Gov. Mary Fallin approved the use of nearly $1.4 million in state emergency funds for state agencies working to reduce the increasing number of earthquakes that have been linked to the disposal of oil and gas wastewater in Oklahoma.
Speaking at The Associated Press’ annual Legislative Forum, Fallin also said she will unveil a plan for teacher pay raises during her State of the State address.
The funds for earthquake research will come from an emergency account used to help the state deal with natural disasters such as tornadoes and flooding. The fund has a current balance of $10.5 million.
“This is a critical subject to homeowners, to businesses and to the state of Oklahoma and our future,” Fallin said.
Fallin said the money will go to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates oil and gas activity, and to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, to hire more staff and scientists and to upgrade information technology systems and monitoring equipment.
Oklahoma is facing about a $1 billion shortfall in next year’s revenues, and the governor called again for changes to the state’s budgeting process to rein in tax credits and expenditures and to reduce “off-the-top” money earmarked for specific state programs.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman pledged a “very serious” effort in the Senate to scale back some tax incentives and credits. He noted that he appointed University of Oklahoma economist Cynthia Rogers to a new committee charged with overseeing a cost-benefit analysis of hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax credits offered to businesses and industries.
Bingman also said he would support an effort to consolidate some of the more than 500 school districts in Oklahoma by requiring some dependent districts to share administrative functions, information technology and other services.
“We’ve got way too many school districts,” Bingman said.
Fallin, who will release her proposed budget on Feb. 1, also urged the Legislature to consider a second bond issue to pay for additional repairs to Oklahoma’s crumbling Capitol building. Bingman, R-Sapulpa, also said he supports another bond issue for a second phase of Capitol construction. The Legislature approved $120 million for Capitol repairs in 2014.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Jeff Hickman said he expects a second revenue failure is likely to occur during the current fiscal year that ends June 30, which would prompt even deeper cuts to state agency budgets.
The Republican from Fairview said the Legislature may consider revising the current fiscal year allocations to agencies when it convenes next week, rather than waiting for a second revenue failure to be declared.
Hickman says doing so would give the Legislature more flexibility to target specific agencies for cuts, as opposed to mandatory across-the-board reductions.
The top Democrat in the Oklahoma House said he expects the state to have its worst-funded budget in at least a generation. Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City, said it’s not fair of Republicans to blame all the state’s budget woes on the downturn in the energy industry.
“We are in this situation in part because of oil prices, but in larger part because over the last decade of Republican majority rule in the House of Representatives, this Legislature has cut $1 billion worth of income taxes,” Inman said. “They have layered on hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax credits and exemptions, and they have reduced tax burdens for some of the wealthiest corporations in the entire world and told the citizens of Oklahoma that they can bear the costs of those financial decisions.”