Oklahomans left guessing by actions in special session (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.

I can’t imagine that any Oklahoma citizen not participating in or observing full time the actions in the special session has any real idea of what is going on or why. Even for those who did observe or participate in the proceedings, it’s a guessing game.

For background, the governor issued a special-session call that, if passed, would create a vision of Nirvana in which: 1. the short-term revenue failure for this fiscal year; 2. the long-term structural budget deficit; 3. additional funding for a teacher pay raise; 4. additional funding for a state employee pay raise; and 5. a tax break for the trucking industry would all get done in a brief special session. Unrealistic? Ya think?

To their credit, legislators showed up on September 25th to give it a try. There were no new revenue ideas on the table. Legislators essentially adopted the positions they left town with last May. Republicans want to accomplish what they can with consumption taxes like the cigarette and fuel taxes. Democrats will accept that if the Republicans will add “wealth” taxes such as more graduated income taxes and the gross production tax (GPT) that will generate more revenue. Those are the broad outlines of the debate.

The Republicans, with their nearly three-fourths vote margin in the House, tried to force the Democrats to accept their side of the debate by taking a vote on a bill raising the cigarette and fuel taxes and by telling health care providers, teachers, and state employees, as well as the Democrats, that this was the only game in town, so they better take it to avoid catastrophe. The agencies, rightly so, did their part by announcing draconian cuts would be required right away if something is not done. The Democrats called their bluff, and the Republicans got only 54 of their own 72 Republican votes on the bill, far less than the 76 votes needed. This served only to prove what everyone already knew: That the two parties must reach an agreement for a revenue bill to pass.

The House stalled, still unwilling to consider GPT or income taxes. The Senate, even more heavily controlled by Republicans, demonstrated their willingness to consider a version of a 4 percent GPT by passing an unprecedented bipartisan Senate resolution asking the House to send them a bill with the GPT in it. The House drafted such a bill and presented it to the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB) where it failed on a 11-11 tie vote! The committee chairman, also author of the bill, and another Republican committee member sat in the room and declined to vote, thus killing the bill.

One can only conclude that House Republican leadership, specifically Speaker McCall, is refusing to pass a bill with a GPT increase, period — even the watered down 4 percent at 36-months version called for by the Senate. There are 31 members on the JCAB, 24 Republicans and 7 Democrats. Additionally, the Speaker and the Speaker Pro Tempore are ex officio voting members of the committee. So, the Republicans had available to them 26 votes to get a bill out of committee by a simple majority while the Democrats had only 7 votes to kill it if they wanted to. Of the potential 26 Republican votes, only 10 voted for the measure along with 1 Democrat. The other 16 Republicans voted no or failed to vote at all. This could NEVER, EVER happen on a bill of this magnitude without being orchestrated by the leadership.

Why 6 of the 7 Democrats present failed to vote for the bill is less clear to me. It’s possible they didn’t like the watered-down version of the GPT anyway and seeing what the Republicans were up to decided not to sully themselves by voting for a compromise bill that was never intended to pass. This assumes that, had the Democrats felt the Republicans were genuinely willing to pass the bill, they would have voted for it. I don’t know if that is true. I thought they missed an opportunity to take a victory lap and be on the side of progress, even if it were only a partial victory, by getting the bill out of committee while they appeared to have a chance. After all, they are such a small minority, all their victories are likely to be small. On the other hand, the Democrats may feel this crisis is their only chance to get a reasonable GPT increase passed, which would mean hundreds of millions in revenue in the future, and they are willing to risk getting nothing and possibly being blamed for it.

For now it appears the Republicans are going to patch together a Plan B budget, using mostly funds that should be left available for use next year to minimize the cuts, then worry about next year, next year. I hope not. If the public is not aroused by all this, someone should check our pulse.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Oklahomans left guessing by actions in special session (Capitol Update)

  1. I agree that it is a bit baffling as to why 6 of the 7 Democrats voted no in committee. I felt that it was a serious misstep, and disappointing. One can hardly blame them for this mess, however, considering they represent a tiny minority in Congress and the Republican are responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place. They pushed the tax cuts and tax breaks which created this budget deficit, and their party is responsible for State Question 640 back in ’92 that is now making it so difficult to right the ship. Still, I cannot see why the Democratic caucus would help kill the bill in committee. That is disappointing. It probably would not have passed the house, but I have been so frustrated with Speaker McCall’s refusal to bring it to the floor, I wanted to see a vote on it. The blame here falls squarely on his shoulders and those of the extremist wing of his caucus like Jon Bennett–a man so divorced from reality he seems to have no concept of how government works despite being responsible for it. A man who apparently sees the world divided between into two groups: patriots and terrorists.

  2. My understanding was the Dems had two reasons
    1. This was not the agreement they had sent to Speaker McCall, which included moving the GPT to 5% at 36 months. They also seemed to believe the progress was occurring and they could get 5% if they held out. I was sure they were wrong and told them so. I believe there are enough Republicans who do not want the state government to remain at its present size to stop any real increases in the Horizontal well GPT rate.

  3. I feel everyone who voted the cigarette tax through and Governor Failin for signing it, knowing it was illegal to do so, should be held accountable, pay back their salaries, impeached, and criminally charged. Oklahomans have to pay for the lawsuit and the special session, in additio to loss of sleep worrying their Advantage services may be taken from them and they’ll have to go to the nursing home. It’s shameful McCall has no heart for the elderly and disabled. Very sad.

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