BY DAVID PERRYMAN
The Oklahoma Legislature is in special session and I feel that it is important to discuss the some of the pending issues. Although there is not currently a budget agreement, the three days that lawmakers spent at the Capitol was not wasted. Those days were used to meet technical requirements of the Oklahoma Constitution in anticipation of a budget agreement.
While I believe that the special session should not have been called until an agreement was reached, the recess does prevent additional costs from accruing. I have informed House staff at the Capitol that I do not intend to seek nor accept any additional fees or reimbursement that may arise because of the special session.
Lawmakers are faced with trying to fill a nearly $500 million budget hole that will primarily affect services relating to the physical and mental health of thousands of Oklahomans. Oklahoma citizens deserve better than they are receiving from their Legislature and while negotiations are ongoing, it appears that the governor, the Senate Republicans and Democrats in both houses are close to a deal.
The latest draft of the proposed plan included the definition of the term compromise: “An agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.” Hopefully the parties will soon understand that Oklahoma needs a compromise to resolve this impasse.
In the meantime, two committees have been busy meeting. Last Tuesday, the Appropriations and Budget Committee heard Speaker Charles McCall’s HB 1099 regarding raising the Oklahoma cigarette tax by $1.50 to $2.53 per pack. The bill passed the committee 19-9 on a bi-partisan vote. That bill is now eligible to be heard on the House floor and will need 76 votes to pass the House.
While there are 72 Republicans in the House, there have been published reports that about 22 to 24 GOP members will not vote for the tax. If 24 Republicans do not vote for the cigarette tax, it would take all 28 Democrats to make it pass. Currently, there are around 14 to 16 Democrats who have indicated that they would not be willing to vote for the tax unless the speaker allows the oil and gas Gross Production Tax rate to be voted on, too.
Last Thursday, the Rules Committee heard two bills. One, HB 1093, by Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, is promoted by a Florida “think tank” and government contractor. It establishes a program that would allow the contractor to cancel Medicaid on citizens who could not produce written documentation of eligibility within 10 days.
Proponents say it would eliminate Medicaid fraud but opponents say that there is no evidence that there is enough Medicaid fraud in Oklahoma to justify the millions of dollars in cost.
According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma’s Medicaid error rate, which includes honest mistakes as well as fraud, is .3% – far below the national average of 5.9% and the lowest of 17 states studied. Also, a number of states that have enacted this legislation are or have been engaged in litigation with the private contractor which also paid a justice department fine of more than $63 million to settle allegations that it had defrauded the federal government.
Nonetheless, the bill passed out of the Rules Committee on a 6-3 vote with O’Donnell; Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh; Elise Hall, R-OKC; Zack Taylor, R-Seminole; Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa and Kevin West, R-Moore voting yes and Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa; Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs; and me voting no.
The Rules Committee also heard Republican Floor Leader Jon Echol’s HB 1074 [co-uthored by Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Lexington]. The bill was filed to exempt commercial tractor-trailers and oil and gas industry frac tanks from paying the sales tax imposed on all vehicle purchases last session. Proponents say that making the trucking and oil and gas industry pay sales tax on vehicle purchases was a mistake.
During the meeting, Rep. Kouplen requested that farm vehicles also be exempted from the sales tax – but the co-authors would not allow the amendment.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House