OKLAHOMA CITY – Facing an $878 million budget hole and increasingly limited time to fill it, lawmakers are working to raise revenue without actually “raising revenue.”
What House Minority Leader Scott Inman calls “verbal gymnastics” and Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols calls “creativity under the Constitution” have the two sides wrangling over a series of bills aimed at generating money for the state.
The Oklahoma Constitution states “no revenue bill should be passed during the five last days of session.” It adds, no revenue bill can become law without a vote of the people or a three-fourths vote.
Yet House Republicans have spent the last several days pushing through legislation that bring in revenue with simple 51-vote majorities.
“We are guaranteeing that this budget is challenged in court and we come back here in, I don’t know September [or] October and try to fix it,” said Norman Democrat Rep. Emily Virgin on the floor Tuesday. “All the while schools are trying to figure out what to do, hospitals are trying to figure out how to take care of our sick. Nursing homes are trying to figure out how to take care of the elderly. Let’s give them some certainty.”
Democrats have been critical of measures to impose a “cigarette fee” and “modify incentives” on oil and gas wells — delicately-crafted terms intended to sidestep the restrictions in the Constitution.
“We’re trying to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law of the Oklahoma Constitution,” Echols told NewsChannel 4. “The Oklahoma Supreme Court has defined revenue-raising measures as measures whose primary purpose is to raise revenue or changes in the permanent tax code. Revenue-raising measures have not been when we’ve made changes to exemptions in the tax code.”
Outside groups have threatened lawsuits over measures they see as unconstitutional.
Legal challenges could put the Supreme Court in an awkward position, legal analyst Al Hoch said.
“I know the Supreme Court’s not going to want to be in a position of ‘Are we going to have to shut down state government; Are we going to have to take away teacher pay; Are we going to have to stop from fixing the road?'” Hoch said. “What do you want to do? Put the Supreme Court in the position to shut down the state.”
If the court were to find the bills unconstitutional, lawmakers would have to find another way to raise the money they thought they had at the end of session, Echols said.
Depending on when such a ruling were handed down, that could mean a special session.
As lawmakers looked for solutions, the state would likely have to declare a revenue failure and agencies would suffer deeper cuts.
“I think they’ve got some serious problems with that being challenged,” Hoch said. “It’s something that’s not going to fly constitutionally probably.”
But Republicans like Echols maintain past legal precedent is on their side.
Tuesday night in a committee meeting, he pushed blame for the current situation on Democrats.
“We all know you’re not going to support the revenue raising measure and that’s okay, that’s the way it is,” he told a Democratic representative. “That’s why we’ve had to get creative under the law and under the Constitution. It is complying with the law.”