BY DAVID PERRYMAN
In less than three weeks, the 2016 legislative session must come to an end and it isn’t pretty. West Texas Intermediate crude is hovering around $42 per barrel and, as a result of tax cuts, Oklahoma’s oil and gas gross production tax receipts are even lower than they were in 2001 when the price of oil was less than $27. Today, even if the price of a barrel of oil approached $50, the total gross production tax on that barrel would remain less than $1.
Projections for the Fiscal Year beginning on July 1, 2016 are even more dire. Even though the Legislature is dealing with an anticipated $1.3 billion budget gap and legislators must approve a budget before the end of this month, as of May 1, there had been no bills presented on the floor of the House of Representatives to address next year’s budget crisis.
One “solution” proposed by the governor and her finance director is to borrow several hundred million dollars to supplement the budget covering Oklahoma Department of Transportation payroll, materials and overhead and then paying the loan out of appropriations over the next several years.
Another of the governor’s “solutions” is to raise additional tax revenue by “modernizing” our tax code through the elimination of certain sales tax exemptions and increasing the list of goods and services that are subject to sales taxes.
While those “solutions” are crafted for next year’s budget, they will do nothing for the current health care catastrophe facing Oklahoma right now with ambulance services folding, hospitals closing, mental health patients left untreated and nine out of 10 nursing homes teetering on the edge of shutting their doors.
Which brings us to doors numbered one, two and three. Behind those doors in no particular order are possibly the only three ways to address Oklahoma’s health care disaster.
One door involves a plan for tens of thousands of working Oklahomans whose employers do not provide health insurance and who cannot afford private coverage on their salary of up to 133% of the poverty level. They would become eligible for SoonerCare Medicaid coverage and thereby decrease the millions of dollars that Oklahoma hospitals annually write off as bad debt of citizens who have no access to health care except the local emergency room.
One door involves a plan to boot more than 170,000 disabled, pregnant women and children from SoonerCare rolls over the next three years and require them to secure federally subsidized health insurance through the federal health care exchange.
One door leaves the disabled and pregnant women and children on SoonerCare but accepts federal funding for the expansion of Insure Oklahoma for those tens of thousands of working Oklahomans whose employers do not provide health insurance and cannot afford private coverage on their salary of up to 133% of the poverty level.
One plan is called Medicaid Expansion, one is called Medicaid Rebalancing, and one Expands Insure Oklahoma.
All of these plans provide much needed mental health services, will improve health outcomes and will allow hospitals and ambulance services to recover fees for those they treat.
The funding for each of these plans will require an increase in the state’s tobacco tax and, consequently, will require a 75% vote from both the House and the Senate. There are many arguments on why we should not increase the tobacco tax. A tax increase will place a financial hardship on smokers across the state and will likely cause cigarette smuggling.
However, Oklahoma’s partisan obstinacy and dogmatic pursuit of tax cuts has left us with no other options on the table. One thing is clear, health care must be saved and refusing to select a door will be catastrophic and will mean that as many as four out of five hospitals will not deliver babies and that more than a dozen hospitals will close within one year and that nine out of 10 nursing homes will be forced to shut down.
“Tell them what they’ve won, Jay.”
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House