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Representatives discuss budget challenges at local meeting

(L-R) State Representative John Enns, District 41, Canadian County Commissioner Phil Carson, State Rep. Harold Wright, District 57, and State Rep. Rob Johnson, District 22, spoke at Thursday's Legislative Breakfast in Piedmont..

Area representatives gathered on Thursday for the Piedmont Quarterly Legislative Breakfast and spoke to the community about important issues in government.  The state budget shortfall and redistricting process were some of the biggest topics discussed during the session.

State Senator Rob Johnson, District 22, said he was expecting big funding cuts to be made during the next legislative session that could affect nearly every level of the state.

“The focus this year is primarily going to be on the budget but we are still waiting to see the official numbers to see how big a problem we have,” Johnson said.  “There are going to be cuts everywhere.  I’m preparing for a pretty bad situation but I’m hoping it’s not too bad.”

State Representative John Enns, District 41, also said he was preparing for a large budget shortfall that could total $600 million.

“Hopefully the budget hole won’t be that extensive this year but I have heard anywhere between $600 million and $200 million for this year,” Enns said.  “I think $600 million is probably the cap but I can’t guarantee that.  But one thing I can assure you is there won’t be any new taxes.”

Representatives also discussed some of the specific issues they will be working on in the coming months.  Johnson said a focus for him continues to be workers compensation and law suit reform.  The legislature made changes a few years back that he doesn’t believe went far enough and said he will be working on better reform in an effort to spur local business growth.

Enns is serving on several committees, including chair of the Public Health Committee, and said smoking would receive attention this session.

“We are trying to get restaurants and bars to go totally smoke free,” Enns said.  “I will be for that as long as it reimburses the restaurants that put in separate ventilation systems already.”

Representative Harold Wright, District 57, also spoke to the crowd and said he was looking forward to potential changes in education funding that would give increased control to school districts.

“It’s a new day in (education) because we have a new state superintendent,” Wright said.  “We are trying to do away with some of the mandates and I think you might see some further removal of state mandates.  We can’t do anything about the federal mandates but we want to give more local control to (school districts).”

Local representatives speak at a legislative breakfast in Piedmont on Jan. 13.

Wright said the removal of mandates would help offset budget cuts this year, especially since stimulus funds are all but gone and only around $100 million remains in the state’s rainy day fund.

Representatives said redistricting would be a major topic this year and encouraged citizens to become involved in the process by voicing their opinions.  Piedmont city limits overlap into three districts, which some believe puts the city at a disadvantage.   Johnson said the state tries to set districts with around 75,000 people in each, but said some estimates put his district at 100,000.  While he acknowledged his district’s boundaries will change, he is committed to holding onto Piedmont

“My (district) is going to shrink but I promise you Piedmont is going to be in my district,” Johnson said.  “I will guarantee that.”

Canadian County Commissioner Phil Carson was also in attendance and spoke about the local funding shortage.  Carson told the audience that many expenses have doubled in the past year but revenue remains virtually unchanged.  Also in attendance was Matt Wehmuller, newly elected county assessor, Craig Smith, a field representative for Sen. Tom Coburn and Shawn McDavid, a field representative for Rep. Frank Lucas.

The legislative breakfast was sponsored by the Piedmont School Board and Chamber of Commerce.  The next scheduled breakfast is for April 14 at 7 a.m.  Each breakfast is open to the public.

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