Oklahoma officials agonize over more budget cuts

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2009 9:40 AM

State agency heads agonized over more possible budget cuts and told lawmakers reductions they have already absorbed have left them short-handed and struggling to meet the needs of disabled and other vulnerable Oklahomans.

"It would be a hardship," said Office of Disability Concerns Director Steven Stokes.

Stokes said Tuesday he furloughed all eight of his agency's employees one day each month after Gov. Brad Henry and legislative leaders ordered 5 percent cuts to state agency budgets through June because of declining state revenue. Additional cuts could mean more furloughs, he said.

"A majority of my staff is working two jobs already," Stokes said. "I think we're doing a great job with the resources that we have available."

Stokes and other agency heads appeared before a budget subcommittee of the state House to discuss their work and how additional budget cuts would impact the services they provide.

Lisa Smith, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, said she has left four vacant staff positions unfilled, eliminated out-of-state travel and imposed other cost-cutting measures to cope with the 5 percent cut. Additional cuts could affect the level of training staff members receive to deal with troubled children.

"Training is generally the first thing that gets cut. It can place kids at high risk," Smith said. "You want the staff to be equipped to handle these kids."

The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, said additional across-the-board cuts of 5 percent or more are likely due to a revenue shortfall caused by low oil and natural gas prices and a sour economy.

State revenue came in below expectations for the 10th straight month in October, declining $116.1 million, or 24 percent, below the previous year's collections and $83.3 million, or 18 percent, below the state's budget estimate.

Peters said state financial officials estimate the shortfall could total $1 billion by the end of the fiscal year June 30, about 14 percent of the state's $7 billion budget.

Peters said a combination of budget cuts, the appropriation of federal economic stimulus money and use of the state's Rainy Day constitutional reserve fund will probably be needed to balance the budget. The Rainy Day fund contains about $600 million.

"We're in a tough financial time. We're in for harder times," Peters said. "Whatever it works out to be, it's not going to look very pretty."

Some cuts are already being felt by Oklahomans who rely on state services. Hundreds of seniors rallied at the state Capitol last month to protest the Department of Human Services' $7.4 million cut from senior nutrition programs.

If left in place through the end of the fiscal year, the AARP estimates the cuts will eliminate 780,000 meals for elderly Oklahomans who would have been served at their homes or at congregate meal sites.

Lawmakers have promised to restore the funds and have discussed convening a special session of the Legislature to appropriate money for the program and deal with other budget issues. No date for a special session has been announced.