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‘It’s not we the legislators, it’s we the people:’ Republican plans lawsuits over budget bills

TULSA, Okla. -- A Republican candidate running for governor is planning to file three lawsuits over bills he claims are unconstitutional in the way they raise more than $100 million for the state.

Gary Richardson claims bills addressing tax deductions, fees for new vehicle registrations and fees for hybrid/electric vehicles violate existing state law and should be overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

According to the state Constitution, bills with the purpose of raising revenue may not be passed in the last five days of session. Bills that increase taxes must pass with a three-fourths supermajority vote.

House bills 1449, 2433 and 2348 violate that criteria, Richardson said.

"They knew they were passing taxes, there’s no question in my mind," he told NewsChannel 4. "They needed to do the right thing. The right thing is not violating the state Constitution. They violated the state Constitution."

Together with attorney Stan Ward, who led the fight to enact the "supermajority rule," Richardson plans to file his lawsuits next week.

"It’s not we the legislators, it’s we the people, and it’s time the people stand up," he said. "They’re going to have to go back and do what they should have done to begin with."

Richardson's lawsuits would bring the total up to five in just the last several weeks.

Earlier this month, tobacco companies filed suit against the state for a bill that imposed a fee on cigarettes.

Earlier this week, several DUI attorneys objected to a bill that creates a new program for first-time offenders.

If overturned, the Supreme Court would be essentially removing more than $330 million from the state budget -- roughly five percent of the $6.8 billion package passed this May, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Republican leaders, like Majority Whip Rep. Terry O'Donnell, say they aren't losing sleep over the lawsuits.

"We made some very tough decisions this year and it wasn’t easy," the Tulsa Republican said. "And they should be happy that they have legislators that are
ready to make those tough decisions."

There is a significant difference between taxes and fees, O'Donnell said, and the legislature took pains to ensure it conducted its business legally.

"While these lawsuits are certainly disappointing, they’re not a surprise to us," he said. "When you make difficult decisions as legislators, you have to expect there are going to be legal consequences.

"We’ve been told that we’re on good legal ground as far as passing that legislation," he said.

If the bills are ruled unconstitutional, lawmakers would either need to reconvene in a special session to reappropriate the money or else agencies would face cuts.

When asked about concerns that agencies' financial well-being is being put in the hands of the court, O'Donnell told NewsChannel 4 he understands the fear.

"That is a legitimate point but I think what you really have to worry about is what would have happened if we had not passed some of these measures that add to the bottom line," he said. "When and if any of those are overturned, we’ll get together as a body and figure out whether we need to pass another budget."

The Supreme Court could rule on the suits within a few months.