Legislative session comes to an end

Ray Carter | May 24, 2019

Legislative session comes to an end

Ray Carter

The Oklahoma Legislature effectively ended this year’s session on Thursday when lawmakers passed a resolution allowing both chambers to stand adjourned for more than three days and declaring sine die adjournment will occur by 5 p.m. on May 31.

Technically, both chambers could reconvene next week, potentially to override a veto by Gov. Kevin Stitt, but there was no immediate indication they plan to do so.

The session ended with lawmakers passing an $8.1 billion budget, which marks the first time state appropriations have exceeded $8 billion in Oklahoma history. The budget included a second annual pay raise for both teachers and all other state employees, but lawmakers were also able to set aside $200 million of this year’s surplus into savings. By mid-summer it is estimated Oklahoma government will have $1 billion in total savings.

Lawmakers also approved several reforms supporters said would bring greater accountability to the operation of state agencies. This included granting Gov. Kevin Stitt the power to appoint the head of five major state agencies and creation of a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT), which will conduct performance evaluations of agencies. Another $700,000 was provided to hire additional state auditors to conduct more audits of agencies.

In the area of criminal justice reform, lawmakers voted to directly appropriate $20 million to district attorney offices to reduce their reliance on fines and fees levied on criminal defendants and $10 million was provided for “Smart on Crime” diversion programs. On the session’s last day, a measure was passed to make retroactive some sentencing reforms approved by voters through ballot initiatives.

One transparency measure that became law requires state agencies to report the use of all federal funds in a transparent manner. Reporting on total state government spending—including all state, local, and federal dollars—is so opaque that estimates of total government spending vary by billions. While there are four sources that report total Oklahoma state government spending, they provide four different figures that are out of alignment by as much as $16 billion.

Lawmakers also approved Oklahoma Supreme Court redistricting that increases the pool of potential jurists by hundreds in some instances.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, called it “a very productive session.”

“We came in to this session seeking solutions,” McCall said. “I think we found solutions to many things. There’s always much more work to be done and we will take that up in the interim and be prepared for next session.”

Democrats gave the session mixed reviews. Sen. Kay Floyd, the Oklahoma City lawmaker who heads the Senate Democratic caucus, credited last year’s tax increases with generating the revenue that allowed this year’s spending increases.

“We did make some strides in education,” Floyd said. “As I said, we’re not nearly where we need to be.”

She also cited criminal justice reform measures as a session success, but said Democrats were disappointed more money was not put into education and that Medicaid was not expanded to include able-bodied adults.

Democrats have complained about setting $200 million into savings, saying that money should be spent today. Floyd returned to that theme again in post-session comments.

“We are hopeful that the governor will look at the $200 million that he wants to add to our additional savings,” Floyd said. “We are on track to have over $800 million in the Rainy Day Fund. Our caucus believes that we should take some of the additional $200 million that the governor wants to put into savings, and use at least part of that for needs that we have in the state right now.”

The $200 million was placed into the state’s Revenue Stabilization Fund, which was created through statutes, not constitutional amendment. As a result, lawmakers can more easily raid that fund in the future. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat concedes that lawmakers “will have to be disciplined” to resist the temptation to drain the fund outside years of budget shortfall.

“It’s there for a reason,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “It’s for downturns, so we need to make sure it doesn’t turn into a fund that you can just raid at whim.”

However, he noted that Republicans voted to raise taxes repeatedly in recent years and said they don’t want to face a similar environment again.

“I think that you have people who served through that process and are very, very serious about making sure we don’t get in a situation where we have to have those tough of discussions again,” Treat said.

In listing what he considered the session’s successes, Treat said he is “excited to see what LOFT brings about and uncovers and allows us to do our job better. That’ll get started in July.”

And he cited criminal justice reform as a success, but stressed that this year’s measures are just the beginning.

“We got some stuff done on criminal justice reform,” Treat said. “We just didn’t get as many things as I would have like to have seen get done.”

While lawmakers boosted K-12 funding, they passed no reform designed to improve academic outcomes or student opportunities. Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (parent organization of the Center for Independent Journalism), praised lawmakers for passage of non-education reforms but cited the failure to do the same for education as a major omission.

“This year the Legislature advanced many important reforms that OCPA has endorsed for years. Those measures, if implemented correctly, should result in better oversight of government and less waste,” Small said. “However, the Legislature’s inability to expand the Equal Opportunity Scholarship program is a particularly glaring failure, especially since lawmakers doubled a ‘Hollywood handout,’ a voucher that sends millions of dollars to out-of-state producers such as disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Thousands of children with special needs, kids struggling with addiction, and students living with the challenges of poverty are desperately seeking to attend schools that can best serve them, and this session let them down. Those children deserve better, and OCPA will continue to advocate for them.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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