OKLAHOMA CITY - Hailing it as one of the most productive meetings in recent history, legislative leaders officially adjourned the 45th session of the Oklahoma Legislature today.
"This was the most pro-business, pro-education session that I've ever been involved with," said Senator Stratton Taylor. "We covered the waterfront on a variety of economic development initiatives, from tax cuts to education investments. The things we did this session will produce dividends for years to come.
"There aren't many legislators who can say they cut taxes, made record investments in roads and education, enacted property tax reform and solved problems as sticky as the Indian gas tax and midterm funding all in one four month legislative session.
"This was a grand slam, tape measure home run. One for the record books."
The highlight of the 1996 session, according to Senate leaders, was the state's expanded commitment to education. Lawmakers pumped an additional $212 million dollars into the three branches of education, the largest non-tax increase in recent state history. Of that total, common schools received an additional $131 million, higher education $71 million and vocational-technical education $9 million. Gubernatorial vetoes killed approximately $6 million in education funding.
"We said all along that education would be our top priority, and we made good on that promise," said Senator Kelly Haney, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "From an economic development standpoint, it was the best investment we could make."
Another investment on behalf of economic development was made in transportation, with legislators approving the largest state budget increase for roads and highways --some $29 million-- in recent history.
"If you're going to attract high quality jobs, you have to have a strong infrastructure of roads and highways," said Senator Larry Dickerson, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and General Government. "We approved a road building program, a record amount of new funding, that will move Oklahoma to the head of the pack in the competition for new industry."
Legislators also enacted a series of targeted tax cuts to spur economic development. They included a tax reduction for marginal oil wells, a tax credit for investments in agriculture processing facilities, reduced inheritance taxes on family farms and businesses and a $5,500 income tax exemption for private sector retirees.
"We're giving businesses a break so they can create more jobs and stimulate economic development," said Senator Bruce Price, author of the ag processing and inheritance tax cuts. "These tax cuts send the signal that Oklahoma is intent on creating the best business environment in the nation."
Lawmakers also passed an economic stimulus package for rural Oklahoma, pumping millions of dollars into projects in rural communities. Another economic development mechanism, the highly successful Quality Jobs Act, was renewed by the Oklahoma Legislature this year.
Midterm school adjustments, an annual funding problem, was resolved this session with legislators enacting a permanent solution that will deliver funding to growth school districts in a timely manner.
"Basically, we've done away with an annual headache that's plagued both our growing schools and state lawmakers," said Senator Don Williams, one of the chief architects of HB 2055. "We've created a system that will get our schools the money when they need it, making it easier for them to budget and meet the needs of their students."
Legislators also tackled and passed a comprehensive property tax reform package that places strict limits on ad valorem increases and gives special breaks to senior citizens.
"We're giving homeowners some relief by putting the brakes on property tax hikes," said Senator Penny Williams, architect of the reform package. "At the same time, we were careful not to do anything that would erode the revenue foundation on which our public schools rely."
Legislators also attempted to give state employees a pay raise, but Governor Keating blocked several of the agency appropriations that would have funded it.
"Really, the only black mark this session was Governor Keating's flip-flop on the pay raise. He's put a lot of agency directors in difficult positions where they may be forced to fire or furlough workers to give a raise the Governor approved and then refused to fund. We tried to override the vetoes and get state employees the money that was promised them, but the House Republicans blocked our attempts," said Senator Taylor.
"It's unfortunate, but that was Governor Keating's decision and I guess we'll all have to live with it."
The Senate leader did compliment the Governor on what was generally a strong effort to work in a bipartisan manner on the state's problems.
"After the divisiveness of last session, I think everyone, Governor Keating included, came to the table with a new attitude. We worked together, we moved Oklahoma forward, and we did some things that will bring benefits for many generations to come," said Senator Taylor.
Accomplishments of the 45th Oklahoma Legislature
-Record investments in education -- common ed, higher ed and vo-tech;
-Record investment in roads and highways;
-Targeted tax cuts to stimulate job creation totaling more than $45 million;
-Rural economic development stimulus package;
-Property tax reform;
-Quality Jobs Act, highly successful economic incentive program, renewed;
-Indian Gas Tax agreement;
-Increase in prison space for violent criminals;
-Midterm Adjustment permanent solution.
-Workers Compensation Reform prompts rate cut for business;
-Tax cuts (Unemployment tax on new business cut, energy tax cuts);
-Increased prison space for violent criminals;
-Increased funding for education.