Cold front brings cooler Fall weather

House passes bills tapping rainy day fund to reduce state agency cuts

 

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma House passed legislation Monday, tapping state cash reserves to help cover some of the money needed to fill a $215 million budget hold.

The series of bills would send more than $106 million to three state agencies that will be impacted the most if a solution isn’t found.

  • $23.3 million from the Constitutional Reserve Fund (Rainy Day Fund) will go toward the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS)
  • An additional $24.9 million of carryover funds would also go to ODMHSAS
  • $29.4 million of carryover funds would go toward the Oklahoma Health Care Authority
  • $29 million of carryover funds would go toward the Oklahoma Department of Human Services

“We have said repeatedly that we would not allow those three vital health agencies absorb the entire $215 budget shortfall,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, in a statement. “I encourage my colleagues in the Senate to take up these bills tomorrow and pass them quickly for the citizens of Oklahoma.”

The bills passed with some begrudgingly, but overwhelming bipartisan support.

“This is far from the perfect solution,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, while arguing against the bill, but saying he will be voting for it. “It does kick the can down the road, it doesn’t create new taxes for those who can afford it. I suppose there`s a victory there.”

“Let’s not keep spending $30,000 a day to carry on a charade to pressure us for a tax increase,” said Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City.

Last week, a bill that would increase taxes on cigarettes, gas and alcohol failed to gain the necessary votes to pass the House. After that, the Senate passed a resolution that asked the House to include an increase on gross production taxes to the measure.

However, that plan ended in a tie  11 – 11 before the committee officially gaveled out early Friday evening.

After that measure failed to pass Friday, Gov. Fallin warned state agencies to prepare for additional cuts.

"Our state is at a fiscal crossroads, and it’s unfortunate that this House committee couldn’t get the job done and failed so miserably by keeping us on a road to failure. Oklahomans deserve better,” Fallin said in a statement.

The bills advanced by the house Monday are considered a “Plan B,” after “Plan A” — the cigarette, motor fuel, alcohol and GPT increase — failed.

Lawmakers say the funds will allow the agencies to provide full services and programs through April.

“We have to properly fund these programs: mental health, DHS, they’re not properly funded,” said Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City. “

“We cannot have a quick fix. What is the budget going to look like next year? It’s going to be like a $500 million, $700 million deficit? What are we going to cut next year? This is absolutely ridiculous.”

The bills passed by the house Monday are similar to another “Plan B” package of bills that advanced out of house and senate budget committees last week.

“At this point, we will be looking at targeted cuts that do not hit core services. Even at that level of funding, and we’re still working among the house of representatives,” said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols late Monday.

If a bill repealing a rebate older oil and gas wells passes, Echols says it could bring in an estimated $40-50 million.

“How can we find $60 million in efficiencies without cutting core government services?” Echols said. “That can be done.”

What’s not clear is how the senate will respond to this slate of bills now moving across the capitol. The four bills passed by the house Monday did not go before their respective chamber’s budget committees.

“I wish we could have done it for a while,” said Echols of using available cash to prop up the state agencies facing cuts. “We had a hard time getting agreement on both sides to do it. But at this point it’s a crisis. At this point, agreement or not, this needs to be done right away.”

The senate Monday passed legislation authorizing the use of $23 million in rainy day funds for mental health services.

“(ODMHSAS) is the most impacted by the loss of the cigarette fee by the supreme court,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “23 percent of their budget was tied up in that.”

When asked about the choice of the house to move the bills directly to the floor, without going through committee, Treat said “the house didn’t talk to us” before putting them on the calendar.

“I don’t know,” said Treat. “They’ll have to speak for themselves. It was completely of their own doing without talking to us.”