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Lawmakers’ frustrations grow as special session reaches eighth week

OKLAHOMA CITY — After spending almost eight weeks in a special session, members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Oklahoma Senate briefly reconvened on Monday afternoon.

Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled a $1.50-per-pack ‘cigarette fee’ was unconstitutional after lawmakers passed the revenue raising measure in the final five days of a legislative session without a 75 percent majority vote.

The fee was expected to generate $215 million for several state agencies.

As a result, Gov. Mary Fallin ordered lawmakers to head back to the capitol during a special session to fix the budget shortfall.

The special session began in September, but lawmakers have yet to come to an agreement.

Last week, a revenue bill failed to pass the House by just five votes.

House Bill 1054X, which has been referred to as the “grand bargain” by some lawmakers, would have put taxes on tobacco, motor fuel and low-point beer. It would have also increased gross production tax (GPT) on oil and gas wells from 2 percent to 4 percent.

The measure, which aimed to fill the $215 million budget hole, also promised pay raises to teachers and state workers. It failed on the House floor by a vote of 71 to 27. It needed 76 votes to pass.

"Week 8 of special session. This is embarrassingly ridiculous. I will continue fighting for solutions to fill the cuts so we can take care of Oklahoma and get out of session. We must compromise, work together and lead!" wrote Rep. Josh Cockcroft, R-Wanette, on Facebook.

Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, said he shares in the frustration. Cleveland said he voted against the bill last week and told News 4 a vote in support of a tax increase would have been a "vote for corruption."

Cleveland said some state agencies have not been audited in the past 11 years.

"I'm not going to vote for a $450 million bill in taxes on the people of Oklahoma when we got money right here and we don't have to raise taxes. We don't have to raise a dime worth of taxes if we spend money we have right here at the capitol," he said.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Forrest Bennet, D-Oklahoma City, said he was "incredibly frustrated." Bennett voted in favor of last week's bill. He said there were parts of the bill he didn't like but was willing to compromise. He told News 4 on Monday he believes the discussion moving forward will include the use of one-time money and small cuts.

"As a Democrat, I think we've been sort of cut out of the negotiating process at this point because our demands were always for sustainable progressive revenue and it appears that's just not what the Republican leadership is interested in," Bennett said.

A House budget meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, followed by the full House convening at 11 a.m.