Three days in and the special session of the Oklahoma legislature called Monday will enter recess.
Members of the House of Representatives failed to garner enough votes in favor of a $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax. The legislature approved a similar tax last session that was overturned when the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for being passed in the final five days of the session without a three-fourth’s majority.
So rather than draining tax dollars at the cost of $30,000 per day, the special session adjourned, but with a call to chair, which means lawmakers will continue to negotiate and meet, but outside of the Capitol.
Rep. Tommy Hardin (R-Ardmore), who represents Carter, Love and Marshall Counties, regrets having to deal with budget this late, and doubts anything constructive toward solving a $250 million deficit could be completed in a matter of weeks.
Though a majority of House Republicans supported the new cigarette tax, Hardin voted against it, saying that such a tax has no political righteousness to him and is merely an easy way out.
“The way we do the budget is flawed,” Hardin said. “In my seven years, we’ve always waited until the last month or so when it should be our first priority. We need to redo how we do things, because people feel like they’re forced to vote for something.”
Pushing laws forward boils down to negotiations, said Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore).
State Question 640, a citizen-initiated ballot measure passed in 1992 stipulating the three-fourths majority rule, has empowered a minority of lawmakers with leverage to negotiate for more beyond the cigarette tax, he said. That minority includes some Republicans like Hardin who are against many tax spikes, as well as Democrats trying to bargain for an oil and gas tax hike and higher income taxes.
Still, Ownbey anticipated an outcome similar to where House and Senate representatives are now, but emphasized an ongoing effort to find a solution that doesn’t exist yet.
“I’m not surprised, but now we’re not spending taxpayer dollars, and that’s really important,” Ownbey said. “Looking at different ideas and plans now we’re not using taxpayer dollars, I think it’s going to be a while. It could be a day, a week — I don’t know at this point.”
The Associated Press reports about $69 million could be cut from the Department of Human Services with no budget hole plug. Moreover, the state Department of Health intends to furlough its workers next month for one day without pay every two weeks to help make up for an estimated $10 million shortfall on the horizon.