Oklahoma senate lawmakers pass bill tapping into state cash reserves

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Senate lawmakers have passed a bill tapping into state cash reserves and allocating it to mental health services.

In a 36 to 1 vote Wednesday, lawmakers passed the emergency measure bill which would take $23.3 million from the Rainy Day Fund and put it towards the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

"Our hands our tied," said Sen. Kim David, R-Wagonor. "Revenue has to start in the House. With that, I hope everyone can vote for this bill today and let's help the most vulnerable people in our state at this time to deal with their mental health issues and make sure they do not lose services."

The measure was part of a series of bills passed Monday in the House, which intended to cover some of the money needed to fill a $215 million budget hole. If ultimately passed, the series of bills would send more than $106 million to three state agencies heaviest impacted if a solution is not found.

• 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.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Minority leader John Sparks, D-Norman told his colleagues he did support the measure but did question the use of one-time funds.

"I would hope that we would all take pause and not believe this is the way we handle the budget problem that we have across the rest of the state government where we're spending literally one-time money out of our savings account," Sen. Sparks said.

House leaders passed a bill Wednesday that would increase gross production tax on older wells without amendments presented by Democrats. Speaking to reporters shortly after, the caucus said the pathway forward looked "murky," adding they've been compromising with Republicans to reach a deal.

"We offered 7 percent, we offered 5 percent and we offered 4 percent on gross production tax... all of those were tabled. One of those took about 10 minutes and a lot of arm twisting," said Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater. "There are real solutions that are being offered, has time and time again move to try and accommodate the request of the majority party and try and work with the governor, the Senate and House republicans. At the end of the day, it's all a sham coming from their leadership."

On the House floor, Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison said reaching any revenue deal has been tough.

"For me, I'm trying to do the very best I can to make sure that $215 million gets filled... to take care of those three agencies, so I'm willing to do things I normally would not do," Rep. Casey said.

An eyebrow raising comment came during debate from Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw who compared state agencies to terrorists.

"No one wants their taxes raised, but the agencies getting the money are telling our constituents, hey...the sky is falling! And the agencies are telling our citizens they're going to cut their services to the most vulnerable," said Rep. Bennett. "That's terrorism. We should not be negotiating with terrorists, period."

Shortly after, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association took to Facebook demanding a formal apology from Rep. Bennett.

When asked whether the state was any closer to reaching a deal, Governor Mary Fallin told reporters Wednesday she wasn't sure but also warned against the use of one-time funds to balance the budget.

"We can't keep doing that. I've warned them and warned them for years and, when we come back in January or February, we're still going to have around a $400 million hole and, if they think they're going to pass anything to raise revenue during an election year, it's just not going to happen,"  Governor Fallin said.

In response to the House's passage, Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka said he was pleased.

In a statement, he said in part: "With today's vote, the House of Representatives has increased the effective gross production tax rate by two percentage points in less than two years, providing over $400 million in new revenue for the state. This latest measure increases the gross production tax rate from 4 percent to 7 percent on over 6,600 additional wells, providing us with $50 million this fiscal year alone. That's money we will use to fill the budget hole right away so we can act responsibly to prevent devastating cuts to our health care and mental health services."

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