Plan to tap scholarship fund leads to budget cuts

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Most state agencies in Oklahoma will receive a .12 percent budget cut for the upcoming fiscal year to make up for a legislative decision that was ruled unconstitutional by the state's attorney general, a state budget panel decided Thursday.

The Oklahoma Board of Equalization voted unanimously to approve the $6.8 million cut to state agencies for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The cuts will range from $165 for a small agency such as the State Bond Advisor to nearly $2 million for public schools.

"None of this is ideal, but none of it should be catastrophic either," said Oklahoma Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, who recommended the board approve the cuts. "The reductions are small enough for the agencies to weather until the Legislature convenes in February. If additional funding is needed by then, the Legislature can consider supplemental appropriations for those entities."

Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued a formal opinion last week that the Legislature's directive to divert money from the program that provides free college tuition to thousands of students from low-income families was unconstitutional.

The opinion was requested by House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Inman, who questioned whether the Legislature has the authority to order the Board of Equalization to reduce the funding. Pruitt said such a demand was unconstitutional.

"The Legislature lacks the authority to direct the state Board of Equalization how to calculate the amount to be certified as available for appropriations," Pruitt wrote.

Doerflinger, the governor's chief negotiator with the Legislature on budget matters, said the scholarship fund routinely has a healthy carry-over balance and that there was always adequate money to fund the program.

"It has a very large cushion and has never been at risk of running out of funding. It would have faced no risk of failing to meet scholarship obligations under the scenario the Legislature proposed," Doerflinger said. "Neither the governor nor the Legislature would ever sign off on anything that shorted scholarships for Oklahoma students."

The budget cuts apply to 66 state agencies that receive appropriations from the state's General Revenue Fund. Non-appropriated state agencies, like the Secretary of State's Office and Oklahoma Insurance Department, are not affected.

The Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives also are not affected, because those entities are funded with cash appropriations.

But the Senate plans to voluntarily reduce its budget by the same amount and return about $15,000 to the state's General Revenue Fund, said Jennifer Monies, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman.


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