Looking at budget items after legislative dust has settled (Capitol Update)

The 15-day deadline for bill signing expired last week and Gov. Kevin Stitt largely honored the deal he made with legislative leaders to not veto the state budget if they did four things: (1) appropriate $20 million to his Quick Action Closing Fund, (2) retain the approximately $9.5 million for McGirt-related litigation, (3) limit a judicial pay raise to district judges only of from 6 to 10 percent, and (4) create a task force to examine the creation of special courts that would deal with business matters.

Legislators agreed to the deal so they could move past the governor’s previous demands for an income tax cut and to guarantee the budget would not be vetoed. In the recent past, legislators finished their work leaving time to override gubernatorial vetoes before the end of session. They were unable to this year because of disagreements between House and Senate leaders, partly over the governor’s tax cut.

Legislators kept their end of the bargain. They set the judicial pay raise at 7 percent for trial judges only, leaving the appellate judges without a raise. The Judicial Compensation Commission had recommended a 17 percent raise for all judges. They passed Senate Bill 473 authorizing one business court judge each for Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, and it established the task force to determine their jurisdiction and procedures. They also appropriated the $20 million to the governor’s Quick Action Fund and left the McGirt litigation fund intact.

The governor signed SB 1125, the general appropriations bill. However, he line-item vetoed two budget-related bills and vetoed one budget-related bill in its entirety. The three bills are budget limitations bills that direct how agencies are to spend the funding appropriated to them in SB 1125.

SB 1167, vetoed in its entirety, directed the Department of Corrections (DOC) to expend $3 million to increase per diem rates at private correctional facilities. The veto leaves the funding in DOC to be spent in other ways. The two bills line-item vetoed are SB 1122 and SB 1399.

SB 1122 establishes budget limits for the State Department of Education. A section of the bill that the governor vetoed prohibits funds from being expended for the purpose of securing media interviews, public relations, or other public promotional purposes unless expressly required to participate in a federal grant program. Another vetoed section required the State Superintendent to pursue certain federal grant opportunities. The governor vetoed those two sections only.

SB 1399 creates a new “Oklahoma Capital Assets Maintenance and Protection Fund” for construction and deferred maintenance of state properties and state colleges and universities. It also creates the “Oklahoma Capital Assets Management and Protection Board” to develop plans and to authorize utilization of the funds. The governor vetoed the language creating the board because it gives the legislature a majority of the board appointees which he says makes the bill unconstitutional as a violation of separation of powers. SB 1125 appropriated $350 million to the new fund which will be without a policy board until next year.

Interestingly, the governor only has constitutional authority to line-item veto appropriations bills. He must either veto other bills or allow them to become law in their entirety. He cannot pick and choose language to veto in a non-appropriation bill. Otherwise, the governor could completely change the meaning of legislation by vetoing certain words or sentences.

I don’t believe a court has ruled on whether a budget limitation bill that simply directs funding already appropriated is an appropriation bill, but my guess is that it is not. The line-item vetoes in SB 1122 and SB 1399 will probably not be tested, but a line-item veto of some future budget limitation bill could be.


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.