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“The hypocrisy is thick,” Lawmakers clash as budget cut plan passes House

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- A budget cut bill has passed the House and will soon head to the Senate.

HB1019 passed the House by a vote of 56 to 38 Wednesday, but it did not come without criticism from lawmakers.

"I’m going to vote no on this bill to hold you [members] accountable to the words that you’ve said," Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City said on the floor. "To your constituents in mind that you weren’t going to hold any agencies to more cuts. My no vote is to hold you accountable."

The bill includes $60 million worth of cuts across various state agencies while also using millions in rainy day funds, carryover cash, and revolving money. It also includes a recently passed measure to raise the gross production tax ('GPT') on legacy wells.

There are, however, cuts to the agencies -- the Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services -- which would have received $215 million from the cigarette fee struck down this summer after being deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Those three agencies are now facing cuts between $4 and $15 million, which is still better than the alternative according to supporters of the bill.​

"Healthcare is going to be in crisis mode in two weeks. We have to act now," said bill author Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston. "With the money we have, this is the best budget we have today."

The bill also includes cuts to various agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Ethics Commission, House of Representatives and the Senate. All of these agencies face cuts between 2.5% and 2.7%.

Under this proposal, opponents say higher education would have to take a $17 million hit while the Department of Education, Election Board, and the Department of Corrections would be among those remaining unchanged.

Speaking in opposition of the bill Wednesday, Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, claimed the House "played games" with a revenue package which failed last week. More than 80% of the Democratic caucus voted in support of a bill which would have put taxes on cigarettes, fuel, and low-point beer, while raising GPT on oil and gas wells.

Republicans failed to reach 75% of their caucus.

"I’m disgusted by that and each and everyone of you should be disgusted by that also," said Rep. Meredith.

The criticism was returned by Republicans, who claimed some opponents did not vote for past revenue measures.

"The hypocrisy is thick and it’s becoming more than I can stand," said Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. "If you’re going to allege that leadership, this nebulous leadership, didn’t push the bill last year, understand, I’m saying you’re lying."

Shortly after, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, called Echols' claim, that some of the debates were lies, "unbelievable."

"You want us to save you from this dumpster fire that you have created? Unbelievable. Then you have the gall to blame us? For what’s going on in this building right now," said Rep. Virgin. "I am begging you on the other side of the aisle to demand better from your leadership. Demand better than calling the other party liars."

In response to the HB1019 passing in the House, Gov. Fallin said she was disappointed they were not able to come to an agreement to fix structural issues.

“Next year is an election year, and if we don’t have the courage or will to put our house in order after one full legislative session and nearly eight weeks of special session, next year will be devastating," Gov. Fallin said in a statement. “I have told our legislative leaders that I would veto any bill that makes severe cuts of $90 million or more to state agencies and spends the $83 million in cash reserves. When a budget bill comes to my desk, I will need to review any additions or changes to what has previously been discussed with our leaders.”

The bill is headed to the Senate. It could be heard by the end of this week.