What will it take to force action on passing recurring revenue? (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.

Chinese water torture is a process in which water is slowly dripped onto a person’s forehead allegedly making the restrained victim insane. It’s been found to be quite effective, capable of causing emotional cracks within a short time even in a controlled environment. Legislators must be wondering if this is Governor Fallin’s latest tactic to force action on passing recurring revenue measures.

To review, on August 10th the state Supreme Court ruled the cigarette fee passed last session to be unconstitutional, thus creating an unbalanced budget. After nearly a month, on September 6th the governor announced she would call a special session to deal with the Supreme Court ruling. But the governor didn’t say when the session would start. Later, on September 15th she issued the call to begin on September 25th and added a range of issues, including a teacher and state employee pay raise. After weeks of on again, off again session the legislature, having passed only a small amount of recurring revenue, passed a measure to appropriate cash on hand and cuts to various agencies, then adjourned on November 17th.

A few days after the first special session ended, the governor vetoed a large part of the revised legislative budget, creating a second unbalanced budget, and said she would call the legislature back into a second special session. But she didn’t say when. Weeks passed by, and last week the governor announced that the special session would begin December 18th, one week before Christmas. But the governor did not file an executive order, or an official call, for the special session. She said she will do that later.

Governor Fallin says budget plan estimates are being developed on various revenue proposals, but she’s waiting on the revenue estimate for the upcoming 2019 fiscal year that will be available after the Dec. 20 meeting of the Board of Equalization. She warned again that there will be a need for additional revenue to address the combination of one-time funds currently in the budget, the current fiscal year shortfall, spending obligations for 2019, and money to give our teachers and state employees a pay raise. She says these items taken together will produce a need for close to $800 million.

So, this means that since last August, legislators have been in or under threat of a special session. Prospects are that the second special session will consume January and either end with or become concurrent with the regular session beginning in February. In the meantime, little has changed to repair the budget woes since legislators left the capitol last May.

And nothing has changed regarding what it takes to pass a tax bill. Regardless of what the governor or Senate proposes, the House must first pass a revenue measure. There’s no evidence that the House and Senate leadership are talking to each other or to the governor. Instead, the governor and the Speaker are exchanging press releases blaming each other for the current dilemma. Many legislators, regardless of party, are succumbing to the steady dripping of time with no progress and are expressing discouragement and disappointment. Something dramatic needs to happen to change the trajectory of events.

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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.

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