Business Owners Step Up For Oklahoma

Due to legislators inability to settle on a budget for Oklahoma, the state’s business owners and members of Step Up Oklahoma have put together a funding proposal benefitting teachers as well as oil and gas companies. (Provided/Vista Archives)

While state legislators continue to struggle in reaching a compromise on a bipartisan solution for Oklahoma’s ongoing budget crisis, Oklahoma business leaders claim to have a new plan that could end the state’s boom and bust economic cycle.

Step Up Oklahoma, a non-partisan coalition of Oklahoma’s civic and business leaders, announced their plan earlier this month and called for compromise from all parties involved in budget discussions. Citing education funding as a chief concern of the coalition, BancFirst Executive Chairman David Rainbolt said a resolution for the current budget crisis called for more than arguing over legislation.

“We’ve got to step up to partner with our elected officials in finding solutions and bringing citizen support that helps everyone to make the tough choices that will move Oklahoma forward,” Rainbolt said.

The plan addresses the current financial crisis, calling for broad tax reform for cigarettes, the energy industry, wind-power generation, motor fuels, gaming activities, personal income taxes and refundable income tax credits.

The coalition also calls for sweeping political reforms, ranging from modifying term limits for state legislators to providing the governor with direct appointment power over the state’s largest agencies. It also includes measures for the establishment of a budget stabilization fund and an independent budget office to combat waste.

“We must all support efforts to stabilize the budget while at the same time enacting real reforms,” Rainbolt said. “Revenue combined with reforms will put our state on a firm foundation to better serve our citizens. While this plan is not perfect, it puts the state on a positive trajectory.”

While state Democrats have cited concerns over the lack of detail included in the plan, the proposal has been praised by the State Department of Education and Oklahoma Education Association for addressing teacher salaries.

The plan calls for a $5,000 increase for state educators, who currently are paid less in Oklahoma than in any other state and have continued to have promised pay raises fail to pass the legislative process.

“Pleased that teacher pay raise of $5K is said to be a part of the #StepUpOklahoma plan by corporate execs. Don’t forget our invaluable support professionals who last received a mere 50 cent raise 12 years ago,” the OKEA said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Along with educators, business and industry sectors from across the state have come out in support of the plan. Both the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association and Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association endorsed the plan, despite both associations having been against most of the previous plans proposed.

“The way this group came together was a realization of that, and the decision that we could no longer be part of the problem,” Rainbolt said. “We had to be accretive to a solution going forward and one that was a compromise not from any one perspective, but from the totality.”

The proposal comes just as the state is entering its third year of struggling to reverse a budget deficit that currently amounts to more than $700 million. State legislators attempted to solve this with a cigarette tax last spring, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.

Despite Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin calling for a special legislative session to solve the crisis last fall, state legislators failed to reach a compromise by the end of the year. The legislative stalemate on the issue has forced many agencies to make cuts to programming and personnel.

These cuts have been especially difficult for higher education, leaving many of the state’s institutions in a situation where cuts are no longer possible, according to Angela Caddell, associate vice chancellor for communications with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

“While the state system of higher education has continued to cut costs in an effort to protect academic and student services as much as possible, we have reached a tipping point and additional budget cuts will result in increasingly negative impacts,” Caddell said.

Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to higher education funding by more than 17 percent and has been reduced by more than $200 million since 2012. Requests for budget increases have been denied by the state, although the Regents announced in December that they would be asking for a $128 million increase for Fiscal Year 2019.

“Colleges and universities in the state system of higher education have a long history of successful partnerships with the Oklahoma business community, and several of the business, civic and community leaders serving as members of Step Up Oklahoma also serve as State Regents and institutional governing board regents,” Caddell said. “We appreciate Step Up Oklahoma’s support of revenue measures that would help stabilize the state budget and fund core services.”

Further cuts to higher education could see the elimination of more faculty and staff positions, reduction of course offerings in key fields such as engineering and manufacturing and reductions in grant and research opportunities across the state, according to Caddell.

The University of Central Oklahoma was already forced to increase tuition by 6 percent last semester to counter the 6.1 percent in cuts to state appropriation funding for Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities.

At 22 percent state funding, UCO receives the least amount of state appropriations for higher education and has already been forced to enact measures such as hiring freezes and cutbacks on recurring expenses.

“Every stakeholder in the state is doing their best to keep business going as usual, all while keeping one eye on the Capitol,” said Patti Neuhold, vice president of UCO’s Department of Finance. “We are hopeful that the legislature will be able to pass a measure that allows higher education to keep serving our students at current levels.  A budget impasse would further diminish our capacity to educate Oklahomans.”

 

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