More than 200 new Oklahoma laws go into effect Tuesday (The Oklahoman)

By Rick Green 

A total of 228 measures approved by the Legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin take effect Tuesday, including some to make criminal justice reforms and others to bring in more tax revenue.

Another 159 bills passed by lawmakers this year have already gone into effect.

Faced with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, the Legislature took some incremental steps this year to bring in more money, including ending a so-called “double deduction” that allowed some taxpayers who itemize to deduct state income taxes twice.

Some tax credits also got trims. A cap was placed on one break provided to companies that make capital investments or provide new jobs.

“These moves will put the state on a more solid financial footing in the long term,” Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman said one important bill that was approved will require out-of-state companies to let Oklahoma residents know how much they spent online in a given year.

This is to help in-state businesses, while making it clear to residents that they owe tax on out-of-state online purchases. The bill also has a provision for a vendor to collect and remit taxes when the sale is made.

“I think that’s very important for a lot of small businesses around the state that are having to compete with companies that are out of state that haven’t invested in a physical plant, building, employees, really anything in Oklahoma,” he said.

Another bill that goes into effect Tuesday sets up a fund that will receive excess tax collections the next time the oil industry is booming to be used to stabilize state revenue during the next oil bust.

Just as notable as the measures that passed were proposals that weren’t approved.

Lawmakers had the opportunity to make major cuts in corporate tax breaks, pass a cigarette tax and expand goods and services subject to sales and use taxes.

Instead, they chose to balance the budget largely through spending reductions and use of one-time money like bonds and agency savings. Use of such non-recurring revenue guarantees the state will have another significant shortfall next year.

David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the Legislature should have kept a tighter focus on the budget instead of bills that ultimately wouldn’t become law, including one on the subject of transgender bathroom use.

“Last session it was particularly apparent that with a massive budget shortfall, the Legislature allowed itself to get distracted with bills to regulate bathroom use and bills that were clearly unconstitutional related to abortion and other issues,” he said.

Health care was another missed opportunity.

With 13.9 percent of Oklahoma’s population without health insurance, legislators failed to approve a so-called “Medicaid Rebalancing Act,” which had been painstakingly devised by state officials in an effort to bring coverage to thousands of uninsured people.

Calls for a pay raise for Oklahoma teachers, among the lowest paid in the nation, also went unanswered.

Hickman said he wished the Legislature would have passed the cigarette tax.

“The cigarette tax was one that obviously would have had a dramatic effect on our budget and also the added benefit of hopefully keeping children from starting smoking,” he said.

“That money would have gone to health care and freed up money to go other places. We ended up having to send tens of millions of dollars to the Health Care Authority in order to keep provider rates from being slashed and hospitals from being closed.

“The cigarette tax would have filled that hole and that large chunk of money could have gone to other places in the budget like education, roads and bridges, public safety.”

Another regret for Hickman was the failure to pass the Medicaid Rebalancing Act, drawn up by Nico Gomez, then-chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Gomez later resigned to take a post in the private sector.

“We asked Director Gomez to develop an Oklahoma plan, an Oklahoma solution and I felt like he did what he was asked to do and I know that was frustrating for him that we weren’t able to see that across the finish line,” Hickman said.

On the positive side, Hickman noted that the Legislature made important criminal justice reforms designed to reduce Oklahoma’s overflowing prison population, and bring more treatment, instead of incarceration, to people with substance abuse and mental health problems.

Falin said she was heartened to see steps taken to address “out-dated sentencing laws and procedures.”

She said the legislation will “bring about significant change, and will chip away at reducing two dubious Oklahoma distinctions — Oklahoma is Number One in female incarceration, and we’re consistently in the top five in male incarceration.”

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