Thursday, December 1, 2016 | by Kathryn McNutt
Oklahoma's next Speaker of the House pledged Wednesday to build a better rapport between lawmakers and higher education officials to meet the common goal of producing a skilled workforce.
"You are a constitutional entity on your own and so there is a natural disconnect between you and the Legislature," Speaker-elect Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said during a meeting of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
McCall invited the regents to take part in a public budget hearing he will schedule before the 2017 legislative session begins in February. House members will be able to ask questions and gain a better understanding of the higher education system, he said.
"It's going to give higher education an opportunity to tell your story, what your mission is, where you're trying to go, why you need the Legislature's support and to what extent," McCall said.
It also will let the public be more engaged and observe the process, he said.
McCall called it "a healthy exercise" that could improve the state budget process.
Higher education officials were critical of lawmakers last session and accused them of not understanding the needs of the state's system of 25 public colleges and universities.
The Legislature cut state funding for higher education by 16 percent or $153 million.
"It's been a major hit to academic programs," Chancellor Glen Johnson said at Wednesday's meeting.
It also hurts economic development on two fronts, he said.
"As a system of higher education we generate $9.5 billion a year for Oklahoma," Johnson said. "For every dollar the Legislature appropriates, higher education generates $4.72 back to Oklahoma's economy."
The colleges and universities also produce the graduates needed to meet the state's workforce needs, he said.
"I think education is the priority of the House of Representatives," McCall said, noting half of every dollar appropriated is allocated to some form of education.
When revenue declined 20 percent in one year, the Legislature faced "an overwhelming exercise to balance the budget," McCall said.
"We would like to share with you not only the challenges that we face, we'd like to hear the challenges that you face," he said.
McCall said it's too early to predict funding levels for next fiscal year.
"I believe it's going to be another difficult year. ... Ultimately revenues will recover. Things will be positive again," he said. "In the meantime, we want to make sure that you can empathize with us and we can empathize with you."
McCall said the Legislature recognizes the goal it shares with higher education.
"Our answers in the future lie with a more robust economy, an expanded economy and more opportunities. We have to have the workforce to attract the industry," he said.
Regents thanked McCall for coming to their meeting and for his comments.
"We all want the same thing. If we cannot have an adversarial role and just realize we have to do this together, we can figure out how we can accomplish it," said Regent Ronald White, of Oklahoma City. "We want to work with you and not against you."
The regents are expected to vote on their budget request for the next fiscal year when they meet again Thursday.