With legislators barely having time to unpack their bags after the four-month regular session ending May 27, Gov. Kevin Stitt has called them back to town for a special session on June 13. For lawmakers who don’t live in Oklahoma City, a four-day-a-week absence from home, family, job, and/or business during regular session creates a strain after a while. They do it for all kinds of reasons, but for most it’s mainly because they want to serve the people of their district and state. They run for the job so no one’s shedding too many tears for them. That said, they and their families deserve some consideration.
Special sessions in Oklahoma have been rare and usually called only when urgently needed. And most often only after legislative leaders and the governor have agreed on a plan. Legislators usually don’t respond well to being called into special session without prior consultation. One reason is the governor controls the agenda by limiting the topics for action. Speaker Charles McCall referred to that when he said, “I feel like his call is very narrow. I believe he is intentionally gaming the process with his call. He wants to limit the Legislature to just talking about two issues only when there could be multiple issues that we need to consider on behalf of the people in the state of Oklahoma. And that’s what we will do.”
The two issues in the governor’s call are elimination of the state sales tax on groceries and lowering the state income tax by one-quarter percent. The cost to the state for eliminating the sales tax on groceries would be $305.5 million per year when fully implemented. The cost of the quarter point cut in the state income tax would be $244.5 million in Fiscal Year 2025, which begins July 1, 2024) when fully implemented. Thus, the governor is proposing tax measures that would permanently reduce state revenues by $550 million per year.
The legislative budget bills vetoed by the governor also contained two measures reducing funds in the state treasury. One was the tax rebate of $75 per person or $150 per household costing a one-time $181 million. The other was repealing the sales tax on the sale of motor vehicles that would have permanently reduced revenues by $188 million. So, the $188 million permanent tax cut passed by the Legislature was a much more cautious approach than the $550 million cut proposed by the governor. A permanent half billion dollar plus revenue reduction could cause serious state budget problems if the current overheated oil economy cools back down to normal.
Before 1980, the Legislature had no option when called into special session by the governor except to either call the roll then adjourn or to consider the governor’s agenda items. But in 1980, the people amended the constitution to allow the Legislature to call itself into special session. In fact, legislators are currently in a recessed special session called by the Legislature to appropriate the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding they removed from the governor’s sole control. Their plan is to return occasionally when committee recommendations have been made about the ARPA funds. Speaker McCall has recommended amending the Legislature’s special session call not only to include “inflation or tax relief” to deal with the issues raised by the governor but also other options. The Senate has yet to respond to that suggestion. Maybe legislators should keep their bags packed just in case.