Budget woes bring Oklahoma lawmakers back to state Capitol
Budget woes bring Oklahoma lawmakers back to state Capitol
Jul. 29, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Members of the Oklahoma House plan to return to the state Capitol for a series of mid-summer budget meetings where Republicans and Democrats will use different strategies to find a way to achieve a stable state budget.
Democrats want contingency plans in place in case hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue approved by the Legislature last spring is invalidated by the Supreme Court. Lawsuits claim the revenue measures, adopted during a prolonged downturn in oil and natural gas production revenue, violate a constitutional prohibition against passing revenue-raising measures in the waning days of a legislative session.
"It is imperative that we seriously consider all revenue measures and put what is best for the state, not what is best for big money interests, forward," said Rep. Steve Kouplen of Beggs, who will take over as House Democratic leader next year.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have organized working groups among GOP House members to develop proposals for reducing waste and making state government more efficient that can be considered when lawmakers convene the 2018 Oklahoma Legislature in February.
"Preparation is going to be the key to success," said GOP Floor Leader Jon Echols of Oklahoma City.
The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments on Aug. 8 on lawsuits that challenge revenue-raising measures adopted by lawmakers earlier this year in an effort to close an $878 million hole in the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 and to avoid catastrophic cuts to state agencies and services.
Among other things, the lawsuits allege the measures were adopted by lawmakers near the end of the 2017 legislative session in violation of a state constitutional provision prohibiting passage of new taxes in the final five days of a legislative session.
A lawsuit filed by cigarette companies challenges a new $1.50 fee on a pack of cigarettes, alleging that it is an unconstitutional "tax." The new fee, set to go into effect in late August, is estimated to raise about $258 million a year.
The state's highest court will also consider other challenges including a new 1.25 percent sales tax on motor vehicle sales on top of the existing excise tax already charged on car sales that is estimated to raise $124 million a year.
House Democrats plan a public hearing to give taxpayers an opportunity to tell lawmakers how budget cuts already implemented have affected them.
"We feel like we just haven't had enough input from the public," said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. "Special interests and lobbyists had their say on the budget during the four-month regular session, and it's put the state in a real bind."
Critics charge that the Aug. 3 hearing at the Capitol will become a forum for hurling partisan attacks at Republicans who control both the House and the Senate.
"The people are going to be able to judge for themselves," Echols said. "I'm seeing more partisanship and more personal attacks than I've ever seen. It's disappointing. I think the people are sick of that."
Virgin said the goal is to have a bipartisan discussion about how budget cuts to public education and other services have affected average Oklahomans.
"I don't think that seeking public input is in any way partisan or a political stunt," Virgin said. "We feel like it's time for average Oklahomans to have their input as well."
Republicans are confident the newly enacted revenue measures will withstand Supreme Court challenges and will concentrate on finding more efficient ways to operate state government, Echols said.
"Our goal is to develop policy ideas that innovate the way we develop and deliver government services to our citizens," Echols said. "We want taxpayer dollars spent well."
Policy groups will examine spending on such services as public safety and corrections, transportation, education and health care. One group will focus on budget reform, an issue Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has raised to help close chronic gaps in the state budget and eliminate the need for lawmakers to use one-time sources of money to plug deficits.
Echols said he wants the committees' work to be non-partisan.
"There is plenty of time for bipartisanship," he said. "We've got to work together."
Democrats and Republicans agree that a special legislative session will be required if the state's new cigarette fee is invalidated by the Supreme Court. A special session typically costs taxpayers about $30,000 per day.
Echols said revenue-raising proposals developed during a legislative session may require a statewide vote of the people before they can go into effect and could appear alongside other public initiatives that are also headed to public ballots, including a proposal to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and a plan to place a crime victims' bill of rights measure known as Marcy's Law into the Oklahoma Constitution
Members of the Oklahoma House plan to return to the state Capitol for a series of mid-summer budget meetings where Republicans and Democrats will use different strategies to find solutions to creating a stable state budget.
Democrats want contingency plans in place in case hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue approved by the Legislature last spring is invalidated by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
A series of lawsuits claim measures designed to replenish sagging oil and natural gas revenue violate a constitutional prohibition against passing revenue-raising measures in the waning days of a legislative session.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have organized seven policy working groups to develop proposals for reducing waste and making state government more efficient that can be considered when lawmakers reconvene in February.