Special session has been anything but that
AS week seven of the Legislature’s special session came to a close, we couldn’t help but think — what’s been so special about it? Everything lawmakers have been dealing with during the session could have — should have — been addressed during the regular session this spring, or in previous years. A cigarette tax increase, a fuel tax increase, teacher pay raises … all have been discussed at length in recent years.
Yet lawmakers did nothing about them from February through May, the four months when voters expect them to get their work done. GOP leaders ultimately relied on a gimmick — a $1.50-per-pack smoking cession “fee” — to build part of the fiscal year 2018 budget. The fee, not surprisingly, was declared invalid by the state Supreme Court, producing the $215 million hole that prompted the special session call by Gov. Mary Fallin.
The court’s slam-dunk ruling left the prospect of three major health agencies losing large chunks of their state funding — in the case of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services, 23 percent of its FY 18 state appropriation. This has caused, as one might expect, considerable angst at these agencies and among the various entities served by them.
Fallin called the special session to fill the budget hole, and instructed lawmakers to do other things including come up with a way to boost teacher pay. The session began Monday, Sept. 25, and has dragged on (and on) as negotiations among Republicans and Democrats have continued.
It costs about $30,000 per day for a special session, and taxpayers can be thankful the meter hasn’t been running every day throughout the seven weeks. Instead, occasional suspensions have meant members have officially met about 15 times. Still, the tab is significant — roughly $450,000, money that shouldn’t have needed to be spent.
Speaking of waste, revenue from a cigarette tax — by far the most popular tax in polling of likely voters— could have been accruing starting in July, the beginning of the fiscal year, if lawmakers had done their jobs and approved it as a tax during the regular session. Instead it remains undone, five months into the current fiscal year, and the prospects of a cigarette tax being approved now appear remote if not entirely nil. Consequently, the mental health department, the Department of Human Services and the state’s Medicaid agency are left to wonder whether truly debilitating cuts in services will need to be made.
For politicians from both parties, the special session so far has been little more than a platform to blast members of the opposition party. Some of the rhetoric employed has been ridiculous, all of it aimed at gaining some advantage for the next election cycle. It’s been a disheartening display.
Partisan politics kept important legislation from advancing during the regular session, and it has contributed greatly to the special session lasting so long. The truth is that neither side of the aisle has anything to crow about, unless it’s to tell Oklahomans they’re sorry for accomplishing so little at a time when so much is needed.