked little about how they would fund these initiatives or the state’s growing prison population that commands a half billion dollars of the state’s roughly $7 billion annual budget. The Department of Corrections already has announced a plan to furlough its 4,600 workers for at least 10 days between March 1 and June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Each furlough day is expected to save the agency about $600,000, said corrections spokesman Jerry Massie.
For the first six months of the fiscal year that began July 1, state revenue collections are down nearly 30 percent from the same time last year. State officials already ordered 5 percent across-the-board cuts to state agencies beginning in August, and those cuts were doubled to 10 percent for December and January.
Meanwhile, the state’s crowded prisons are crumbling and in desperate need of repair. A private study commissioned by the Legislature last year recommended demolishing three state prisons and suggested about $220 million in renovations at the other state facilities.
Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, acknowledged the needs of the prison system, but added: “It’s tough to do that during an economic downturn.”
Democratic state Sen. Kenneth Corn, who chaired the Senate Public Safety Committee before Republicans took control of the Senate in 2008, criticized Coffee for failing to “address the elephant in the room.”
“For the second week in row, Senate Republicans gather in a room to share ‘new’ ideas, which are anything but new and continue to show a lack of basic leadership on the one issue that has to be addressed immediately – creating a new budget to finish this year in the midst of a billion dollar shortfall,” said Corn, D-Poteau.