Bills filed in special session put many options in play

Yesterday was the first day of the special legislative session called by Governor Fallin to fix Oklahoma’s chronic budget problems. One day in, the outcome of special session is still very much up in the air. With so much at stake, it’s an essential time for Oklahomans to call, write, and visit lawmakers. Read on for analysis of the bills filed so far and what you can do to influence the result.

Although Governor Fallin promised to veto any budget that makes further cuts to state agencies, House Speaker Charles McCall continues to insist that the only revenue on the table will be another try at a cigarette tax. At this point in the year, the cigarette tax by itself will only close about half of Oklahoma’s current budget shortfall. And if the Legislature still does not have a three-fourths majority needed to pass the tax, sending it to a vote of the people means the soonest it could go into effect would be 2019, far too late to avoid life-threatening cuts to health care.

The good news is that Speaker McCall’s resistance to other revenue options is not shared by other legislators, including many Republicans. Dozens of bills have been filed to be considered during the special session, including both good ideas and bad ones. Among the revenue bills filed are bills to raise the cigarette tax, gas tax, income tax, and gross production tax. Several bills by House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) would undo gross production tax breaks and restore a 7 percent rate on all wells, either immediately or through a vote of the people. Bills by Rep. Todd Thomsen (R-Ada) propose increases in the gross production tax (HB 1095)  and the top income tax rate (HB 1096). Other bills would further restrict tax credits and exemptions for the wind industry, film production, and affordable housing development. If enough pressure is put on legislators, we have a real chance of coming out of special session with a grand bargain that prevents deeper cuts, funds a teacher pay raise, and puts the whole budget on firmer footing in future years.

Unfortunately, some bills have been introduced in special session that would take Oklahoma in the wrong direction. SB 12 by Senate Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate) would slash the sales tax relief credit by making it non-refundable, similar to what was done last year to Oklahoma’s Earned Income Tax Credit. This would worsen the hardship on low- and moderate-income families of Oklahoma being one of the only states to charge a full sales tax on groceries.

Bills have also been introduced with the aim of moving funds around or increasing efficiency to save money, though many of these have not been well thought-out. Several lawmakers have filed the deceptively-named “HOPE Act.” This cookie-cutter bill from a Florida group, which had previously been considered but not passed in regular session, would increase delays and administrative costs for Medicaid with little chance of realizing any savings in Oklahoma. Bills have also been introduced to require more school consolidation and to redirect state aid money away from schools that hire more non-teacher educators, such as classroom aides, counselors, and reading specialists.

It’s too soon to say what bills will get traction during the special session, and many shell bills have been filed that have not yet been filled in with substantive language. Lawmakers still can amend bills to include other revenue ideas, even those that haven’t been introduced so far. With so many outcomes yet to be decided, it’s a very important time for Oklahomans to insist that lawmakers fix the budget and make no more cuts.

Here’s what you can do:

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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