‘Behind Smoky Doors’: Last-minute bills breed public distrust

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Blatt helped found OK Policy in 2008 and became the organization's Executive Director in 2010. David previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, Patty Hipsher, a special education teacher in Broken Arrow, and their son, Noah.

7 thoughts on “‘Behind Smoky Doors’: Last-minute bills breed public distrust

  1. As a teacher, I felt totally deceived after the senate said education would not be lose any more money. So I emailed my house member and asked him not to approve the budget, but he voted yes. I then emailed and called Mary “Failing” Falin and asked her to force them to call a special session and rework the budget. There is also no money in the curriculum fund and this school year we should be receiving new reading curriculum, next year math. It is disheartening to know first year teachers may not having anything to at least guide them. It should be an insult that,Tulsa and many other districts, are receiving help from the SOS campaign that kicked off today and many districts are also running their own campaigns to help raise funds for public education. Our state officials should be embarrassed, but many could care less.

  2. The whole budget process is smoke and mirrors. Agencies have “revolving funds”. These funds may or may not be included in the budgeting process. Mandated spending for legislative salaries are put into some other services account, I assume to further cloud the process. We need all revenue and all expenditures in the budget process.

  3. As a voter, I’m disappointed in the lack of professionalism of our legislature and the lack of research and transparency. My representatives have been great and are trying so hard to get things done, but it is literally a circus at the capital.

  4. They have been whistling past the cemetery buying time and diverting public attention from their main job of protecting their rich bosses while distracting honest working people by grandstanding hate campaigns against gays, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, women, and professionals in higher education. Then they cry crocodile tears that “nothing can get done because of gridlock” when in reality, somehow something very important gets done: the rich get richer and corporations stole our democracy.

  5. Congratulations Oklahomans. You voted for a Republican legislature! They are in the majority in both the Oklahoma house and senate.

    The Republican values include downsizing state government! They’ve done it in Oklahoma! If you are happy with what they’ve done—including giving themselves a raise—then keep voting Republican— you deserve what and who you vote for!!

  6. If you really want to see change in Oklahoma, Democrats, you must quit acting like the underdog party. Republican ideology is “Take care of your own wealth”. The sentiment of so many from this party is that they ‘worked for their money and place in society’, and they are not going to pay for those lazy welfare recipients who are happy to sit around and wait for the hand out. In most cases all you need to do is look behind the curtain! Most of these successful people grew up in a home where they saw a parent or both parents go to work every day; they grew up knowing education was important for their future. Think of the struggle of those other children who grew up in an environment where no one worked. Many had only one parent, and that parent may not have been present in their life. Most Democrats have a much different ideology. Democrats believe in helping those whose lives were not influenced by parents or people who demonstrated the correlation of teaching behavior by example. So often I have heard someone successful say something so condescending about the poor they “have to pay for”, I want to tell them that poor people don’ t like being poor. But poverty is not going anywhere until you get over your rich selves! Understand that even if you had to work as a kid or in the summer or even after school, the point is you were aware that even a middle class living required your activity in the process. This was a gift you were given by the example of someone who loved you and wanted you to succeed. Not all children are given this gift!

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