Legislative leaders said in a public affairs forum that an expected state budget hole of more than $600 million could have a positive side if it forces lawmakers to better focus on spending priorities.
Speaking at a State Chamber event Thursday Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said lawmakers get so involved in policy matters that consideration of the budget — often referred to as the Legislature's top job — is not at the forefront of discussions.
"Not everybody is engaged in the budget at the appropriate time," he said.
Senate Minority Leader John Sparks put a sharper point on it.
"Given some of the stuff we did last session, I hope we are distracted by the budget," he said. "We spent some time on goofy stuff, like trying to outlaw AP (advanced placement) history. To some degree, I hope some of those guys are distracted by the budget."
He also said the state is missing an opportunity by not taking federal money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
"Over the next 10 years when you factor in the economic impact of that funding, it would be a positive $400 million for the state budget.
He compared Obamacare to the act of Congress that ushered in the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"Imagine Gov. Raymond Gary when President Eisenhower signed in the Interstate Highway System," Sparks said.
"Imagine if he said, 'Oh no, we don't want you coming in here taking all our land and building these big roads, because we're going to have to take care of them.
"Imagine how we would respond to businesses in the years to come about how we don't have a transportation infrastructure. That's the position we're putting ourselves in by not taking advantage of the health care infrastructure."
His arguments are likely to be a non-starter in a strongly conservative Legislature that has wanted nothing to do with the president's health care plan.
While the federal government has committed to paying 90 percent of the state's costs for expanding Medicaid, Republican leaders say they are concerned with how much the state would end up paying and whether the federal government would live up to its commitment.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman said the state's budget problems provide an opportunity to "evaluate where we need to improve as a state."
"We've cut education deeper in Oklahoma, common ed, than any other state in the nation for the last six or seven years.
"We cut common ed 24 percent when oil was $100 a barrel. Now that it's $40 a barrel, we're cutting it even deeper."
Hickman said education and health care are two areas where the state needs to improve.
He called the education system "broken."
"We're not seeing the results we'd like to see," he said.
Many high school graduates are not adequately prepared for the work force or for college, Hickman said.
Teacher pay needs to be improved, he said.
"We have a minimum wage in Oklahoma for teachers," he said. "Kansas and Colorado don't have a minimum wage for teachers and they pay more than we do."
He said some Oklahoma school boards use this minimum "as an excuse to pay the minimum."
"The truth is this," Hickman said. "This year, common education in Oklahoma will have more money than it has ever had in the history of our state, $8.2 billion. The problem is the money is not getting into the classroom, into teacher salaries.
Health care is also a concern.
"Obesity, and cardiovascular disease and smoking rates lead to less productivity for your employees," he said.
Hickman said the state has tried to address that issue through medical residency training programs aimed at getting more primary care physicians into under-served parts of Oklahoma.
The four legislative leaders agreed that the Legislature needs to find a way to bring the state into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act, an effort to make driver's licenses less susceptible to counterfeit or forgery.
Eventually, Oklahomans would need a passport to board commercial flights and access some federal buildings and facilities if the state doesn't comply.