Budget special session points to lack of trust between legislature, governor (Capitol Update)

Because of the protracted fight over education funding and tax credits for people sending their children to private schools, the legislature was pushed to the brink in getting its appropriations measures passed before the constitutionally-required end of legislative session this Friday. Appropriations negotiations and bills for all other state agency budgets — along with many substantive policy bills — were held up while the education issues and funding were discussed behind closed doors. When the agreement finally came, there was little remaining time or money to address other major issues. 

It’s likely the appropriations process could have been completed before Friday, but there would not have been time for the five-day waiting period during which the governor must act on the bills. Before sine die adjournment, if the governor fails to sign or veto a bill during those five days, the bill goes into effect without his signature. However, without time for the five-day waiting period between passage of a bill and sine die adjournment this Friday, the governor would have 15 days after passage to sign, veto, or pocket veto appropriations bills. 

Since the governor has line-item veto power in Oklahoma, the governor could pick and choose the appropriations he wants to veto, and the legislature would no longer be in session to override the vetoes. It is an indication of the continued lack of trust between the legislature and this governor that two-thirds of the members of both chambers were willing to sign themselves into special session to protect their opportunity to override gubernatorial vetoes. In addition to state-funding appropriations measures, the legislature included appropriations related bills and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) appropriations measures in the override protection afforded by the special session. 

There have been other recent special sessions, for a specific purpose, concurrent with and extending beyond the regular session. But to my knowledge this is the first time the Oklahoma legislature has extended its legislative session past the “last Friday in May” deadline by going into special session to finish the annual budget since the deadline was set by constitutional amendment in 1989. Prior to passage of State Question 620 in 1989, the legislature began meeting in January of each year and met for 90 “legislative days” rather than calendar days. A legislative day was any day the legislature was in session. 

When a prolonged standoff, such as this year’s education debate, hung up the session legislators would extend the session by skipping legislative days, usually every other day. Members would be at the Capitol working on legislation, but they would simply not go into session, thus preserving legislative days, sometimes into June or July. After several years of lengthy sessions and delayed budgets during the 1980s, the constitution was changed to fix the legislative session on the calendar from February to May of each year. It is a testament to how difficult this session was that, to preserve veto overrides of the annual budget, session has now been extended past the May deadline for the first time — to my recollection — by the calling of a special session.    


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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