By Michael McNutt
Gov. Mary Fallin challenged lawmakers Monday to cut the top bracket of the state's personal income tax, develop a plan to repair the crumbling state Capitol, provide money for earlier public school improvements and let local communities have control over tobacco use in public places.
The governor, beginning her third year in office, also asked lawmakers to overhaul the state workers' compensation system and to continue to back efforts to reduce the size of state government and increase the number of compressed natural gas vehicles in the state's fleet.
Fallin, in prepared remarks, sprinkled proposals on how lawmakers should appropriate nearly $7 billion for the 2014 fiscal year, which takes effect July 1. Lawmakers should have about $170 million more to appropriate this year compared with a year ago, based on tax revenue estimates.
Fallin, a Republican, also defended her earlier decision not to accept federal money to expand the state Medicaid system. She said she is seeking an additional $40 million to pick up Medicaid costs for about 61,000 Oklahomans who are eligible for Medicaid but are not enrolled in the health care program.
Fallin also is seeking an additional $16 million for state mental health services, which would be used to pay for a third community crisis center in the state and beef up funding of programs intended to reduce suicide and prescription drug abuse. She also wants money to go to a program that helps children and families with children who are suffering serious emotional issues.
She also is seeking $46 million of new money to pay for recommended changes in a five-year plan to improve child welfare operations at the Department of Human Services. The plan is part of an agreement to settle a federal lawsuit.
Fallin asked lawmakers to lower the top income tax bracket, which kicks in after the first $8,700 of income made by every Oklahoman, from 5.25 percent to 5.0 percent. Proposals seeking bigger cuts made by and lawmakers failed to advance last year.
"This proposal gives us the flexibility we need to ensure that we are reducing taxes responsibly, without starving government," Fallin said. This is not the last tax cut we will see from my administration. I am serious about lowering taxes, and I will work to get us a lower income tax rate that makes us more competitive with our neighbors to the north and to the south -- both of which have lower taxes than Oklahoma."
Fallin is seeking $10 million for the nearly 100-year-old Capitol: $8 million to repair the crumbling limestone exterior and $2 million for a study to develop a plan to repair and renovate the building. Yellow barricades and scaffolding to protect passers-by were erected 18 months ago on the south side of the Capitol.
"The Capitol is a symbol of our state, a place of business and a living museum dedicated to preserving Oklahoma history, literature and art work," Fallin said. "It is not right for visitors to be greeted at this building by construction cones, crumbling facades and a faulty sewer system."
The governor said she is backing a proposal to restore local control to cities and towns regarding tobacco use in public places. Lawmakers failed to advance similar legislation the past two years.
"If communities want to take action to improve the health of their citizens, they should be able to do it," Fallin said. "Any plan to improve the health of Oklahomans must address the state's No. 1 killer: Tobacco."
Fallin said she also is asking for a $13.5 million increase to public schools to pay for recently enacted changes. Earlier changes approved but not funded by lawmakers include better reading instruction and end-of-high-school exams in public schools. She also is seeking an $8.5 million supplemental funding request for this fiscal year to pay for teachers' health benefits.