OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — While hundreds of anti-abortion activists descended on the Oklahoma Capitol for a rally on Wednesday, a GOP-led House committee failed to pass an anti-abortion bill in a move that could signal a shift in priorities for Republican lawmakers in a deep-red state.
Three freshman Republicans on the House Public Health Committee joined with a Democrat voting against a bill to prohibit abortions based on the diagnosis of a fetal abnormality or Down syndrome. The 4-4 vote, which only temporarily stalls the bill, is a signal that at least some GOP lawmakers are growing weary of anti-abortion bills getting tied up in court.
Oklahoma's Republican-led Legislature has passed some of the country's most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation, but many of the proposals have either been tossed by the courts or remain temporarily halted while lawsuits are pending.
"For the record, I'm a pro-life candidate, but I also believe in fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, who voted against the measure. "We don't have the money to defend this bill, so that's why I stood against it.
"I think we have business to do here, and the business is to get our financial ship righted again."
The other Republicans who voted against the measure voiced similar concerns.
Oklahoma is facing a budget hole of nearly $870 million, or about 12 percent of state spending, marking the third consecutive year of a budget gap as a result of the slumping energy industry and tax cuts approved in recent years.
The bill stalled on the day of an annual anti-abortion rally known as Rose Day, when activists hand out roses to legislators to show their opposition to abortion.
Chairman Rep. Mike Ritze said he was surprised Republicans voted against the bill and that he'll likely bring it up again next week. He held open the vote on the bill to give House Speaker Charles McCall an opportunity to cast a deciding vote, but McCall was out of town.
"I didn't know the vote would be that close," said Ritze, R-Broken Arrow.
At least 11 anti-abortion bills have been introduced this session, including one that classifies the procedure as first-degree murder, but it's unlikely many of those will reach the governor's desk. The Legislature last year approved a bill to make it a felony punishable by up to three years in prison for anyone who performs an abortion, but Republican Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed it, saying it was clearly unconstitutional.
"If anything, what I think we saw from the vote today is that legislators want to get to work, legislators want to fix our roads, make sure that all Oklahomans have access to health care," said Tamya Cox, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Great Plains. "They don't want to have to continue to work on bills that are naturally going to end up in court."
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, about 4,330 abortions were performed in Oklahoma last year, the fewest number since 2002.
There currently are four clinics that offer abortion in Oklahoma, including two that opened within the last year in the Oklahoma City area. The others are in Norman and Tulsa.