OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Managing state government’s budget woes will be the top priority when lawmakers convene the 2010 Legislature next month, but House Republican leaders said Wednesday they will also work to improve the state’s workers’ compensation system and make government more efficient.
GOP House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa led a delegation of Republican lawmakers in rolling out the House majority party’s legislative agenda for 2010, a list that includes promoting healthy lifestyles, maximizing the state’s natural resources, improving student achievement and modernizing state government.
But Benge said the state budget will influence every policy decision lawmakers make this year. Last month, state officials declared a revenue shortfall of more than $729 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30 and certified a revenue estimate for next year that is $1.3 billion less than the current state budget.
“Overall, I think it’s going to require us to be leaner,” Benge said.
The budget problems are the result of a down economy and low oil and natural gas prices. Benge said lawmakers have been fiscally responsible as revenue dipped by not tapping the state’s constitutional Rainy Day reserve fund, which currently contains about $600 million.
He said a combination of spending cuts and revenue from the Rainy Day and other reserve funds will be used to plug the current budget hole and write a budget for next year.
Benge also said he will push for an energy stabilization fund to mitigate the financial fallout from volatile oil and natural gas prices. The fund would capture excess revenue when energy prices are high and distribute it when they are low, thus providing a cushion to avoid massive budget cuts whenever prices fall.
Similar legislation has been proposed in the past, including a bill by Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau. The bill, filed last year, calls for a referendum on a constitutional amendment to force the Legislature to use a 10-year average gross production tax revenue estimate during the budgeting process.
Benge said the House’s Republican majority will work toward changes in the workers’ compensation system, a priority that is shared by the Senate Republican caucus.
Supporters say their goal is to reduce the cost of workers’ compensation claims, cut down on fraud, adopt term limits on workers’ compensation judges and perhaps reduce the number of judges. Republican legislative leaders have said high workers’ compensation awards are a deterrent to attracting new employers to the state.
House Speaker-designate Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said GOP lawmakers will resume their efforts to promote healthy lifestyles.
“The health care needs of Oklahomans will continue to be a priority,” Steele said.
Last year, the Legislature passed GOP-backed legislation to expand the Insure Oklahoma insurance premium assistance program so more small businesses can provide health care coverage for their low- and middle-income employees and reduce the state’s more than 600,000 uninsured residents.
Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, said he will also continue to push to modernize and consolidate state government operations to make it more efficient.
“Given the current budget picture, it is more important than ever to make sure we are using taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible,” Murphey said.