Stitt budget would raise teacher pay, set aside one-third of surplus
Gov. Kevin Stitt's first budget proposes spending $400 million in new money on education, criminal justice reform and other priorities, while setting aside $200 million from the projected surplus to pad the state savings account.
Stitt, whose budget will be presented on Monday as the Oklahoma Legislature begins a new session, offers more transparency than in the past, though the new administration didn't have time to ferret out all the numbers, an official said.
"We lay out the top 12 agencies and we lay out every number we could find,'' said Donelle Harder, Stitt's spokeswoman and nominee for deputy secretary of state. "Our next budget will be even more detailed."
Stitt, a political unknown at this time last year, took office on Jan. 14 and is scheduled to give his first State-of-the-State speech at 12:30 p.m. Monday.
The 46-year-old Republican will call on Oklahomans to help him reshape state government and push to make the state's education system one of the top ten in the nation.
Stitt will propose that lawmakers raise teacher pay for the second year in a row. And he will ask them to create a pot of money to recruit teachers into Oklahoma classrooms.
Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview last week that it would probably take about $75 million to meet Stitt's goal of making Oklahoma teachers the top paid in the region, providing other states don't raise the salaries of their teachers.
The governor also wants millions of dollars more for programs to provide treatment to people who might otherwise go to prison. He also wants to stop funding district attorneys' offices through fines and fees levied on defendants.
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Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Oklahoman he personally is sponsoring a bill to move funding for courts away from fines and fees imposed on people who are arrested. Thompson said he believes paying for courts from the state's General Revenue Fund would be an important criminal justice reform.
The Oklahoma Board of Equalization estimated in December that the Legislature would have $8.3 billion to appropriate. That was about $612 million more than the amount authorized for the current fiscal year, which began on July 1.
The higher spending authority resulted from tax hikes and an improved economy.
However, the Equalization Board will meet again this month to make its final revenue estimate, and some expect the number to be slightly lower because of oil price volatility in the last several weeks.
Harder said Stitt based his budget on the assumption that the next estimate would be about $50 million lower than in December.
She said Stitt will propose spending about $400 million of the budget increase and direct the rest to savings. Stitt has said he doesn't think the state's Rainy Day Fund is big enough to cover the kinds of shortfalls faced in the past several years.
"He thinks we need to buckle down and improve our savings" to weather the next downturn, she said.
Wallace said a major chunk of the budget surplus will have to be paid out to reimburse counties, school districts and other local authorities for five-year property tax breaks given to wind farms, data centers and other manufacturers.
“I've heard anywhere from $102 million to $142 million" will be needed for the reimbursements, Wallace said.
The exemption for new wind farms was terminated Jan. 1, 2017, but the state is still paying out on wind farms that went into service before then.
Wallace and Thompson said they expect discussions about pay increases for prison guards and other state employees.
“There are a number of issues the House would like to invest in," Wallace said. "It will probably be a percentage of the money we have."
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›