Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
Years ago, when I was in the legislature, I was accused by an editor of one of my local newspapers of being a Pollyanna. Since then I’ve tried to curb the tendency to sometimes be overly optimistic. But, alas, I’m going to succumb to that tendency this week and suggest that last session’s budget, described as a lemon even by those who wrote it, provides the opportunity for lemonade.
Last session, as we all know by now, the Legislature and governor created a potential constitutional crisis by passing several bills by legally questionable methods. For the second straight year, Republicans found their caucus divided and unable to produce enough votes to safely pass needed revenue measures. In the waning days of the session they turned to Democrats for help. Democrats were anxious to bring both their votes and their ideas to the table, but the two parties could not get together. The result was the stop-gap, inadequate budget that even the most apathetic citizen can recognize as unworkable.
The ingredients the Republicans proposed and enacted in the past have been essentially a variety of fee increases, sales, consumer, and “sin” taxes served up with cuts in income and gross production taxes and garnished with early expiration of some wind and oil tax breaks that were already set to end. The Democrats proposed restoring part of the past income tax cuts and gross production tax cuts together with Medicaid expansion, and smaller sales and “sin” tax increases. Republicans declared the income tax and Medicaid expansion non-starters and couldn’t agree on how much gross production tax they could stomach. So, the Republicans passed what they could — perhaps more than they could — with their majorities.
Knowing they must, legislators should now, from all those proposals, be able to come together and pass an adequate state budget. Republicans, especially since they are in charge with large majorities, will surely feel that responsibility. Now, here comes Pollyanna. The table is set to expand Medicaid. Washington D.C. Republicans have pulled out all the stops to repeal Obamacare and create something better. Everything they’ve tried, from outright repeal to “skinny” repeal, has been less palatable than “fixing” Obamacare. The thing that killed the effort was this: States that expanded Medicaid like it. They like it because it provides health care to their people.
Rather than continuing to count on Obamacare being repealed, Oklahoma Republicans should do what many of them have wanted to do from the beginning. There are more than enough Republicans in the Legislature, together with Republican doctors, nurses, hospital employees, mental health professionals, teachers, employers and all variety of citizens, to work with Democrats to bring to Oklahomans what others in Republican expansion states don’t want to lose.
Governor Fallin has had accomplishments, but she’s not getting much credit for them because of the budget. As I recall, she seemed ready to expand Medicaid when she first came to office. But she was shouted down by the loudest voices in her party at the time. It’s unconscionable that Oklahomans are paying Obamacare taxes without receiving the most tangible financial benefit: Medicaid money that would help our state budget. If the governor were to decide to lead on this issue it could happen. Some would be unhappy now, but soon her legacy might rival another Republican governor, Henry Bellmon, who also did hard things that were good for the people.