Spe­cial ses­sion has been any­thing but that

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

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.

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