When it comes to funding Oklahoma¹s higher education system this legislative session, the top priority should be Tulsa, even if it means tapping the rainy day fund, according to the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Senator Penny Williams pointed out today that additional funding is needed for "unfinished business" in the state¹s second largest city, namely for the new graduate research center and the new OSU-Tulsa branch campus approved by the Governor and the Legislature last year.
"I'm advocating a 'Tulsa First' policy so we can finish the business we started last year. We took a big step forward to improve Tulsa higher education, but we didn¹t fund it. Unless Tulsa is first in line when dollars are appropriated this year, we¹ll be forced to take two steps backward. Tulsa won¹t reap the many economic benefits of its new higher education structure until it gets the money it needs to get off the ground," said Senator Williams.
When the Legislature and the Governor voted to expand higher education opportunities in Tulsa last year, they did so with the understanding that the initiatives would require immediate and consistent financial support. For example, it will cost an estimated $40 million to establish the new graduate center and additional money will be needed for OSU to expand its new Tulsa branch.
"When we committed to improving Tulsa higher education, we all knew that it was going to cost money. Now that it's time to pay the bill, we can't tell Tulsa to wait its turn again. After being at the end of the line for so many years, Tulsa should be first this time," said Senator Williams.
Because of the tight budget outlook this year, the lawmaker is concerned that Tulsa¹s higher education needs may be neglected or ignored entirely. With cash in short supply, legislators have a long list of commitments to keep ranging from new road construction to prison beds. To date, Tulsa higher education needs have not been placed on that commitment list.
"Not only should Tulsa be on the list, it should be at the top of the list. Higher education has great potential in Tulsa, but only if it gets the funding it has been promised," said Senator Williams. If no money is available in the general revenue fund, cash should be withdrawn from the state¹s constitutional reserve account, the so-called "rainy day" fund, to cover costs in Tulsa. As much as $148 million is available for appropriation from the reserve fund this year.
"We've gone to the rainy day fund before to cover the needs of higher education. Tapping the fund for Tulsa would be especially appropriate, given the one-time nature of most of the expenditures related to the new graduate center. No matter where the money comes from, it's critical that Tulsa be at the top of the priority list," said Senator Williams.
The lawmaker pointed out that both the OSU-Tulsa Board of Trustees and Student Association Senate have approved resolutions, calling for the additional funding. She also pointed out that Tulsa lawmakers have been united on the issue as well.
"The Tulsa legislative delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike, unanimously supported the graduate center when we passed the legislation last year. We also realize how important the funding is to jump-start this new commitment to business development in Tulsa," said Senator Williams.