By Rep. RICK WEST
Gov. Mary Fallin announced last week she plans to formally call for a special legislative session beginning Sept. 25. While this isn’t necessarily a surprise, it is clear we still have a few things to figure out before we head back to the Capitol.
As a reminder, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the cigarette “fee” lawmakers passed in the final week of session was, in fact, unconstitutional. The Legislature’s attempt to sneakily raise taxes on its people and the Court’s decision to overturn that attempt has knocked $215 million out of our state budget.
That money was mostly for three agencies: The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Special sessions don’t happen all that often for the Legislature. The last time we had one was in 2013 for lawsuit reform. And even though the governor hasn’t technically called for the session to convene yet (it is splitting hairs, to say the least), lawmakers will most likely be spending our final week of September trying to fix this $215 million hole.
As I see it, there are a few options. First, House Republican leadership has already announced an intention to vote again on a cigarette tax. I will vote no on this. If it receives 75 percent support in both the House and the Senate, and if the governor signs it, it will become law. If the bill doesn’t receive that much support but does get at least 51 votes in the House and a simple majority in the Senate, the bill will go to a vote of the people.
Another option would be to enact across-the-board cuts of approximately two percent for every state agency the Legislature funds. We could also line item certain agency budgets and then put in place targeted cuts.
There are a lot of ways to fix this problem, but finding consensus is almost always easier said than done. The budget has been an uphill battle this entire year, and the decisions made in these coming weeks will be tough calls as well.
No matter what path the Legislature takes, we would be smart to remember the economy is rebounding. Unemployment rates are down in nearly every Oklahoma county, including right here in LeFlore. I suspect that if we just let the economy roll, we may be on better footing sooner rather than later.
One thing is clear though: the waste in government must stop. The folks at Lake Wister State Park sent me some great information last week comparing what they pay through their contracted bids versus what the same items – or more – would get them at Walmart or Atwoods. “This is just a tip of an iceberg,” one lady wrote. “But it is a big chunk of ice.”
At the end of the day, I can’t bring myself to increase taxes when I know the government could streamline spending. It’s sickening to see this amount of waste and then to ask taxpayers to bear the brunt of more taxes in the midst of it, and I won’t do it.
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