By RICK WEST
The Oklahoma Supreme Court decided last week that the Legislature’s passage of the $1.50 fee per pack of cigarettes is unconstitutional. Their decision is not a surprise to me, and it’s probably not a surprise to any of you, either.
The Constitution is clear. Article 5, Section 33 says: “No revenue bill shall be passed during the five last days of the session.” But members of the Legislature tried anyway, claiming the “fee” would be exempt from this statute. The Supreme Court’s decision confirms what many of us suspected: the last-ditch effort to generate $215 million was not up to snuff.
Justice Patrick Wyrick wrote the opinion for the court. In it, he said, “Surely the people did not intend that the Legislature could blatantly tax them without complying with Article 5, Section 33, by merely wordsmithing their bills to describe some ‘regulatory’ purpose for the tax. Thus, we reiterate that whether a measure is intended to ‘raise revenue’ must be the overarching consideration in determining whether a measure is a ‘revenue bill.’”
Wyrick didn’t beat around the bush. He even called the state’s argument “extraordinary,” when lawyers from Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office claimed a measure could be exempted from Article 5 as long as the new fee or tax served a “regulatory” purpose.
This opinion gives me hope that members of the Legislature will – in fact – be required to uphold the constitution as we swore to do when we took the oath of office. If we stray from our oath, we do our constituents a huge disservice. I am choosing to believe this ruling will also serve as a wake-up call to some members who may have viewed passing the cigarette fee as an “easy button.” And maybe those lawmakers will approach things differently next session.
That said, the court’s ruling has blown a hole in our state’s budget. We now have more than $200 million in state dollars to find in order to fund healthcare at the level we said we would. In reality though, that number could be much higher. Agencies stand to lose millions more in federal matching funds as a result of the Legislature’s unconstitutional action. That could mean the Oklahoma Health Care Authority would have to slash Medicaid reimbursement rates. Rural hospitals could close. And I’m not trying to be alarmist here – I’m just stating the facts.
As for what’s next, frankly, I do not know. The House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor are all reviewing options, and I expect we’ll have a plan within the next few weeks.
There are still two lawsuits the Supreme Court has yet to rule on (as of Aug. 10, when I wrote this), and I know millions of dollars more hang in the balance there as well. Rest assured, I’ll continue to fight for proper funding and cutting the fat – and I’ll do so while adhering to my oath of office. Thanks, and God bless.
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