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Health Care Authority, DHS funding on tap for second special session

OKLAHOMA CITY - Lawmakers are set to take up providing funding to state health care and human services agencies during the second special session that began Monday.

Legislators were called back to the capitol this week after Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed most of a budget plan of cash and cuts that was cobbled together during the first special session after attempts to pass revenue-raising legislation, to fill a $215 million budget hole, failed.

Two senate bills were filed in both house and senate budget committees Monday, calling for $17 million to be appropriated to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to prevent provider rate cuts and $20 million for the Department of Human Services, providing funding for the agencies through April.

"I anticipate this week running smooth, positively no reason not to use cash that’s already been appropriated to fix this problem," said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, referring to money coming in to the state from the gross production tax increase on legacy oil and gas wells from one percent to seven percent. "What I do know, globally, the goal is to get both of those agencies to the end of April. This is not a long-term fix. What this is guaranteeing we have time while we work on a long-term fix.”

A long-term fix at passing tax increases was elusive during the two months legislators spent at 23rd and Lincoln, starting in late September, during the first special session. A session that was called by Fallin after the state supreme court ruled a cigarette fee unconstitutional.

During the first special session, the house and senate passed a budget package using cash and cuts to state agencies to help fill the budget hole. However, once it reached the governor's desk, she used her veto pen to line-item most of the budget while providing temporary funding to state health care and human services agencies to avoid drastic service cuts.

"Well, we got to come back and try to fix the veto that she created and come back and get the money for the healthcare authority," said Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. "I’m very disappointed that we’re coming back. There’s so many things we need to be doing rather than being here and doing this. We need to look at consolidating agencies, tax credit/tax exemptions but, most importantly, we need to look at agencies."

Amid the state's budget turmoil, a separate financial crisis has plagued the Oklahoma State Department of Health, with questions of financial mismanagement. Resignations, firings, audits, requests for millions to make payroll have run alongside both the previous special session and, now, current session.

Another house investigative committee is set to meet Tuesday, while house and senate budget committee meetings are scheduled around it. Echols expects work to send funding to the OHCA and DHS to be done by the end of the week Friday but is asking legislators to keep their schedules open after the first of the year, to hold meetings to find solutions for recurring revenue for the state.

"We need recurring revenue to pay for core services of government," said Rep. Jason Dunnington.

"It is a reset, we have immediate goals, to fund the healthcare authority so that there aren’t provider rate cuts on January 1. That’s an immediate goal," he said of the second special session. "But, we have long-term goals, and we need to stop looking at the end of our nose and looking out to a bigger, brighter future.”