Published April 1, 2017
Oklahoma's public colleges and universities want lawmakers to restore $148 million in funding that was cut last year, but — with the state facing a nearly $900 million shortfall — another cut is more likely.
"It will be hard to keep agencies stable, let alone restore funding," Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, said Friday.
Osborn, who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said most people at the Capitol and across the state think higher education took a disproportionate cut last year, and that it should not reoccur.
The appropriation for higher education was reduced by $157 million or 16 percent, one of the biggest cuts last year in the state budget. Another large cut would hurt the quality of education students receive and the quality of Oklahoma's workforce, she said.
Osborn said she is hopeful Republicans and Democrats will be able to agree on new recurring revenue as an alternative to further budget cuts, but called it "a daunting task."
Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis said Friday it's time "to develop a long-term strategy to modernize our tax structure."
"Additional cuts to higher education will make it difficult to keep a college education affordable. I'm confident our state leaders recognize the problem and will develop appropriate solutions," Hargis said.
He said an increase in the cigarette tax is an attractive option because it would support better health outcomes and bolster OSU's efforts to provide health care across the state, particularly in rural areas.
Gov. Mary Fallin said Thursday it's time "to get down to business" and find ways to enhance revenue. In her State of the State address, she recommended reforming the tax code, increasing the taxes on gasoline and cigarettes, and reconsidering all tax incentives and sales tax exemption.
"We're halfway through the legislative session and we've had minimal discussions on the state budget," she said. "We just can't keep putting these things off and expecting them to resolve themselves, because they won't."
Fallin said she would veto a budget that doesn't fund core services adequately and may call a special session if the budget crisis isn't resolved in the next eight weeks.
Priority: common education
Any new revenue generated — beyond that needed to fill the budget hole — would go first to common education. Increased funding for teacher pay raises is the top priority for the governor, the Legislature and voters.
Oklahoma voters asked by SoonerPoll.com Dec. 19-21 to choose the state's top spending priority were nine times more likely to select common education than higher education.
Nearly half the 440 voters polled selected K-12 schools as the top priority, followed by 19 percent each for transportation and health care, 9 percent for public safety, and 5 percent for colleges and universities.
Higher education officials said the 16 percent cut in state appropriations last year has created difficulties for Oklahoma's 25 public colleges and universities, the 414,000 students they serve and the state's goal for producing graduates to meet workforce needs.
"We took a big cut last year. We hope we're more of a priority this year to be able to produce the college degrees to meet those job needs," Chancellor Glen Johnson said during a January budget hearing in the House chamber.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education requested a Fiscal Year 2018 appropriation of $957,922,109, an increase of 18.3 percent, which would restore most of the money cut last year.
Fallin's budget proposal keeps the higher education appropriation at the current level.
Last week, the regents established a new task force to review the status of Oklahoma's higher education system and make recommendations to improve and modernize it.
"The task force will be looking at the fiscal viability of each institution within the system, particularly in relationship to the budget cuts that have occurred the past several years," Johnson said.