smoky doorEach year, the Legislature appropriates a sum of money to the Department of Education in the General Appropriations bill for “programs and activities.” This line-item covers contributions to teachers’ retirement, early childhood education, alternative education, reading sufficiency, remedial programming, and more. This year, in a budget that was heralded for “holding education harmless,” the programs and activities budget was slashed by 30 percent.

There was no press release announcing this cut, which will have serious consequences for public schools. No detailed summary was made available to the public explaining the change in funding. By the time the Department of Education uncovered the cut, the budget had already passed the Senate and was set for final passage in the House.

This was just one of the little gems hidden deep within this year’s General Appropriations bill, which funds state government for the next fiscal year. The bill runs to almost 100 pages, includes some 200 sections, makes appropriations of over $6.8 billion to over 70 state agencies from more than three dozen revenue sources, and affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans. Some of these gems, like the $4 million increase the Legislature gave itself amid cuts for most of the rest of state government, were uncovered quickly. Others will take more time to uncover.

The budget agreement between legislative leaders and the Governor was announced late Tuesday morning, less than 4 days before the mandated end of session. That afternoon, the GA bill was heard in both House and Senate committees. Less than 24 hours after the bill was written, and four hours after it was posted on the Legislature’s website, the GA bill passed the Senate. Under the threat of being forced back into special session if they voted no, a bare majority of House members gave the budget final approval Friday afternoon.

The budget is just the most extreme case of the rushed and chaotic manner in which the Legislature conducts its business in the final weeks of session. From February to April, the Legislature generally follows a set of clear rules and guidelines. Committees must post meeting notices in advance. Amendments must be filed 24 hours prior to being heard. Bills not approved by the various deadlines are dead. Then, in May, most of the rules go out the window. Brand-new bills can be introduced, amended, and approved with lightning speed, with little if any opportunity for the public – and most legislators – to understand what’s going on.

Here are a few more examples from this session:

  • A bill to alter the state Earned Income Tax Credit, SB 1604, was filed after 5:00 pm on Wednesday, May 11th. It was heard in the Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget(JCAB) Thursday morning and in House JCAB that afternoon, then passed out of the full Senate on Monday. This gave legislators almost no chance to hear from the 200,000 Oklahoma families affected by the bill.
  • On May 16th, House JCAB met with seven bills posted to the meeting agenda. Of these, six were brand-new “shell bills”, whose language consisted of one empty sentence (“This Act shall be known and may be cited as the Oklahoma Revenue and Taxation Act of 2016”) meant to serve as a place-holder for substantive language to be introduced as committee substitutes. Ultimately, one of these shell bills turned into a measure to change the taxation of low-point beer, another sought to raise the fuel tax, while two were reserved for aborted efforts to provide teachers a pay raise through an increase and broadening of the sales tax. None of these ideas had been formally discussed or debated previously.
  • Two bills that amount to major increases in criminal and civil fees and fines — SB 1610 and HB 3220 — were introduced on May 16th and May 19th respectively, allowing  almost no time for public input and legislative consideration. HB 3220 was initially defeated on the House floor after members objected to being told that the fee revenue was critical to keeping the courts running before most legislators even knew how much the courts would be appropriated in the budget.

Legislative veterans, myself included, acknowledge that the Legislature has a long history of last-minute decisions. When I was a Senate staffer in the late 1990s, new versions of bills would be drafted in the final hours before Sine Die. I still remember rushing upstairs to the Senate chamber with a fresh copy of a bill providing a last-second appropriation to some agency and being told that the bill had already been voted on. A favorite Oklahoma legislative colloquialism is the woolly-booger, referring to a provision snuck into legislation, usually in the waning hours or days of session, that is likely to be overlooked.

These days, there are fewer woolly-boogers, and bills are not written on the very last day of session, but budgets are being released later and passed more quickly than ever before. One sensible reform to ensure greater scrutiny and debate would be to require at least one week between when the final version of the General Appropriations bill is introduced and when it can be voted on by the full House and Senate.

A friend recently commented that it seemed like all the decisions were being made at the last-minute “behind smoky doors”. He may have gotten his metaphors tangled, combining “smoke-filled rooms” and “behind closed doors,” but the sentiment is clear and justified. Bypassing the normal legislative process and rushing through so much critical legislation without reasonable time for review and debate feeds public cynicism and distrust – and leads to ill-conceived legislation. This needs to change.