Apparently the Oklahoma Supreme Court wasn’t willing to wink.
As the session was drawing to a close, Oklahoma lawmakers weren’t close to closing the budget hole that existed at the start of the session.
They had tried to pass cigarette taxes in various forms but the State Question 640 provision that requires a 75% majority to raise taxes in Oklahoma proved to be a barrier the Republican supermajority couldn’t break.
As May was coming to an end, legislators faced passing the tax as a “fee” or failing to meet the constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget.
Legislators debated the measure knowing that they were passing the cigarette tax from earlier in the session and simply calling it a fee to lessen the burden for support.
Those against the measure warned that it would be challenged and a special session would be required.
They were right.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the measure didn’t pass constitutional muster as a fee. Justices pointed out that the revenue went to the Oklahoma Tax Commission and not an agency with the ability to help people stop smoking or provide health care for those who do.
The “smoking cessation fee” was going through a tax funnel, not a health funnel or smoking cessation program funnel.
If you find a six-foot tall animal in a stable, is it a horse or a goat? Oklahoma legislators might be able to wink and imagine that it could be a really tall goat. State Supreme Court justices know a horse when they see one.
A special session is now necessary to prevent hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to state health programs. This won’t be cheap or easy.
The balance in the legislature has changed a bit since the caucuses last met. There are a couple of new Democratic faces thanks to special elections to replace disgraced legislators who were forced to resign their seats during the session.
But Republicans still hold a significant supermajority and Mary Fallin is still in the Governor’s office.
With a 2018 gubernatorial election on the horizon, I am not able to convince myself that a bi-partisan deal will be struck to help the state. Both sides are far more concerned with partisan wins and losses and far less concerned about how their political tug of war affects the people they represent.
The gross production tax could be raised to a reasonable level. Even oil industry executives chuckle at the idea that they select sites for new wells based on a few percent increase or decrease in taxes. They drill where there is oil. We have a working oil well on the governor’s mansion lawn. That has to mean something.
I think the GOP legislators are listening to their fringe more than their base. Most people are willing to pay a little more to make sure Oklahoma can educate its students, pave its roads and provide services to those who need them.
The political games of the special session will be interesting. Hopefully both sides can put politics aside and do what is right.
I had a friend who always reminded me that hope is important but it is a bad strategy. Call your legislators and tell them you want a real, repeatable solution to our revenue problems in the state.
They have a second chance to do it right. Let your representatives and senators know that you expect them to listen to you and not lobbyists and loud caucus members.
If you care about the future of the state - near term and long term - it is time to act.