By Rep. Mike Sanders
The House convened in special session this week, but has recessed until a budget agreement can be reached. Recessing allows budget negotiations to continue without the $30,000 per day price tag attached to special session.
The first two days of the session, the House did everything constitutionally allowed. The state Constitution requires first, second and third reading of bills to be conducted on separate days before they are passed to the opposite chamber. So, on day one, we first-read the 142 House bills filed for special session and the two House joint resolutions. The second day we read the bills and resolutions a second time.
House leadership was prepared to come in on day three and vote for a cigarette tax increase of $1.50 to help fill the budget hole left when the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Smoking Cessation Act of 2017. This would have ensured health care agencies could continue without worry of cuts to their budgets this fiscal year. Yet, we had no indication that House Democrats were prepared to deliver the votes needed on this measure.
To raise any revenue requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. That is 76 votes in the House, which has only 72 Republicans currently. Without support from the opposite party, House leadership deemed it would be best to recess until a plan can be achieved that has the Senate and the governor’s support. This allows us to continue negotiating but at no cost to the taxpayer.
Let me be clear: I am not in favor of raising taxes, but in the case of the cigarette tax, more than 61 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Oklahomans polled have said they want this for health care. I’ve received calls about cutting government spending, and our plan will include targeted cuts. There are always ways to find efficiencies and strip duplicate even triplicate services out of agency budgets. To do this, though, we will need to aggressively audit agency budgets. We need to make sure government works for us and not the other way around.
In addition to the cigarette tax, House leadership has been willing to consider all other options to address the state budget hole. These include examining other tax incentives and increasing the gross production tax (GPT). Every one of these options has been thoroughly discussed and vetted, but we just do not have enough votes in the Republican Caucus to move on these issues. This requires give and take on both sides.
When I answered the call to serve in state government, I knew it would require me to be a statesman – to make tough calls that others may not be willing to make, sometimes being willing to compromise. Not everyone will agree with the plan to raise this cigarette tax. I don’t always agree with those I love, even my wonderful wife, Nellie, but sometimes the outcomes – in this case keeping our rural hospitals and nursing homes and ensuring our seniors and disabled adults receive services – are more important than the method.
The three agencies affected by the current budget hole – the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services – assured the Legislature in writing weeks ago that they could make it at least until the end of the calendar year if not months longer on current appropriations. This gives us time to develop the right plan while saving the taxpayer the money it costs for special session.
In any case, I was elected by the voters in my district, and that is who I work for. I don’t work for lobbyists or other interest groups. I work for you.
For now, the House stands in recess until a budget plan can be agreed upon by the House the Senate and the governor. If I have to work 24/7 and sleep in my office until that agreement is secured, I will do just that.