Budget hole brings back memories of 1985 (Capitol Updates)

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. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Oklahoma Governor George Night / Photo by Charles Stacey / CC BY 2.0
Oklahoma Governor George Nigh / Photo by Charles Stacey / CC BY 2.0

With this year’s legislative session moving toward negotiations between the House, Senate and Governor to figure out how to deal with a $611 million budget deficit, my assistant Paulette Shafer brought me a copy of the front page of the July 20, 1985 Tulsa Tribune.  The 1985 legislature had adjourned the day before after a 7-month session.  The banner headline for the “day after” story was “Near-record session chaotic, productive.”

That session a generation ago bore some similarity to this year’s session in that legislators began the year with a budget deficit.  The economy had been in free fall since 1983.  Oklahoma financial institutions were failing faster than at any time since the Great Depression, and few people were predicting an economic upturn.  Legislative leaders had expressed concern that the price of oil would drop from $27 per barrel to $20 per barrel.  (No one knew that before the “oil bust” was over it would go much lower).

To get through the current year, the legislature had passed a $300 million tax increase in the 1984 session.  It included a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase that legislators naively set to expire in one year.

At the beginning of the session in January, 1985 no one had predicted another tax increase.  But the Tribune article reported that during the session the legislature had managed to:  Pass a $415 million tax increase package, the largest in state history at the time, enact a controversial liquor-by-the-drink law, Oklahoma’s first since statehood, approve a $2000 pay raise for teachers, pass an 8% pay raise for state workers who earned $30,000 per year or less and 6% for the amount above $30,000, and pass a reform package of 10 bills in education, economic development and state government operations. 

Governor Nigh called it “the toughest legislative session I have ever seen.”  He had served as a legislator, lieutenant governor or governor for over 30 years.  In addition the legislature had submitted a constitutional amendment changing the way state revenue available for appropriation is certified, and the people had passed it easily after a 2-week barnstorming campaign.  The vote had freed up about $120 million for appropriation that year and created the Rainy Day Fund for the future, although there was no money to deposit in it at the time.  Those were interesting but rewarding times.  I’m looking forward to the “day after” stories of the 2015 legislature in hopes the session will be as productive in its own way.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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