2017 legislative session
Gov. Mary Fallin takes a photo with lawmakers and participants in a program called Women in Recovery. (William W. Savage III)

(Editor’s note: The following piece was distributed to media by Gov. Mary Fallin’s office as part of her monthly column series titled Oklahoma Now. It has been edited lightly for style and to add subheads and hyperlinks.)

With a nearly $900 million budget gap, this session was indeed one of the most challenging. Keep in mind, it comes on the heels of having to deal with a $1.3 billion budget gap last year – the largest budget hole in state history.

It hasn’t been easy dealing with these ongoing significant budget challenges we face. It is definitely not an ideal budget. But we did prevent draconian cuts to critical services and kept government from shutting down.

Despite challenging circumstances, we were able to fund core mission services such as education, health and human services, and public safety.

Unfortunately, we missed an opportunity to reform our budget process — to address structural imbalances in the budget, fix problematic tax policies, and access more recurring and stable revenue. These are all topics I have repeatedly warned about; topics that do not go away just because we wish they would.

It’s also disappointing the budget didn’t include a teacher pay raise, but there were some members who refused to vote on a number of revenue ideas that would have helped pay for a teacher pay raise. It was hard to get a budget done, forcing legislative leaders to rely on passing measures that produced revenue that required only 51 percent approval instead of the 75 percent majority required for tax increases.

About $500 million of one-time funds were used in this budget, which means we’re going to start out the next year with a shortfall of that amount. As a result, it will be another difficult year. Plus, add in that it’s an election year, and we know it will be nearly impossible to pass revenue measures.

So there is much work still to do to fix these structural issues that undermine our budget year after year. It is why I have emphasized smart reforms in areas from government accountability and efficiency to criminal justice — an ongoing top priority for me as many of my bills were held up in the Legislature this year.

Criminal justice reform necessary

I am disheartened we didn’t get more of the criminal justice bills passed into law. A lot of people worked very hard on these recommendations. We can do better in dealing with nonviolent offenders who have mental health conditions or who are addicted to drugs or alcohol by pursuing appropriate treatment rather than felony prosecution and long-term incarceration. Oklahoma has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country. By 2018, we will have the highest incarceration rate in the country.

One of the bills that was held up this session was HB 2281. It included important sentencing changes to low-level property crimes, and would have had a particularly important impact on our female prison population. Without jeopardizing public safety with these bills, we could have implemented smart, data-driven solutions to safely and prudently fix our criminal justice system. I will continue to work with lawmakers on this important topic, which I have strongly advocated during the past three legislative sessions.

Bright spots in the session

On a bright note, lawmakers approved a fix for REAL ID compliance, reduced the revenue bleeding for overly general wind tax credits, and passed an oil and gas long lateral bill, which will encourage more production and return more revenue. I also signed into law a new task force to develop recommendations for a better way to administer our school funding formula and school districts.

A major accomplishment was the negotiated deal to bring an Amazon distribution center to Oklahoma City, thus allowing the state to collect new sales tax revenue from Amazon purchases.

Looking ahead to next session, I know that if we work together, we can invest in Oklahoma and make it the best state in this nation. It can be a place where hard-working individuals and ambitious businesses can not just survive, but they can thrive.