Budget cuts to affect vulnerable Oklahomans

AP News
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Posted: Nov 12, 2009 5:11 PM

The director of the state Department of Human Services warned lawmakers Thursday that additional budget cuts will force his agency to scale back more services to vulnerable Oklahomans like a nutrition program for frail and isolated senior citizens that has already been cut by more than $7 million.

"You're going to see services cut to people who are more vulnerable than you appreciate," DHS Secretary Howard Hendricks told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

"We probably serve one million Oklahomans in the course of a year. It's an enormous undertaking," Hendricks said of his agency, which provides services to the elderly, abused and neglected children and people with developmental disabilities.

The department has asked that its current state appropriation of about $479 million be maintained for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But lawmakers said another round of budget cuts is likely as state revenue continues to decline.

"There's going to be cuts, and they're going to be painful," said Sen. David Myers, R-Ponca City.

"We are cutting deep," said Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, the subcommittee's chairman.

Hendricks said any reduction in services would likely occur in programs in which little or no federal matching funds would be lost. Including federal dollars, the agency's budget totals more than $2 billion.

State Treasurer Scott Meacham's office reported Tuesday that state revenue came in below expectations in October for the 10th straight month due to low oil and natural gas prices and the economic downturn.

Collections by the state's general revenue fund in October were $374.4 million. That was $116.1 million, or 24 percent, below the previous year, and $83.3 million, or 18 percent, below the state's budget estimate.

For the first four months of the fiscal year that began on July 1, collections are $578.1 million, or 28.1 percent, below the prior year and $471.7 million, or 24.2 percent, below the estimate.

Financial officials ordered 5 percent reductions in state agency budget allocations at the start of the fiscal year and made them permanent last month. Those cuts were ordered after most agencies underwent a 7 percent cut in May, when the Legislature approved a $7.2 billion budget for the 2010 fiscal year.

DHS trimmed $14.6 million from its budget, including $7.4 million for senior nutrition programs that feed more than 85,000 elderly Oklahomans a month.

Hundreds of seniors rallied at the state Capitol last week to protest the cuts, and lawmakers are working with Hendricks and Gov. Brad Henry on ways to restore the programs.