TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Now that the Oklahoma Legislature has put the special session and fiscal 2018 to rest by making an across-the-board cut, lawmakers can now shift their full focus to fiscal 2019.
The state is a month into its four-month legislative session, and it faces a budget shortfall of about $160 million. However, that figure does not include any raises for teachers and state employees, or possible COLAs for state pensions.
During Friday's Legislative Focus at the Jim Proctor Elder Care Center in the United Keetoowah Band complex, legislators said they expected a revenue package worth $300 million to $500 million could be carved out, but that wish lists for corrections, higher education, and other state agencies totaled more than $1 billion. None believed agreement could be reached on that scale.
In attendance were State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah; State Rep. Will Fourkiller, D-Stilwell; and State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee.
Fourkiller said partisanship remains rampant, and related a story of being forced to abdicate his authorship of a "Remembrance Day" bill that would be observed to remember war dead in Oklahoma, particularly at the national cemeteries in Fort Gibson and Fort Sill.
"I got a call on Thursday that said they weren't going to hear my bill in [appropriations and budget] unless I gave up authorship - the reason being my vote on the budget," he said. "I voted no, so they say we're not going to hear it unless you give it to someone who voted yes."
Fourkiller surrendered authorship to get the bill through committee, but called it "games."
Meredith said he was encouraged by early negotiations on the budget.
"We don't do much the first couple of weeks," Meredith said. "But we are doing budget negotiations now and not waiting until May. We're doing [meetings] with about three or four from each side, and I am fortunate enough to be one of the Democrats at the table."
One plan of note is the plan proposed by State Auditor Gary Jones, which includes a 5 percent gross production tax on new oil and gas wells, a 75-cent tax on cigarettes, and taxes of 3 cents a a gallon on gasoline and 6 cents per gallon on diesel.
"That is what we do," Meredith said. "When we get a big revenue bill, we strip it down to two or three things. Because one of the hardest things to do is get 76 votes in the House of Representatives [to pass revenue measures]."
Meredith said lawmakers use teachers, state employees and Oklahoma residents as "pawns," and he called it "disgusting." When Pemberton took the podium, he also expressed disappointment with the partisan maneuvering.
Pemberton - like Meredith and Fourkiller - expressed disappointment with the gaming, even criticizing some in his own party.
"Half the bills we heard had nothing at all to do with revenue," Pemberton said. "Why they were running them through appropriations, I had no idea. But we run some bills through appropriations that we don't want to run through committee."
Pemberton used some time to express relief about bills that were put to death, including a bill for "managed" health care - a system that has been blamed for health care cost increases in some states.
"It was a one-page bill dealing with a $2 billion a year industry," he said. "The leadership began to hear there was a lot of opposition to it, so suddenly they brought out a hot bill with 17 pages and two amendments and gave it to us 15 minutes before the vote. I'm not voting for anything given to us 15 minutes before we vote. That is an underhanded way to try to slide things through."
The early weeks of Oklahoma's legislative session frequently make headlines with some clearly unconstitutional or hopeless bills that are obvious attempts to grandstand for constituencies.
"We have killed a lot of bad bills - there is a lot of junk," Pemberton said. "Nineteen hundred bills, and probably two-thirds should never have been filed or be heard. I've voted on more stupid stuff then I've ever seen in my life. I vote more to kill stuff than pass stuff. We killed a [school] consolidation bill, and a charter school equal opportunity scholarship that would have taken money from public schools and put it in private schools."
The next Legislative Focus breakfast is at 7:30 a.m. on March 6 at the Restaurant of the Cherokees. For information, call the Chamber at 918-456-3742 or visit www.tahlequahchamber.com.