Oklahoma budget, teacher raises top special session agenda
September 24, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Legislature will return to the state Capitol Monday for a special legislative session to try to fill a $215 million shortfall in the state budget and look for long-term solutions to chronic budget shortfalls that have forced deep cuts to state agencies and services for three consecutive years.
Gov. Mary Fallin scheduled the special session to focus on the state's nagging budget problems just four months after lawmakers adjourned their regular legislative session shortly after adopting a new $1.50-per-pack "fee" on cigarettes in an effort to fill the state's latest budget gap. The Oklahoma Supreme Court later ruled that the fee was unconstitutionally enacted and invalidated it.
Members of the House and Senate are expected to remain at the Capitol for up to two weeks to tackle the immediate budget shortfall and address other budgetary issues, including tapping new sources of recurring revenue amid a prolonged decline in oil and natural gas prices and finding ways to make state government more efficient.
Fallin's special session call also gives lawmakers authority to clarify that the state's new 1.25 percent sales tax on vehicles, which was adopted during the regular legislative session and upheld by the Supreme Court, does not extend to the trucking industry and asks them to consider a pay raise for Oklahoma's 40,851 public school teachers, who haven't had a raise in a decade. Oklahoma's average teacher salary of $44,921 is last in a seven-state region and state funding for public schools has declined by more than $48 million while student enrollment increased to 693,710 this school year.
Fallin did not mandate an adjournment date for the special session, which is estimated to cost the state a little more than $30,000 each day. She also warned lawmakers she was prepared to veto any proposal that calls for further cuts to state agency budgets and said sending a cigarette tax proposal to a vote of the people was "not an option."
"The earliest the issue could be decided by voters is June, the last month of the current fiscal year," Fallin said in a statement. "It doesn't fix the budget hole because it would not generate any revenue for this fiscal year."
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz and his counterpart in the House, Republican Speaker Charles McCall, have repeatedly said that passage of the cigarette tax proposal that was struck down by the state's highest court presents the clearest path to addressing the immediate budget needs of three state health care agencies that are directly affected by tax's nullification — the Department of Human Services, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state's Medicaid provider.
"Additionally, the cigarette tax has the added benefit of reducing smoking rates and stopping kids from starting smoking — two things that will save our state in the long run," Schulz said.
The Supreme Court ruled that the cigarette fee, which was adopted during the final week of the regular session and with a bare majority of votes in the House, was a revenue bill and whose passage violated constitutional guidelines against approving revenue-raising bills in the final five days of a legislative session and without a 75 percent majority vote.
McCall said House Republicans, who hold a 72-28 advantage over Democrats in 101-member chamber, with one seat vacant, will take up the cigarette tax proposal but took a cautious tone on additional revenue raising proposals.
"While the House is certainly willing to look at government consolidation as a way to reduce costs and increase efficiency, we have no intention of raising taxes on Oklahoma families and businesses just for the sake of growing government," McCall said in a statement.
House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, a candidate for governor next year, said many House Democrats are likely to support raising the state's tax on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack to more than $2.50 per pack as part of a package of revenue raising measures that includes increasing the gross production tax on oil and gas production, currently set at 2 percent for the first three years of production, to 5 percent.
"We've listened to our constituents and they've spoken loud and clear — they believe that increasing the gross production tax is a major step in solving our state's budget problems," Inman said. "They know it's not the only solution, but they know it's a first step."
Republican legislative leaders have expressed opposition to previous Democratic proposals to raise the gross production tax to 7 percent.