Oklahoma lawmakers unveiled Monday a $9.8 billion state budget that includes direct checks of $75 or $150 for taxpayers to help offset inflation, pay raises for some state workers and nearly $700 million in incentives to lure a major corporation to the state.
The Oklahoma Legislature, which started hearing budget bills in committee hearings Tuesday, is expected to send to Gov. Kevin Stitt this week the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Republican legislative leaders praised the budget agreement in a news release that did not include comments from Stitt.
"Thanks to years of fiscal discipline, Republicans have produced yet another increasingly solvent budget that provides historic savings, returns taxpayer money and funds key investments all at once," said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
The budget also was widely praised for including historic funding intended to eliminate the state's 13-year waiting list for developmental disability services.
Whether Stitt will sign the budget is unclear.
Stitt said he didn't see the final spending plan until 8:45 p.m. Monday, after the details had been made public. Stitt's budget negotiators also were included in budget talks with top lawmakers last week.
"We are still reviewing it and we will see what happens today," he said Tuesday.
"(I'm) optimistic, but I'm going to wait and see what bills are run and if our priorities are in there."
This proposed budget is an increase from the $9.1 billion budget the Legislature passed last year. The budget increase was due, in part, to a better economic picture and about $1.3 billion in one-time cash carried over from previous years.
Education funding at a glance
Although lawmakers increased total education funding by 11%, the budget for the state Education Department was nearly flat.
Higher education received an additional $60 million, or a 7% increase. About $17 million of that will create an incentive program that encourages more students to pursue teaching programs and go into the classroom after they graduate, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah.
Asked why the Education Department didn't get more than a $17 million, or 0.54% funding increase for a total appropriation of $3.1 billion this year, Thompson pointed to billions in federal stimulus funds the state has received for common education.
"Education is still our No. 1 appropriated agency," he said. "We put more there than any other agency."
Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, said an essentially flat common education budget doesn't address the increased challenges schools are facing after the pandemic. She expressed concerns that teacher pay will stagnate despite pay raises in recent years.
"We see teachers leaving the field," she said. "They've faced unbelievable crises over the last two years picking up the pieces from COVID, trying to help kids recover. We need to be supporting them through this."
Through a combination of legislative appropriations and district-level raises, average teacher pay has increased 21% in the past six years, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. Neighboring states also are taking steps to boost teacher pay.
Oklahoma's per-pupil funding, a crucial factor for public school budgets, is lower than all surrounding states.
Tax relief for Oklahoma taxpayers
After Republican lawmakers introduced this legislative session a handful of proposals to cut taxes or provide tax relief to Oklahomans, GOP budget writers opted to send cash rebates directly to all taxpayers.
Top Republican lawmakers consistently said providing tax relief to offset the costs of high inflation was a priority this year.
At a cost of $181 million, the state will mail in December $75 checks to all single tax filers and $150 checks for married couples or those filing jointly.
The direct payments are less than the $125 and $250 payments McCall, the House speaker, proposed earlier this session.
A related budget bill also proposes eliminating the 1.25% sales tax on all vehicle sales.
Lawmakers approved the sales tax in 2017 to raise state revenues during an economic downturn. Since then, they have vowed to undo the tax once the state's economic picture improved.
Tackling the DHS developmental disabilities services waiting list
Lawmakers plan to appropriate $32.5 million to help the 5,146 people on the state's disability waiting list as of May 1 get government-funded services.
The new funding was done in consultation with the state Department of Human Services, which set a goal for eliminating the state's developmental disabilities services waiting list by providing home- and community-based services to all those in need.
Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, said he hopes Oklahomans can be proud of DHS and the Legislature for making a once-in-a-lifetime investment.
"This is a legacy moment for the state of Oklahoma," he said.
Disability advocate Wanda Felty was ecstatic about the chunk of funding that drastically differs from the piecemeal approach the Legislature previously adopted to try and reduce the waiting list. Advocates have been pushing for this for 16 years, she said.
"This is incredible for the people waiting," she said. "It's incredible for the families who have been working and trying to support their loved ones."
DHS Director and Human Services Secretary Justin Brown said the new money will be the largest single-year funding increase in the agency's history. DHS will use the increased state funding to draw down matching federal funds through Medicaid, he said.
The new money will have a profound impact on many Oklahomans who are either on the waiting list or have a loved one on the list, Brown said.
"The Legislature and the governor put a flag in the ground and said the waitlist is not acceptable," he said. "We, as the state of Oklahoma, will be leaders in serving people with developmental disabilities."
Included in the funding is a 25% rate increase for providers who work with the state to help developmentally disabled Oklahomans.
The rate increase will allow industry leaders to hire the direct care staff needed to serve people coming off the waiting list, Brown said. Lawmakers stressed that their work to help vulnerable Oklahomans isn't done.
Targeted state employee pay raises
Many state law enforcement officers will get salary increases in the proposed budget.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers will get 30% pay raises, at a cost of $14 million.
The pay increases are essential because the Highway Patrol is down about 400 troopers, Thompson said.
Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents will also get salary increases, at a cost of $5.3 million.
Lawmakers included more than $5 million for other pay raises across multiple state agencies. More than $2 million will go to increase pay for public health workers at the Oklahoma Health Department. Another $880,063 will boost pay for Tourism and Recreation employees earning below-market salaries.
There's also money set aside for pay raises for Public Safety Department dispatchers, DPS officers stationed at the state Capitol, CLEET-certified state park rangers, law enforcement officers within the attorney general's office and others.
Business incentives could lure a massive corporation to Pryor
In an attempt to lure a multi-billion company to build an electric vehicle battery plant in Oklahoma, state lawmakers have earmarked $698 million in performance-based incentives.
Oklahoma is believed to be in the running to land Panasonic, which is looking for a home for a new $4 billion manufacturing facility.
Early this legislative session, lawmakers quickly passed the framework for an incentive package to lure a large-scale business with more than 4,000 employees to the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor.
With the groundwork laid, the proposed budget funds the incentives that would only be given to a company that invests at least $3.6 billion in Oklahoma and meets annual hiring benchmarks.
If Project Ocean - the name given to the economic development project presumably involving Panasonic - doesn't come to fruition and no other major company qualifies for the incentives, the $698 million in the Large-scale Economic Activity and Development Fund will revert back to the state's General Revenue Fund.
What's missing from the budget?
Despite bipartisan support this year for eliminating the state's 4.5% grocery sales tax, the proposal did not make it into the budget.
Stitt and top lawmakers from both parties backed the idea, but such a tax cut would have been more expensive than the direct tax rebates included in the final budget proposal. Estimates show the grocery tax cut would have cost the state about $305 million annually.
Also absent from the proposed budget was a controversial school voucher plan.
Although Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, previously talked about trying to revive his failed Oklahoma Empowerment Act, possibly through the budget process, the plan was nowhere to be found in the budget bills unveiled Monday.
Contributing: Ben Felder, The Oklahoman
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Proposed $9.8 billion Oklahoma budget includes $75 for every taxpayer