Lawmakers get a Mulligan to fix the budget (Capitol Update)

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.

Those who are golfers, which I’m not, are familiar with a Mulligan. But you don’t have to be a golfer to enjoy the benefits of a Mulligan. The term is now widely used to describe any “do-over,” or second chance after initial failure. The Supreme Court has given the Legislature a Mulligan to write an adequate and balanced state budget. The Court did so by assuming original jurisdiction of the measures that produced revenue for this year’s budget, and by ruling as quickly as a decent respect for giving all sides a chance to make their legal arguments would allow. The fiscal year has barely begun, so if the Legislature will act with the same dispatch as the Court, the damage will be limited.

I suspect the rulings on the other measures will come quite quickly, possibly this week, so legislators and the governor will know the size of the budget hole their initial failure has created. The deficit is at $215 million now, mostly affecting health care agencies, and could go higher depending on the Court’s rulings. Without the cigarette fee revenue, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority will lose $70 million, 7 percent of its appropriation; the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will lose $76 million, 23 percent of its budget; and the Department of Human Services will lose $69 million, a 10 percent cut.

If the governor calls a special session, which is likely, legislators will have 3 options: Leave matters as they stand, which is untenable; amend the appropriations measures to spread the cuts to other agencies; or find a way to constitutionally raise the necessary revenue to fund the budget. So, while it may seem that only health care services to which the cigarette revenue was earmarked are in jeopardy, actually all state services are at risk.

The Senate Republican and Democratic Caucuses met separately on Friday. The House Republicans and Democrats will meet separately next week. Since these are closed meetings, I have no idea what the discussion was or will be. The House is where the process must begin — we now know courtesy of the Supreme Court. House leadership, however, will likely insist that the Senate agree to pass whatever the House passes before they will be willing to vote on it. This is an ultra-risk-averse way to legislate and was part of the problem last session. Strangely enough, the House ended up putting its members on record on all kinds of unpopular revenue measures that eventually went nowhere.

One thing that would be helpful now is if those who will ultimately be at the table to negotiate on behalf of their respective chambers and caucuses will agree up front not to use things said and positions taken during the negotiations for political posturing and ammunition to influence the outcome. If negotiations succeed, it won’t matter much what was said. If they fail, there’s plenty time to point the finger of blame. Blaming during negotiations just poisons the water and makes agreement almost impossible. That happened during the regular session.

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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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