House narrowly kills latest budget measure

Rep. Chad Caldwell

OKLAHOMA CITY — In front of dozens of fearful and concerned Oklahomans, House lawmakers narrowly killed the latest comprehensive budget measure that proponents argued would have spared health care and mental health programs from devastating cuts.

Though lawmakers argued that the measure — which would have raised taxes on cigarettes, beer, gasoline and oil and gas producers — was far from perfect, proponents said it would have helped bridge the $215 million budget hole the Legislature created after they passed an unconstitutional cigarette tax increase.

But after hours of discussion and debate, lawmakers rejected the measure that would have generated more than $454 million in new revenue next budget year — enough to give teachers a $3,000 raise and public employees a $1,000 pay increase.

State Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, likened the dispute to firefighters standing around arguing how to put out a fire while the home they’re supposed to protect burns to the ground.

“The house continues to burn down,” Ownbey said. “Members, take a look at the house, it’s burning. No wonder the people don’t trust this Legislature.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature has been meeting in special session for seven weeks now, attempting unsuccessfully to hash out a bipartisan budget solution. While Wednesday’s vote garnered bipartisan support with House Democrats overwhelmingly supporting the measure, it fell narrowly short of the 76 votes needed to raise taxes. It could still appear on the November 2018 ballot.

“This is absolutely the worst bill that I will ever vote ‘yes’ on,” said state Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha. He said the measure would still leave at least a $57 million funding gap for the current budget year.

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said he doesn’t like the idea of raising taxes, but the lawmaker likes the idea of drastic cuts to health care and mental health services even less.

“I’m not interested in joining someone’s personal vendetta against the energy industry, but we don’t get to make our votes in a vacuum,” he said. “For me, the answer is clear: It’s time to invest in our state.”

Hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans are braced for deep cuts to the state’s Medicaid rate, outpatient mental health services and social services programs, including the Medicaid ADvantage Waiver program, which provides in-home care to lower-income Oklahomans. The programs were supposed to be funded by the unconstitutional cigarette tax.

“We can all find reasons not to vote for this bill … (but) there are Oklahomans in need,” said state Rep. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton. “The elderly need to know they’re not getting kicked out of their place to live in 30 days. I need to vote for this bill because there are Oklahomans who need assistance.”

But critics of the plan said they couldn’t support it.

State Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said the measure doesn’t fix anything. In three months, lawmakers will return for regular session facing as much as a $600 million deficit.

“Your services, your vulnerability will be exploited again,” he said. “We should be able to come up with a permanent solution to do the right thing, and we keep putting Band-Aids on heart attack victims so that we can get to the next election cycle.”

State Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, said he couldn’t in good conscience vote for a tax increase until he’s convinced state agencies are spending their current funds wisely.

“Not one red cent in increased taxes until we get audits on state agencies to make sure that every penny taken from us, the taxpayers, is spent as properly and effectively as possible,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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