Budget discussions and reports, not surprisingly, dominated the final Ardmore Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon of the session.
Coming off the heels of the late night passing of the $6.8 billion budget bill — which Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law last week — Rep. Pat Ownbey, (R) Ardmore, and Sen. Frank Simpson, (R)Springer, covered budget issues that have captured headlines through the end of session. Both legislators described the session as “frustrating” and one of the most challenging in many years.
“I walked away from this session for the first time since I’ve been a legislator not happy,” Ownbey said. “I would walk back in there tomorrow and start right now if I could to try to fix this situation.”
Legislators were challenged this session with filling a $880 million hole left by the revenue failure. Simpson said a goal of the legislators was to “keep the core functions of government whole,” which account for $6.3 billion of the budget. Simpson explained keeping that core — which includes education, ODOT, public safety and other essential services — in tact limits the funds available for other services that are left with only 7 percent of the budget.
The biggest challenge the legislators faced, according to both Simpson and Ownbey, was creating revenue generators.
“We have had a bad habit the last few sessions of using one time money,” Simpson said. “We had run out of Band-Aids and this year we really had to come up with some revenue.
“We knew we were not going to cut our way out of this budget problem this year.”
Finding revenue sources, and then approving those revenue sources, was an obstacle for legislators, according to Simpson. With the passing of State Question 640 in 1992, 75 percent approval from both houses (or approval via a vote of the people in a general election) is required for a revenue bill to become law. Ownbey said getting 3/4 of the house and senate to approve a bill is nearly impossible.
The budget that was signed by the governor last week worked around the inability to pass a revenue bill though by including a $1.50 fee on cigarette packs. That wording, along with the timing of the bills passing (Oklahoma’s constitution states no revenue bill can be passed in the final five days of session), have stemmed questions whether the budget is unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether a special session will be required, if the bill is unconstitutional.
Ownbey said he doesn’t believe the budget will make it through the Supreme Court.
“First time since I have been in the House of Representatives that I could not support our budget,” Ownbey said, noting he voted ‘no’ for the budget once it hit the House floor. “I felt like the budget was based on unconstitutional measures.
“I think we’ll be back in a special session,” Ownbey said. “I think we would do better to go back into special session and fix this thing the way it should be fixed.
“We did not do a good job in the legislature this year to do these things right.”
One potential revenue generator both legislators said was explored, but ultimately failed, was an increased severance tax, particularly the Gross Production Tax. Among states producing significant amounts of oil, Oklahoma’s GPT is particularly low, especially in comparison to states such as Texas. Simpson said he believes an increase could happen as early as next session, though a revenue generating bill such as a GPT increase will require both sides of the aisle working in conjunction.
“One reason we’re 49th in everything — Oklahoma is (49th) — is because we’re not paying for it,” Ownbey said. “Now we’re asking Oklahoma families to step up and do this and do this and do this.
“At some point you just have to stand your ground.”
The state and legislature now awaits the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling on the budget bill and whether a special session will be required. A special session would cost roughly $30,000 each day.