Legal threats linger as lawmakers approve budget (Stillwater News Press)

By Janelle Stecklein

OKLAHOMA CITY – Lawmakers admit they may be back for a costly special session this summer – even if Gov. Mary Fallin ultimately signs their proposed budget.

Even as they adjourned Friday, lawmakers were already facing threats of litigation over the constitutionality of series of votes they took in the final days of session.

The votes were used to generate hundreds of millions in new revenue for the state’s budget by increasing “fees” or levies on a plethora of items, including cigarettes, car sales and the oil and gas industry’s gross production rates.

Most years, such votes would simply illicit grumbling about increased taxes and go unchallenged. This year, however, observers are asking whether Republican lawmakers violated parts of state law in their haste to push through measures to help bridge an $878 million shortfall.

Laws prohibit legislators from passing revenue-raising measures in the final five days of session, and require those measures to receive the approval of three-quarters of lawmakers, not a simple majority.

It’s inevitable that someone will challenge one or more of those measures, said David Blatt, executive director of the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute think tank.

“There’s a real disagreement over what constitutes a revenue bill,” he said. “This would be a good time to be a constitutional lawyer because your phone will be ringing off the hook.”

Courts have ruled that raising revenue must be the primary purpose of a measure to qualify, but there’s “a big gray zone,” he said.

For instance, Blatt said lawmakers likely pitched the $1.50 per pack hike as a cigarette “fee” rather than a tax to try to comply with the law, he said.

“If they can say we’re doing other things to combat smoking – and the tax is just one part of the strategy – that might help them make the case with the court, but it’s going to be a tough case,” he said.

Observers say if Republican leaders misjudged what constitutes a revenue-raising measure, the state could see hundreds of millions of dollars erased from the upcoming budget. That could threaten the solvency of schools, health care, road projects and public safety programs.

If the revenue votes are deemed unconstitutional, Gov. Mary Fallin said she’ll likely call lawmakers back into special session as early as July.

“I think they’ve done the best they could trying to figure out a way to get a budget done without the Democrat Party helping at all,” she said.

Each day of special session is expected to cost about $30,000.

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said he’s confident many of the votes “are constitutionally infirm.”

“We feel that many – if not all of them – will have legitimate claims that they violated the Constitution, and if that’s the case … then it will blow an enormous budget hole in an already difficult budget time and force us back into a special session to waste more of the state’s taxpayer dollars,” Inman said.

Officials admit a special session would cap off an already atypical legislative year that saw lawmakers taking critical budget and funding votes in the dead of night. Some lawmakers, meanwhile, complained bitterly that they only had minutes to review some of the biggest budget measures.

State Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, who chairs the House’s appropriations and budget committee, admitted the end of session was “unusual,” but said House Democrats threw the budgeting process into chaos by refusing to negotiate on revenue-raising measures that would require a 76-vote supermajority.

“We had to push things through quickly and fast,” she said. “We hated that we didn’t have a lot of time to have bills dropped before we had to vote on them.”

Still, she said she’ll leave it to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide if lawmakers interpreted the state’s revenue-raising laws correctly.

Not a year goes by where someone doesn’t challenge the constitutionality of legislative measures, she said, pointing to a series of challenges on anti-abortion measures and tort reform. A high court ruling on the latter sent lawmakers into a special session a few years ago.

“We will totally expect to have lawsuits filed, but none of us can say how the nine people across the road from us will interpret the law, so at this point we feel comfortable in what we’re sending and signing into law and we’ll leave it up to the courts,” she said.


Margaret (Maggie) den Harder obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Theology from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from the Pacific Northwest area of Washington state, Maggie has called Tulsa home for the past 8 years. Since living in Tulsa, Maggie has worked in the legal field, higher education administration, and the nonprofit sector as well as actively volunteering in the community. Maggie also recently spent time at the City of Tulsa as a consultant and wrote the content for Resilient Tulsa, an action-oriented strategy designed to better equity in Tulsa. Through her work, community involvement, and personal experiences, Maggie is interested in the intersection of the law and mental health and addiction treatment issues, preventative and diversion programs, and maternal mental health, particularly post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis. While working at Oklahoma Policy Institute as a research intern, Maggie further developed an interest in family dynamics and stability, economic security-related stress, and intergenerational trauma.

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