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Osborn leads GRDA sale initiative, eyes $900 million hole as house budget chair

Rep. Leslie Osborn

Rep. Leslie Osborn

Canadian County’s very own Rep. Leslie Osborn is leading the charge, during the state’s economic downturn, to come up with creative ways to protect core government services.

The District 47, Mustang-area representative was recently appointed as House chair of the Appropriations & Budget committee and is already stepping up to take on big challenges.

On Dec. 9, state Rep. Osborn and state Sen. Greg Treat announced their plans to introduce a bill this upcoming session that could lead to the sale of the state’s Grand River Dam Authority.

The GRDA, according to its website, was created by the Legislature in 1935 to be a “conservation and reclamation district for the waters of the Grand River.” It is headquartered in Vinita and does not receive any state appropriated dollars and instead is funded by the same of electricity and water.

The agency generates, transmits and sells electricity to Oklahoma municipalities, electric cooperatives and industrial customers, as well as off-system customers across a four-state region. It also manages over 70,000 surface acres of water in northeast Oklahoma.

Osborn said GRDA is a complicated agency that is not a statewide core purpose. “Back in the 30s there was a need but at this point perhaps not.”

With the state’s budget hole this year, Osborn said there will be several things like the GRDA the Legislature will be looking at that could be an asset since it’s not a core agency.

The estimated value for the GRDA is $1 billion, she said. No bill language has yet been drafted for the GRDA sale, she noted.

“This does not mandate a sale,” Osborn said. “We have directed the secretary of finance to look into this and if the bill passes, it only enables the language to consider a sale.”

A sale, the representative said, may not be feasible but this is at least a conversation opener.

And if the sale takes place, Osborn said it would not be a case of “one-time money in the budget” where the state gets the money once and it’s gone the next year. Instead, she said the money would be staggered.

 

Madam chair

This session, Osborn will be a significant force at the state Capitol having been named chair for one of the most vital House committees at the Capitol, especially this session. The new role is a first for the Republican legislator who has served District 47 since 2008.

Osborn said she has one more term after her current one and can serve until 2020.

In her new role as chair, she jumped in filing some 75 bills. Normally, the House Speaker has made all of their appointments earlier and those bill filings for state agencies are handled by many representatives. Osborn said this wasn’t the case and she had to quickly tackle those bills.

She said the bills are a crucial step in the budget process and she will still probably end with about half or less, after she can “farm out” the rest.

A major planned focus for the upcoming session in the House will be educator and state employee pay. Osborn said this was decided during a recent House retreat in Durant that included 25 new members of the total 101.

“State employees haven’t had a pay raise in longer than teachers. That’s not acceptable. We have a small group working on that and are meeting weekly until the session starts.”

Osborn said the Legislature needs to find efficiencies to pay for the pay raises or look at a new revenue source since the one-cent sales vote for education failed in November.

“I thoroughly enjoy the job. I’m really excited to get to do this, to be in charge of the budget from the House. It’s a tough time. Things are looking a little better but we still have a ways to go to get out of the hole.”

Osborn said temporary three-to-five year fixes cannot be the solution. She also suggested looking closely at the state’s core agencies to determine if some should be phased out to public-private partnerships.

“We need to ask do we have enough state revenue moving forward for all core services to fund them properly.”

“This won’t be easy,” she said. “It really is interesting and I absolute enjoy thoroughly digging in to how we fund them but I have more to learn.”

The representative commented on this past week’s budget hole announcement, saying, “The budget hole is bigger than expected. Even though oil and gas prices have improved and rig counts are up, there is a lag time before we see improvements translate to higher tax collections,” Osborn said. “It will be challenge to balance the budget, but multiple plans are on the table for reductions in tax credits no producing return on investment, repeal of statues/costs of agencies that are outside of core functions of government, and the potential of reducing sales tax exemptions.”

To reach Osborn, call 577-7333 or email leslie.osborn@okhouse.gov.

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