Oklahoma City, OK – In his eighth and final State of the State address to the Oklahoma Legislature, Gov. Brad Henry outlined his plans for tackling the state's $1.3 billion revenue shortfall through a combination of surgically precise budget cuts and use of the state's emergency reserves fund.
"This budget crisis will test each of us, and it will demand our best," the Governor told a joint legislative session.
"It will require listening to the needs of our people, not the noise of partisan rancor. It will demand cooperation and collaboration, not confrontation and political calculation. The decisions we make will affect millions of Oklahomans today and in the future."
The current fiscal challenge, Gov. Henry stressed, requires bipartisanship and the resolve to protect the core services of government. He noted that state agencies have already endured substantial cuts, and that more must follow, but that lawmakers cannot balance the budget on the backs of hardworking Oklahomans.
"I implore you to remember there are very real and human consequences to budget cuts," said the Governor.
"The men and women who make state government work are not numbers on a spreadsheet. Slashing government spending can make for catchy campaign rhetoric, but rhetoric has ramifications - human ramifications - that demand to be considered."
Recounting progress the state has made in the arena of education -- from the Achieving Classroom Excellence initiative and a nationally lauded preschool program to higher teacher pay and a $475-million higher education capital bond issue -- the Governor said he will resist any budget-cutting efforts that would undermine those accomplishments.
"Through education, we are building a skilled and creative workforce, forging the strong and diverse economy of tomorrow," he said.
"We are molding the leaders and citizens who will decide the fate of issues we cannot yet imagine, and we want those citizens to be discerning, thoughtful and well-informed. Most of all, by giving every Oklahoma child a great education, we give that child a chance to pursue his or her dreams. There is nothing greater we can do for our children or our future."
Gov. Henry pointed out in his 32-minute address that this is not the first time Oklahoma has faced revenue failure. A budget shortfall of nearly $700 million consumed the legislative session when he first took office in 2003.
"The pessimists wrung their hands and panicked," the Governor said.
"The naysayers braced for huge tax hikes and catastrophic cuts. The cynics predicted rank partisanship would rule the day. But I challenged legislators to put aside partisan differences and work with me for the good of the state. And that's exactly what happened."
He said that Oklahoma's Rainy Day Fund, virtually depleted when he took office in 2003, is at its constitutional limit for the first time ever.
"This budget crisis is precisely the kind of emergency that citizens envisioned 25 years ago when they voted to create the Rainy Day Fund," said Gov. Henry.
"Now is the time to use our reserve dollars to preserve crucial services."
Moreover, the Governor urged a change to better enable future Legislatures to confront similar fiscal crises. He advocated raising the cap on Rainy Day Fund deposits from 10 percent to 15 percent of general revenue collections.
Gov. Henry also cautioned that the crisis of the moment cannot blind legislators to preserving and building on successes in economic development, education, energy and healthcare.
He challenged lawmakers to continue adequate funding for Insure Oklahoma, the public-private partnership that helps small businesses provide health insurance for their employees.
In the realm of economic development, the Governor urged lawmakers to ensure a permanent funding source for the EDGE Endowment to nurture high-tech industries and create jobs.
He also highlighted the importance of innovative "Smart on Crime" programs such as drug courts and mental health courts.
"Mental health and substance abuse services impact the lives - in fact, they save the lives - of Oklahomans of all backgrounds," Gov. Henry said.
"These vital programs keep families together. Just as important, they offer solutions to problems before they escalate to the costly criminal justice system. I urge you to remain tough and smart on crime by investing in mental health and substance abuse services. We can save lives today and taxpayer dollars tomorrow."
The Governor also reflected on the many successes his administration has had over the past eight years.
"This is a unique and inspiring state," he said.
"A literal and figurative crossroads of America, we are a fusion of seemingly contradictory traits. We dream big, but with feet planted firmly on the ground. We know self-reliance but revere charity and compassion. We are humble, but boast an unconquerable spirit. We honor our heritage but look to our future with pride.
"Oklahoma is emerging as one of the most dynamic stories of America in the 21st century. It is a tale of fortitude and fearlessness, of innovation and ingenuity, of family and unflagging faith. I am proud of the contributions we have been able to make to this incredible state these past seven years. And I am heartened by the certainty that our best days lie ahead."