Henry said Monday “a year of thrift and sacrifice” will be needed to close a $600 million gap in the budget, while at the same time protect education, health care and public safety from cuts.
Technically, lawmakers began the third day of the session today after convening the day before to hear Henry’s seventh State of the State address.
The session officially started at a Jan. 6 organizational day, required by the state Constitution after an election year.
The House and Senate floor sessions were expected to be routine on Tuesday, but a House committee was to meet in the late afternoon to take up the divisive autism issue.
It is a historic session because Republicans have control of both legislative chambers. The House went Republican in 2004 and the GOP grabbed the majority in the Senate for the first time by picking up three seats in last November’s election.
Henry said his budget makes “precise, surgical cuts” in agency spending, while protecting vital services. Proposed agency cuts ranged from 1 percent to 10 percent, and the governor recommended 10 percent travel budget reductions for most areas.
Henry said $45 million could be saved by purchasing reforms, consolidated information technologies and other efficiencies.
The Democratic governor said bipartisanship is needed to close this year’s budget shortfall.
Republicans sat silent when Henry proposed mandated autism coverage, while Democrats cheered the governor.
Democrats pushed for an autism mandate last session, but the legislation died in the GOP-controlled House after lobbying from insurance companies. House GOP leaders oppose the mandate, saying it will cause insurance rates to climb too much.
Autism is a bioneurological disability that affects communication skills in young children, many of whom also suffer from allergies, asthma and epilepsy. Experts estimate the disorder affects 1 in 150 children.
Henry’s speech was well received, but Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, was disappointed Henry did not discuss civil justice reform, a top GOP priority,
In urging lawmakers not to raid the Rainy Day Fund, Henry referred to economic uncertainty by quoting Oklahoma favorite son Will Rogers’ commentary on the state’s ever changing weather.
“We know to expect the unexpected: today’s showers could be tomorrow’s tempest, and so we must resist the urge to raid the Rainy Day Fund,” the governor said.
Oklahoma’s economy is stronger than most states, but Henry wants to keep the state’s savings account intact in case depressed energy revenues continue, increasing budget problems next year.
Henry urged lawmakers to find permanent funding for the EDGE research endowment to create high-tech jobs in the future.
On autism, Henry said too many families are being financially ruined by raising autistic children with little or no help. “That must change,” he said.
He said no one would deny insurance coverage to a child battling diabetes or cancer and asked why autism should be treated any differently.
The state’s current funding difficulties are tied to lower oil and natural gas taxes and revenue lost after $2 billion in GOP-sponsored tax cuts.
House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, said of tax-cut prospects: “We would hope there would be room for some type of tax cut relief. It’s going to be tough to meet the needs that we have currently.”
Henry’s budget uses more than $100 million in cash-flow reserve funds and taps excess money in an earmarked education account and unspent funds in the budgets of several agencies.
Benge liked much of what Henry had to say and was pleased about the governor’s comments on energy diversification.
Benge has been developing a plan to increase alternative energy sources, with a focus on nuclear energy.