House leader working on ‘tweaks’ to failed tax plan


By Sean Murphy - Associated Press



OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Work already has begun on potential “tweaks” to a broad tax-increase plan to shore up the state’s budget and generate funding for a teacher pay raise, a top Republican Oklahoma lawmaker said Friday.

Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols said he’s remaining in touch with the governor’s office and working on potential “tweaks” to the sweeping package of tax hikes on tobacco, fuel, alcohol, and oil and gas production that fell five votes short in the House after an eight-week special session.

“I have been speaking to ‘no’ vote members since that vote occurred, and none of them have expressed to me they have changed their votes,” said Echols, a Republican from Oklahoma City, “so I’m exploring options about how we could make tweaks to the plan to bring more votes.”

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed a backup budget plan approved by lawmakers that would have further slashed agency budgets, and she implored them to return for a second special session. A date for the session hasn’t been set, and Fallin hasn’t outlined her call for what lawmakers can consider.

Here is what you need to know about Oklahoma’s ongoing budget problem and special sessions.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Oklahoma’s fiscal year 2018 budget — an already-reduced spending plan pieced together with one-time funding sources — was thrown even more out of balance when the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined a $1.50-per-pack “fee” on cigarettes was an unconstitutional tax. The court said it needed a constitutionally required three-fourth’s vote in the Legislature for approval, among other things. That decision eliminated an estimated $215 million from the budget that had been earmarked for three agencies: the Department of Human Services, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the state’s Medicaid agency, the Health Care Authority.

WHAT DID THE LEGISLATURE DO?

The Legislature returned for a special session and nearly approved a massive new tax-hike plan that would have generated about $430 million in recurring revenue each year from increases in taxes on motor fuel, tobacco, alcohol and energy production. It would have funded a $3,000 pay raise for teachers and a $1,000 boost for most state workers. The Senate had the votes and the governor was ready to sign it, but only 71 of the House’s 101 members voted for the package, falling short of the 76-vote threshold for tax increases. Democrats and Republicans opposed it.

After the so-called “Plan A” failed, the Legislature reverted to a secondary proposal that included raids on one-time sources of revenue like agency savings accounts and cuts to most agency budgets.

WHAT DID THE GOVERNOR DO?

Fallin vetoed most of the secondary plan, but left in place some funding for the human services and mental health departments and the Health Care Authority, as well as an emergency appropriation to the State Department of Health.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Fallin vowed to call the Legislature back for a second special session to try once again to reach an agreement on a plan to generate new revenue through tax increases. She said she expects to announce details of her special session call next week.

By Sean Murphy

Associated Press

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