Cold front brings cooler Fall weather

Senate passes budget plan; Governor signs use of rainy day funds for mental health

OKLAHOMA CITY - Entering into the sixth week of the special session to fix a multi-million dollar budget hole, the Senate ended the first day on a bipartisan note, reviving a House budget plan and placing the legislative ball on the Houses' court.

In a 37 to 5 vote, the Senate passed an amended House Bill 1035 which includes fees on cigarettes, motor fuel and 3.2 beer; however, it now includes an increase of the state's gross production tax to 4 percent on gas and oil wells for the first 36 months.

Speaking to members of the press after the vote, Gov. Mary Fallin commended both Senate Republicans and Democrats for the compromise, adding the measure promises pay raises for teachers and state workers.

"I'm proud it passed with bipartisan support. That's what we've been asking for a long time here at the capitol," Fallin said. "I think the people of Oklahoma have been demanding that we do that. We have to put our state on a good path for success."

The measure now heads to the House for approval.

House Bill 1035 failed to advance out of a House budget committee two weeks ago. Senate leaders did not tell House members they would present the bill Monday, but they said it should hardly come as a surprise.

"It's a different vehicle for the identical language that we had an agreement that we were going to pursue so, although we have not had the discussion on this bill in particular today, we have had an agreement on this concept for the past two weeks," said Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

Also on Monday, Fallin signed a law authorizing the use of $23 million in rainy day funds for mental health.

If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the Senate's amended bill would bring in roughly $132.9 million in 2018 fiscal year. Even with the $23 million in rainy day funds, Sen. Kim David, R-Wagoner said it would still leave a $57 million budget hole, at which point lawmakers will have to look at cuts and revolving funds.

"For fiscal year 2019 though, because we have reoccurring revenue... this brings in an amount of $426.5 million in appropriations," she said.​

For weeks, a plan to fix a $215 million budget hole opened up by a supreme court ruling a $1.50 cigarette fee unconstitutional, legislators and state agencies have been warning of drastic cuts to programs and services if a budget plan couldn't be reached.

The Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, Department of Human Services and the state's mental health and substance abuse agency are impacted by the supreme court's ruling.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) Commissioner Terri White said last week the approval of the rainy day funds "a great first step" towards a solution, while adding work needs to continue to find funding an additional $52 million to avoid devastating mental health and substance abuse services cuts.

Law enforcement and state mental health advocates are concerned about what the future may hold without a long-term fix that includes recurring revenue.

"People are concerned," said Brandon Pettit, the state executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Are we going to be able to provide these support groups, to cover the state like we do now?"

Pettit is worried about the ripple effect a loss of mental health services - or even potential loss - may have on some of the state's most vulnerable.

"You’re already stressing out an already stressed population that doesn’t do well with extra anxiety," he said. "And, from my perspective, a lot of this seems avoidable by coming to an agreement, bipartisan agreement, that addresses this issue on a long-term basis."

A sentiment echoed from some in law enforcement.

"We plead with them, put their party affiliation aside and come up with a compromise that’s going to fix the problem," said Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes, who is concerned about what an increase of contact between those who are in crisis and first responders. "(Agencies) are stating the facts. And, the facts are there’s no money and we’re dealing with it from a law enforcement level - not just in the metro area, but statewide."