Oklahoma House Democrats hold a budget hearing to prepare for a special session

Oklahoma House Democrats hold a budget hearing to prepare for a special session
Cara Johnson
Legislators and attendees of the public House Budget Meeting listen to David Hall speak on the funding in Oklahoma. Hall is an Oklahoma resident who aged out of the foster system.

Five days before the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the impending cigarette fee and vehicle sales tax and their constitutionality, about two dozen Oklahomans took their turns at the House of Representatives’ podium answering the question, “How has Oklahoma’s budget impacted you?”

“You say you want to know about the cuts and how they affect us,” said Jacquelyn Parks, executive director of Metropolitan Better Living Center, an adult day care center in Oklahoma City.

She was one of the first to stand at the lectern and address a crowd of 24 House Democrats and more than a hundred members of the public at the Aug. 3 Public Budget Hearing organized by House Democrats.

“DHS (Oklahoma Department of Human Services) cut back so many people that it is incredibly hard, and understand I work in the trenches every day,” said Parks, who’s spent 18 years at the nonprofit that receives reimbursements from the state for certain population subgroups. “People are going without services. Phones are ringing because there is not enough staff. If you haven’t been in a DHS office or the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, [which oversees the state’s Medicaid program], I welcome you to come see what’s going on … It is so important that we look at these cuts to health care because the most vulnerable people in our state — children, the elderly and the disabled — are suffering. It is important you help us.”

For the next 90 minutes, lawmakers and the public heard varied answers to how state budget reductions have impacted nearly every corner of society over the past few years.

Sometimes it was healthcare providers sharing their struggles of continuing services in rural parts of the state with Medicaid provider cuts. Other times, it was educators describing their ever-increasing student classroom population, which they teach with fewer dollars in school budgets for classroom instruction and no new textbooks. A single parent and a foster parent recounted their experiences with DHS and demanding more support for vulnerable children. A mental health caseworker described the consequences of when a person with mental illness does not get treatment, impacting public safety. A disability advocate revealed that parents of developmentally disabled children don’t even bother signing up for the state-paid care waiting list, as the applications of people who got in line in 2006 are still being processed.

Former Rep. Al Lindley, a Democrat who represented a portion of south Oklahoma City from 1996 to 2008, told the lawmakers, “Your failure to act with compassion to a citizen in need is an abomination that cannot be tolerated.”

Listening to the people

In July, following a series of legal challenges to revenue measures the Legislature passed the last session, Oklahoma House Democrats called for the Aug. 3 public hearing. Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said it served as a time for lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, to hear from the public prior to a special session; however, only Democratic lawmakers took seats on the House floor.

While the governor has not called a special session, concerns have been raised largely about two revenue-raising bills, both passed in the final week and key to the state’s $6.8 billion budget. Under Oklahoma law, tax increases must receive three-fourths support in both chambers or be approved by a vote of the people, revenue-raising measures can’t be enacted in the last five days of sessions and revenue-raising measures must first be proposed in the House. If the court decides that the cigarette fee, which was proposed in Senate Bill 845, or the vehicle sales tax, which passed without the supermajority, are unconstitutional, lawmakers could return to the Capitol for a special session. If both measures were deemed unconstitutional, more than $300 million less in revenue would enter the state’s coffers.

During a special session, lawmakers would be tasked to find replacement revenues or make further cuts to state agencies. This past session, lawmakers scrambled to close an $878 million budget hole, the result of previously lowering the state income tax and declining oil prices.

“We in the Democratic caucus feel we need to be prepared for that special session,” Virgin said. “We can’t go in without a plan. We feel like we went in without a plan during the regular legislative session.”

The Democrats’ plan, known as the Restoring Oklahoma Plan, surfaced in late March. In the plan, Democrats laid out a strategy for funding a teacher pay raise and protecting key government services from further budget cuts. It proposed reversing specific tax cuts, including raising the gross production tax, which is also called the severance tax, from 2 to 5 percent. Such a measure is estimated to generate $312 million in state revenue, Virgin said.

“We feel it is a comprehensive plan that doesn’t put the burden on the backs of lower- and middle-income Oklahomans,” Virgin said. “We are asking everyone to pay their fair share.”

Democrats who participated in the budget hearing said a special session wasn’t the answer to fixing all of Oklahoma’s budget troubles, as lawmakers would be looking for ways to plug a budget hole, not necessarily reform the state’s budget structure and bring new revenues to state agencies.

“If that cigarette fee gets struck down by the Supreme Court or if that new car sales tax gets struck down by the Supreme Court, if we rush back in here for a special session and find an extra $400 million to put back in the budget, guess what happens,” said Minority Leader Scott Inman of Del City. “All those budget cuts you heard stay where they are. … We are still in a state of crisis. We’ve got to find new recurring revenues.”

Print headline: Bleak scene, Oklahoma House Democrats hold a budget hearing to prepare for a special session on the heels of the state Supreme Court reviewing legal challenges on revenue bills.

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