BY DAVID PERRYMAN
Week seven of Oklahoma’s 2017 special session came to a close after a vote last Wednesday produced absolute frustration in everyone who was searching for a solution. Any legislator who still thinks that our state is not in crisis has his or her “Honorable” head in the ground.
The vote, HB 1054 failed by a vote of 71-27-1. The bill contained what had been referred to as the single last hope to fund DHS, Advantage Waiver, Mental Health and Medicaid programs funded through the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. It also included a $3,000 raise for teachers and $1,000 for state employees.
Due to a constitutional amendment that was passed by the people of Oklahoma in 1992, all revenue-raising measures need 75% of the Legislature to vote in favor of the bill. When the dust had settled, 82% of the Democrats and only 67% of the Republicans had voted for the bill. Because the House is comprised of 71 Republicans and only 28 Democrats, the final tally yielded the yielded an overall percentage of 70.2%.
Nearly everyone agreed that the bill was not a good solution. Many Republicans did not want to vote for the bill because they had signed pledges to never raise taxes and many Democrats did not want to vote for the bill because most of the tax increases were on things that unequally affect poor and working class Oklahomans, such as fuel, cigarettes and low point beer. Neither the $2.6 million that would be raised this year from the oil and gas industry nor the $13 million that would be generated by that industry next year seemed to be a fair trade-off.
The vote on the bill came the day after a large number of developmentally disabled Oklahomans and their caregivers had come to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers and to explain the urgent need that their programs and agencies were facing.
Unfortunately on the day that the bill was being voted on, buses full of oil company employees parked in front of the Capitol and those employees filled the gallery to “watch” the vote.
Of course, it didn’t hurt the oil and gas industry’s game plan that a rumor began circulating week before last that one Oklahoma oil company executive had contributed $500,000 to a “dark money” political action committee to support legislators willing to keep the gross production tax low. In the days that followed, news spread of an enhancement of an additional $500,000 by another executive for a total of $1 million to influence future elections in favor of oil and gas.
In the days after the vote, conventional wisdom at the Capitol was that the vote may not have been as close as the numbers showed and that it may have been more than a coincidence that the vote failed. Questions arose as to why seven Republican legislators who had voted for the same exact tax increases on cigarettes, gasoline and beer a few days earlier, voted no when the gross production tax was added in.
Others questioned the peculiarity of last-minute vote changes [some from red to green and some from green to red] immediately after an impromptu Republican caucus meeting that occurred while the vote was open.
Perhaps the greatest mystery was the “inability” of the speaker to deliver just the five votes needed to pass HB 1054. Of the 22 Republicans who voted no, one was majority whip and four were chairmen of Health and Human Services and Education committees overseeing governmental agencies that would have been greatly aided by the increased revenue.
In fact, those five and 17 more held chairmanships and vice-chairmanships at the pleasure of the speaker.
As shown earlier, the speaker has the power to remove any member who does not toe the party line and will not hesitate to use that power. No wonder the question around the Capitol is, “Was the vote really as close as it seemed or was it calculated to simply appear that way and still pacify the demands of the powerful oil and gas industry donors?”
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House