Will legislators again pass a last-minute budget without time for scrutiny?

“5 minutes to midnight” by Markus Grossalber is licensed under CC BY 2.0

With fewer than two weeks left in Oklahoma’s legislative session, we still have little idea of what the state budget will look like. The budget is the single most important responsibility of lawmakers, but we’re again expecting a last-minute deal that will be rushed through in the final days and hours of session.

Last year, a budget deal was announced May 19th. That same day, the General Appropriations bill , which ran 100 pages, included some 200 sections, and made appropriations of $6.8 billion to over 70 state agencies, was introduced and passed out of committee. It was approved by the House the next day and given final passage by the Senate on May 22nd. Most bills are required to be made public for at least 48 hours before they are voted on, but the Legislature ignored that requirement for the budget — even holding a vote open for almost an hour as legislators were pressured to vote to suspend the rule.

The result was a budget that went into law with very little scrutiny from most lawmakers, the media, or the public. That’s how they passed a budget that provided a big funding increase for legislative staff while slashing nearly every other area of government services. That’s how they passed a budget that on the surface held common education harmless but in reality eliminated $33 million in funding for textbooks.

Early in legislative session, we called on lawmakers to bring more transparency to the budget process — at the very least, they should follow the rule to make the budget public at least 48 hours before it is voted on. But yet again, we’ve reached the final days of session with no solid information about the budget.

Lawmakers need to pass revenue bills this week, because State Question 640 requires those to pass at least five days before the end of session. As of today, lawmakers have passed barely 5 percent of the new revenues needed just to keep the budget flat, and the process of finding more appears to be in stalemate. In particular, legislative leadership is refusing to hold a vote on increasing gross production taxes, which could bring in up to $313 million next year and is key to unlocking Democratic votes on other revenues.

Most of the revenue-raising or cost-saving bills that are being considered are being rushed through the process without adequate time for review. Several dozen bills have been introduced in recent weeks in the Joint Committees on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB). In some cases, bills have been brought up for votes before they have been posted online and without anyone other than legislative leadership and the bill’s authors having seen the legislation. Proposals that have big implications for people’s lives, like consolidating the Office of Disability Concerns (SB 871) or capping itemized deductions (HB 2347), have been passed out of JCAB with minimal debate or scrutiny. SB 871 passed JCAB even though the director of the Office of Disability Concerns apparently wasn’t aware the bill was coming and said it would “neuter” Oklahoma’s ability to serve people with disabilities. After legislators realized that the itemized deduction bill they had approved in committee would eliminate the deduction for charitable contributions, the measure was pulled and a substitute bill (HB 2403) was introduced.

With lawmakers facing huge pressure from both industry lobbyists and regular citizens concerned about the budget, it’s fairly obvious why they haven’t been more transparent about these decisions. Many legislators don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of a contentious issue, so it’s safer to wait for a budget that can be presented as a fait accompli. This is especially the case if the budget includes cuts that their constituents will be unhappy with.

That’s an understandable motivation, but it’s not a good excuse. They were elected to serve the constituents of Oklahoma, and that means allowing their work to be scrutinized by the people it’s affecting most. Now that more Oklahomans are getting involved with the legislative process than we’ve seen in recent history, lawmakers owe it to the people who elected them to open more doors and windows on these critical decisions.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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