Suspended special session frustrates lawmakers

A special session of the Oklahoma Legislature that began earlier this week with the goal of closing a $215 million state budget gap is on hold, something local representatives are not pleased about.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, halted the House’s special session on Wednesday, saying there was no point in meeting until a compromise has been reached.

All revenue-revenue raising measures are required to start in the state House, and then must be approved by a 75 percent vote.

One of the key measures being eyed to help fill the financial gap is a cigarette tax that would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes by $1.50.

However, Democrats have said they will not support the tax unless Republicans agree to raise the gross production tax, which is tax levied on oil and gas production.

Republicans have refused to budge on the gross production tax.

McCall has said 22 Democrats are needed to pass the cigarette tax. Overall, it would require 76 votes to pass in the House.

McCall said Wednesday, while announcing the decision to suspend the session, that the Republicans have their members lined up to pass the measure, but there is no confirmation that Democrats will follow suit.

“We have our members lined up to support this measure on the floor vote. However, we do not have a commitment or confirmation from the minority Democratic Party of the House that they will deliver 75 percent of their caucus to pass this measure,” he told reporters.

Minority Leader Scott Inman said there is not plan in place, despite what Republicans have said.

“They told us for weeks that they had a plan. And we asked for it. It was never presented to us,” he said.

Officials said they were suspending the session.

That decision will save the state about $30,000 per day.

McCall said lawmakers will continue to meet in committees in an effort to reach a compromise, but will not receive travel expenses or other per diem expenses.

“This is extremely frustrating,” Rep. J.P. Jordan said Thursday. “There are things that are being looked at as a quick fix. There is not a quick fix to the budget problems the state has.”

Jordan said he spent most of the day Thursday in committee meetings looking for options to reduce the state’s budget deficit.

“The main question now is ‘what can we get enough votes to pass,’” he said.

Areas such as increasing gross production tax are not expected have enough support to draw the required 76 votes, Jordan said. So, they are focusing on areas like rebates as well as targeted cuts to specific agencies.

Meanwhile, officials in the Oklahoma Senate continue to wait.

Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, said she is frustrated.

“I understand the public’s frustration. Oklahomans want to see something done. They are very discouraged with the Legislature in general. I am just as frustrated with the process as the citizens of Yukon are,” she said.

Bice said the Senate can’t move forward without the House.

“I believe that because of the lack of support for revenue-raising measures in the House, we may be looking at 51-vote measures,” she said.

Those would include tax credits and rebates, something the state has already cut significantly. These are items that only require a majority vote, not the super majority of 75 percent approval.

“We’re discussing all options. First, we have to figure out what the House can pass,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bice said there have been suggestions that one way to reduce the state’s current budget issue is an across-the-board cut of 3.71 percent. For some agencies that is huge cut.

“There is still a mind-set that there is waste in government. Since I was elected in 2014, we have had significant cuts in agency spending.”

According to information provided by Bice, nine agencies have had their state allocations sliced by at least 40 percent since 2009. That number includes the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, the auditor and inspector’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office.

Seventeen agencies, including the governor, treasurer, Senate and House of Representatives, have had cuts of up to 39 percent to their budgets.

Only eight agencies have not seen any cuts.

Those include the state court of criminal appeals, the ethics commission, election board, department of human services, the health care authority, mental health department, commissioners of land office, medicolegal investigations board and the legislative services bureau.

Bice said a 3.71 percent cut to the education department equals $77 million.

“We have to figure out our priorities. What do we want Oklahoma to look like in the future. Cutting government to the bone is sacrificing services,” she said.

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