by Rep. Mike Sanders
As you have probably heard by now, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the $1.50 per pack cigarette fee the Oklahoma Legislature passed in May. The high court is a co-equal branch of government, and the justices acted in accordance with the state constitution. People may differ on decisions that were made, but at the end of the day, as Oklahomans, we clearly support the rule of law and the system we hold dear.
By way of background, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 845 – also known as the Smoking Cessation Act of 2017 – in the final days of the legislative session this year. This bill set up a framework with the majority of the money generated going into a newly created Health Care Enhancement Fund. SB 845 was intended to reduce tobacco consumption and lessen health-related costs from tobacco-induced illnesses, and it would have generated more than $200 million.
Tobacco companies, unsurprisingly, challenged the measure because it would have affected their profit margins.
So where do we go from here?
I know some of you may be nervous and wondering what this all means for rural hospitals and health care providers. Rest assured, the Speaker of the House and the Chair of the House Appropriations & Budget Committee have met with the Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services. All three agencies have given House leadership their word that they can sustain services for several months.
Accordingly, this allows the Legislature to carefully consider our best course of action. Before we can choose the most efficient and effective path forward, we must know exactly what we’re dealing with. There are currently two other cases before the Supreme Court that could also impact the state’s bottom line. Once the court rules on those issues, we’ll have much more clarity as to what the state faces.
Additionally, Oklahoma’s economy is rebounding. Sales tax receipts and income tax are both on the rise, and we have about $83 million in an unexpected carryover from Fiscal Year 2017. These are great signs. All of these facts will cushion the hole and allow the Speaker time to talk with Gov. Mary Fallin and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate before finalizing a plan. There will be no knee-jerk reactions.
I can promise you one thing for sure: the Oklahoma Legislature will not leave these three affected agencies in the lurch. Lawmakers do not want to see the residents of this great state lose access to their health care, and I vow to fight for Oklahomans every step of the way.