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PAVE forum: Senate candidates talk Rainy Day Fund, COVID-19, budget

By Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
The Shawnee News-Star

Last week PAVE (Pottawatomie Advocates for Voter Education) hosted a candidate forum for 11 hopefuls running for offices relating to county and state seats, though two did not participate.

Among them were candidates running for state Senate seats:

— Competing for the state Senate District 17 position are Incumbent Ron Sharp, Brandon Baumgarten and Shane Jett.

— Vying to secure the state Senate District 28 seat are Zack Taylor, Mike Haines and Christian Ford.

Candidates offered their take on several issues; here are some of the questions and responses.

QUESTION: What do you see as the three top issues for the state of Oklahoma over the next year?

RESPONSES:

• State Senate District 17 candidate incumbent Ron Sharp said it's always the same top three issues: budget, education and transportation.

“Because our budget is so dependent upon energy, we have to make sure that we are providing the proper economic environment to ensure that our energy business continues to expand and grow,” he said. “We are always going to be an energy-producing state.”

Next, the entire key to criminal justice reform and for all basic social problems is providing children with a quality, best-teacher, education they can possibly get.

“That's one of the things I've done as a senator is do my best to ensure that our education system is fully funded, and that we have quality teachers in our classrooms,” he said.

Also, he said he has worked very diligently with ODOT.

“In the last eight years, we have a six-lane that's going in between 177 and Oklahoma City,” he said. “We have a turnpike that's going to help bypass Oklahoma City. That should cut down on the problems at the Interstate 35 and Interstate 40 exchange.”

He said he has very diligently supported county improvement on roads and bridges.

“I've helped with the planning and distribution of funds to Hardesty and 177,” he said. “Of course, we are working on the Bryan Street exchange, which should add tremendous economic growth to Shawnee as we expand.”

Tremendous improvements have been made in the last eight years while he has been in office, he said.

• State Senate District 17 candidate Brandon Baumgarten said the state is looking at an unusual year — for business, the economy, everything.

“With that coming, we have a looming budget crisis in 2021,” he said. “That's concerning because that budget is tied to so many different things.”

The budget must be balanced, he said, which is the biggest issue facing the state today.

“We believe we've got to look at where we can cut funds in terms of state agencies,” he said, “and think where we can fine-tune our best results.”

He said he loves the new LOFT (Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency) program, that's going to keep a pulse on how the state keeps its money accountable.

The second issue, he said is infrastructure.

“Making sure our roads and bridges are taken car of,” he said. “People do not want to come to the state if our roads and bridges are bad.”

Third is the digital divide, he said.

“Schools during the COVID-19 crisis have had to do long-distance learning,” he said. “Many of our constituents do not have capabilities to the internet; I want to help get more internet availability to our constituents and make sure they have the right to education through virtual learning.”

• State Senate District 17 candidate Shane Jett said he thinks COVID is primarily on everyone's mind — and the economic contractions that are going to occur as a result.

“That's one of the reasons I think the experience I had in 2008 and 2009 is going to be so relevant,” he said. “Making sure we address the budget and making cuts that are relevant,” he said. “In 2008 we were basically taking cuts evenly across the top; this is an opportunity to take a hard look at Oklahoma and figure out what are essential services, what are not.”

Streamlining the budget and making sure Oklahoma is lean and fit and ready to move into the next decade is important, he said.

People also want good, quality jobs so they can take care of their families, and they want quality education so their kids don't have to go to Texas to get a job, he said.

“Those types of things are important, and of course infrastructure is essential,” he said. “

• State Senate District 28 candidate Zack Taylor said with COVID-19, and the price of oil and gas, the budget is going to be the main issue.

“There are going to have to be some tough decisions made,” he said. “With 51 percent of our budget that goes to education, it becomes increasingly hard to hold education harmless, so there will be some tough decisions in that.”

He said another issue is keeping core services like roads and bridges flat.

“People want the best infrastructure possible,” he said. Rural economic development also is on the list.

When times are tough, he said it's the most important time to continue that.

• State Senate District 28 candidate Mike Haines said he agreed about the budget being a major issue next session.

“We're helped in the fact that we've seen there's been a lot of fraud in the unemployment numbers,” he said. “So we're seeing, even now, we're going to have more money than we thought we would have.”

Oil is up to $48 a barrel, he said.

“Our budget is set on $54; so that's going to help quite a bit,” he said. “We've got a lot of work to do, and there are probably some cuts that have to be made, but we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Another issue, he said, is the need to work on rural economic development.

“Every four years we hear a call to diversify away from oil and natural gas; it's such a significant portion of our economy,” he said. “We're going to need to put things in place so we grow that over the next decade — strategies that really move us forward.”

Third, he said is having to learn to deal with healthcare access and mental health access.

“We are paying millions and millions of dollars for folks that need help and aren't getting it, and end up either in our prison system or in other areas that are costing us money,” he said.

• State Senate District 28 candidate Christian Ford was not in attendance; he did not participate in the forum.

QUESTION: Oklahoma's Board of Equalization is anticipating the loss of $1.3 billion for 2021. Would you support accessing the Rainy Day Fund to fill gaps in the budget? Why or why not? Oklahoma families were asked to cut back.

RESPONSES:

• State Senate District 17 candidate incumbent Ron Sharp said that's exactly what the legislature did last year.

“There is certain criteria we must follow before we can get that Rainy Day Fund,” he said. “We have a stabilization fund and we have revolving funds, so we are doing everything we can to provide services the people want; at the same time we have to do it within the Budget Balance Amendment of 1941.”

In 2015, he said he enacted the Performance Informed Budget and Transparency Act to make sure every agency presents a budget of which has certain performance goals and through those they must meet or recognize in the next budget meeting they may be cut.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure our budget is transparent and the fact that we're going to use every dollar as it should be used,” he said.

• State Senate District 17 candidate Brandon Baumgarten said he would support accessing the Rainy Day Fund.

“That money is there for a reason,” he said. “I applaud the governor and what he did in terms of putting the money into the Rainy day Fund, because today is a rainy day for Oklahoma.”

He said that money needs to be used to help save that money from cutting common education, which is the biggest piece of the budget pie.

“As we move forward, I agree with putting more money in it, but also accessing it to help save us from future rainy days,” he said.

• State Senate District 17 candidate Shane Jett said this is precisely the experience he has from being in office in 2008 and 2009.

“Back then we tried to look at as much as possible to hold harmless public education, but then cutting everything as equally as possible across the board,” he said. “We squandered an opportunity — the opportunity to take a hard look at all the agencies to determine are there duplicated services, (for example) are there places that are testing water from three different three different departments, as outlined.”

This is an opportunity to do what businesses do in Oklahoma, what families do in hard times. he said.

“You have to tighten your belt and figure out how to do more efficient going forward,” he said. “ Before we start accessing the Rainy Day Fund, let's take this opportunity we've been provided and look at the state and make sure it's as efficient as possible, and that we're saving the state's money; if we're wasting taxpayers' dollars and we're accessing the Rainy Day Fund before we look at deficiencies, then we're missing a huge step.”

• State Senate District 28 candidate Zack Taylor said they did certify $1.3 billion.

“We passed that budget; we accessed the Rainy Day Fund to lessen the cuts to education,” he said, “but we did make cuts across the board, as well.”

He said the cuts were less to education; the average cut across the board was around 4 percent.

“Some agencies experienced more, some less,” he said. “We just went through and determined what our core services were and we were able to make cuts in the budget and live within our means.”

Something the state has to do constitutionally is pass a balanced budget, he said.

• State Senate District 28 candidate Mike Haines said he would support it because of the character of the budget shortfall that the state had.

“We had budget shortfalls that were going to come because of a unique situation,” he said. “The Rainy day Fund is there to do exactly that.”

Haines commended Gov. Stitt and the legislature.

“They took a lot of heat last year for the budget — of putting money in savings that everyone wanted to spend,” he said. “Instead they chose to save that money that we were going to access this year, which was fiscally responsible.”

These are the things that need to be kept in mind as the state goes forward, he said, and look at expanding the Rainy Day Fund in the future for situations just like this.

• State Senate District 28 candidate Christian Ford was not in attendance; he did not participate in the forum.

Other races

Three candidates are running for Pottawatomie County Sheriff: Incumbent Mike Booth, Jeff Griffith and Ben Henderson.

For District 2 County Commissioner, Incumbent Randy Thomas and Jason Evans seek the seat.

The election is June 30.

Watch future editions of The Shawnee News-Star or visit news-star.com for upcoming stories reporting candidate responses to some of the top issues discussed at the forum.