Although the Oklahoma Legislature has convened numerous special sessions in recent decades, none has dealt with issues as sweeping and consequential as the current one. This set of Frequently Asked Questions is intended to help Oklahomans understand the rules guiding the process and the issues being addressed. It will be updated regularly as the session continues.
Why is the Legislature in special session?
In August, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a bill (SB 845) passed by the Legislature in May that assessed a $1.50-per-package cigarette fee. The Court ruled that the bill violated the constitutional requirements for “revenue bills,” including that they must be approved by a 3/4ths vote of the Legislature. The ruling left a $214 million hole in the budget of three state agencies that had been set to receive the smoking cessation fee money: the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services ($75 million), Oklahoma Health Care Authority ($70 million), and Department of Human Services ($69 million). See “What has been the impact of failing to reach a budget agreement” below for a discussion of how agencies are being affected by the loss of smoking cessation fee revenue.
Governor Fallin responded to the Supreme Court ruling by calling a Special Session for September 25th.
What issues can be addressed in special session?
When the Governor calls a special session, it is restricted to those matters the Governor specifies in calling the special session; however, the Governor may amend the call during special session. In her Executive Order calling the special session, the Governor recommended that lawmakers:
- Address the immediate budget shortfall created by the loss of the $215 million cigarette fee revenue.
- Have the option to address a long-term solution to continuing budget shortfalls.
- Address the need for more consolidation and other efficiencies in all areas of state government.
- Clarify intended exemptions to the new 1.25 percent sales tax on vehicles.
- Address a needed pay increase for K-12 public school teachers.
Other proposals – including a statewide abortion ban – are not within the purview of the special session.
How long will special session last?
There is no constitutional limit on the length of special sessions. However, a special session called during one Legislature cannot extend past the swearing in of the next Legislature (January 2019 in the current case). Special Sessions can run concurrently with regular sessions. The Legislature may adjourn without acting on the issues that it has been asked to address
If lawmakers do reach agreement on measures to pass in special session, it will take a minimum of five days for bills to be introduced, considered, and passed. Also, the Constitution (Article V, Section 33) prohibits revenue bills from being passed in the last five days of session, so the special session may need to be held open for an additional week after any revenue bills are approved.
What has happened so far in special session?
Current Status: Both the House and Senate are currently in recess. The House is expected to be called back into session October 24th, according to Majority Leader Jon Echols.
Week 4: With the Capitol shut down for electrical upgrades (see below), there will be no legislative meetings the week of October 16th but negotiations may continue.
Week 3: There were no legislative meetings the week of October 9th. At the end of the week, Gov. Fallin issued a press release stating that she is “disappointed in the lack of progress” in reaching an agreement.
Week 2: There were no legislative meetings the week of October 2nd. On Wednesday, the House Majority Leader informed House members that the House would return to session at the start of the following week, but that decision was later rescinded when it became clear that no agreement had been reached.
Week 1: The Governor called for the Legislature to convene in special session that began Monday, September 25th. House and Senate members introduced a total of 196 bills and resolutions prior to start of session. Most bills were filed as “shell bills” authored by the chairs of the Appropriations committees in the House and Senate or by the House Speaker. Shell bills cover some broad topic but do not yet contain specific language, which must be added later in the process. Most budget and tax bills were assigned to the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB) or to the Rules Committee.
Both chambers met briefly on Monday, September 25th and Tuesday, September 26th to allow all bills to be introduced. Several JCAB meetings were scheduled throughout the week; however, the only bill heard in JCAB was HB 1099, a bill to provide for a $1.50-per package cigarette tax, which passed both the House and Senate committees on Sept. 26th.
On Wednesday, Sept. 27th, House Speaker Charles McCall announced that the House would recess and would not meet again that week, and the Senate followed suit. The House Rules Committee met on Thursday, Sept. 28th and approved two bills: HB 1093 a measure to add new verification requirements for the Medicaid program, and HB 1074, a measure to exempt semi-trucks and other vehicles from the newly-enacted motor vehicles sales tax.
For Regular Updates:
- See Oklahoma Watch’s Special Session Watch website for a compilation of articles
- House Majority Leader Jon Echols is posting daily Special Session updates to his Facebook page
What happens while the Capitol is shut down?
The state Capitol will be closed beginning Friday evening, October 13 through Sunday, October 22, while crews replace the building’s electrical system as part of multi-year restoration project currently underway at the Capitol. The Legislature will not meet while the Capitol is shut down.
We will provide information on ways to contact legislators and the Governor’s office during the Capitol shutdown as that information becomes available.
- Senate: The Senate’s official webpage and official email will be unavailable during the time the building is closed. Senators, their executive assistants, and other staff members will be able to make and receive calls and check messages. Those wishing to contact a Senate office or staff division but are unsure of the extension can call 405-521-5558. Callers can leave a message explaining who they need to speak to and their information will be forwarded to the appropriate office.
- House of Representatives: You can reach the House switchboard at (405) 521-2711
- Governor: You can contact Gov. Mary Fallin at (405) 521-2342
What are the possible outcomes of special session?
We’ve identified five possible outcomes of special session:
- The Grand Bargain: Under this scenario, both parties agree to multiple revenue sources that fully fills the $214 million budget hole, avoids further budget cuts, and provides a teacher pay raise. One proposal that has been publicly disclosed includes an increase in the tobacco tax and motor fuels tax, a higher initial tax rate on gross production tax, a new top income tax rate on high income earners, the expansion of the sales tax to selected services, and the end of the sales tax exemption for wind turbines. This proposal is projected to raise $265 million for the current budget year, assuming that the plan is approved by the end of October, and $521 million for FY 2019. House Republicans have been most resistant to this proposal.
- Tobacco-Only: This approach would be based on 3/4ths approval of a $1.50-per package cigarette tax, plus enough other one-time and ongoing revenue to fill the hole created when the smoking cessation fee was struck down. House Democrats, whose votes are needed to clear the supermajority hurdle, have resisted supporting a tobacco tax in the absence of other more progressive revenue sources.
- The Simple Majority: In the absence of bipartisan support, Republican leaders could again try to approve new revenues that only require a simple majority and thus do not need support from Democrats. The House Republican caucus plan is said to include removing the sales tax exemption on cigarettes and motor fuels. This approach would also likely include budget cuts spread out across state agencies. Governor Fallin has promised to veto any budget that includes cuts to state agencies.
- Spreading the Pain: If there is no agreement on any new revenue, lawmakers could be asked to pass a new budget that spreads the additional $214 million shortfall more evenly across state agencies. If applied proportionately, the full shortfall would mean 3.1 percent cuts for all agencies. This approach would also increase the likelihood of a veto.
- The Doomsday Option: If no action is taken in special session, the full $214 million cut would be absorbed by the three health care agencies, which would also lead to the loss of hundreds of millions in matching federal funds. As more time passes without an agreement, these agencies are beginning to implement cuts (see next section).
What has been the impact of failing to reach a budget agreement?
Governor Fallin tweeted on October 10th that the three agencies affected by the loss of smoking cessation fee funds – Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Oklahoma Health Care Authority, and Department of Human Services – had been notified that their monthly allocations have been cut. Information on the exact amount of the cut to each agency is not available, but it would likely amount to 1/9th of the total amount the agency was intended to receive from the smoking cessation fee. As the Legislature had allocated all anticipated revenue from the smoking cessation fee to these three agencies, they are the only ones directly affected at this point.
- Oklahoma Health Care Authority stands to lose $70 million in state funds – 7 percent of its total state appropriation – by the end of the year. OHCA has already begun the process of enacting 9 percent cuts in provider reimbursement rates, which would go into effect December 1st unless the agency’s revenue picture changes.
- Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service faces the loss of $75 million in state funds, equivalent to nearly one-fourth of its total appropriation. DMHSAS has announced the termination of all outpatient mental health services, except medication, beginning December 1st if funding is not restored. The process of provider notification for those affected by cuts will begin November 1st
- Department of Human Services faces the loss of $69 million, or 10 percent of its state appropriation. DHS has said it can operate in reduced funds without making further cuts until April 1st.
What is the cost of Special Session?
Legislators are entitled to per diems for all days they are in session, but only on days when each Chamber actually convenes. The daily cost has been estimated to be about $30,000. Legislative leaders have said they will absorb the cost of special session from their existing budgets. So far during the special session, each chamber has met for three days.
Where can I find bills filed in Special Session?
You can look up bills from the Legislature’s website under the Legislation tab. Be sure to choose 2017 Special Session, which is currently the default option.
What can I do to have an impact on lawmakers in Special Session?
We encourage Oklahomans to contact your own two legislators, the House Speaker, the Senate President Pro Tem and the Governor to insist that they use Special Session to find the new recurring revenues needed to avert deeper cuts, invest in key priorities, and put the budget on a sustainable path. You can find all the resources you need from the advocacy alert on OK Policy’s website and from Together Oklahoma. The Save our State Coalition has created a Blueprint for a Better Budget that lays out a comprehensive budget plan.