Four Takeaways From The 2014 Legislative Session

Jun 9, 2014

Now that the dust has settled at the state Capitol after the May 23 end of the 2014 Oklahoma legislative session, journalists, lobbyists and the public will try to figure out what the legislature did (or didn’t) accomplish as lawmakers shift their focus to a contentious primary season ahead of June 24.

University of Oklahoma political scientist and regular KGOU contributor Keith Gaddie gathered three Capitol reporters to sort through the metaphoric (and literal) rubble surrounding the intersection of Northeast 23rd Street and Lincoln Blvd.

Here are four observations from the second session of the 54th Oklahoma Legislature:

Tensions High Even Though Session Started With A Whimper

Journal Record state Capitol bureau chief M. Scott Carter said overall, it was one of the more contentious sessions he's seen in a long time.

"It was very rocky, it was very uneven," Carter says. "Some of that may have been because leadership was changing in the House, and that's to be expected, but if I was going to give the session as a whole a grade, it would probably be in the low C's."

eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley said Gov. Mary Fallin's initial budget proposal after her February State of the State Address, coupled with what the legislative leadership planned to focus on, made the next four months look less-than-exciting.

"There were things we had heard in the past, such as proposals for an individual income tax cut, renewed efforts to try to fund repairs to the state Capitol building, efforts to fund the American Indian Cultural Center [and Museum]," Ashley said. "It wasn't like the trailer for the film was that exciting, and when you watched the film, the film lived up to the trailer."

If he had to assign a letter grade to the session, Logan Layden with StateImpact Oklahoma said he would award an "incomplete" due to little movement on natural resources, water, and mining issues.

"There just wasn't a whole lot of progress on some of these issues," Layden said. "When you talk about things like water infrastructure, it's a multi-billion dollar problem in Oklahoma, so something like that Drought Proof Communities Act, which would've ended up allowing small towns to get more money to fix some of their 100-year-old pipes and things, it would've helped a bit, but it stalled out."

Fuzzy Math, Few Budget Winners

Lawmakers started the session with a $171 million budget shortfall that grew by $17 million when the State Board of Equalization certified $6.9 billion in available revenue, leaving a total hole of $188 million compared to the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

Ashley says the FY15 budget appears to reduce spending on the surface, but it took some creative math to get there.

“Rather than increasing budgets for most state agencies for the upcoming fiscal year, a number of state agencies received what they called 'supplemental funding' for the current fiscal year,” Ashley said. “Most of that money is not going to be spent by the end of this month, the end of the fiscal year. So indirectly, they increased their budget for next fiscal year by putting a little extra in their pocket now.”

Most state agencies took a 5.5 percent across-the-board budget cut, which Carter says hurts smaller outfits like the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority and the Oklahoma Arts Council far more than larger state agencies. But even groups that weathered no cuts still come up short.

“Goods and services always increase,” Carter said. “The rest of the world goes on, and so those costs grow and you have with a standstill budget less money to spend. Half of the $80 million [increase in Common Education funding] the legislature is trumpeting is going to cover health care costs.”

And these cuts come on top of previous budget reductions, and Ashley says year after year of cuts has agency heads frustrated.

“Keep in mind the single largest cost for all of state government is personnel,” Ashley said. “And you reach a point when you've eliminated all the paper in the office, that then you have to start looking at eliminating people, and eliminating people affects programs.”

Layden says many smaller agencies he’s interviewed are happy to just still exist.

Horizontal Headache

As StateImpact Oklahoma’s Joe Wertz reported Thursday, a measure Fallin signed into law two weeks ago setting the tax rate on new oil and gas wells represented a crowning achievement for Republicans during the session. But it’s already being questioned by Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent, who has successfully challenged the constitutionality of legislation in the past:

In 1992, voters approved State Question 640, an amendment to the state constitution putting extra burdens on passing revenue bills.

"No revenue bill shall be passed during the last five days of the session,” Fent said. “Also, revenue bills must be approved by three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate."

But the legislature adjourned a week early, so what exactly does “last five days of the session” mean?

“That's the only component of Fent's lawsuit that I think is weak,” Carter said. “He's handed the court a good issue to chew on about revenue, because there hasn't been a direction from the court on what does that mean. The thing I think may trip him up… I would hazard to guess, that the court would look at that 90 legislative days, the last week of session would be the last week in May, and not the week that the legislature chose to adjourn.”

But Ashley pointed out that both the House and Senate established they would adjourn May 23 before passing the gross production tax cut.

“They may have boxed themselves into a corner if the issue of the final five days of the legislative issue is an important issue for the court in this case,” Ashley said.

Education Frustration

Fallin vetoed several pieces of legislation to get the attention of state lawmakers, including striking a measure dealing with third grade reading standards and the promotion of students. The retention issue and the fight over Common Core standards points to a larger dispute over who has control of public education in the state of Oklahoma?

“There has been, for several years, this growing frustration with state government on education mandates. You say you want us to have local control, but yet you give us all these mandates,” Carter said. “That’s why you saw 25,000 school teachers come to the Capitol. You could look at it the say way the federal government has approached tribal sovereignty. We haven’t come up with a definitive plan.”

Ashley says education officials are now concerned that there’s not enough funding appropriated to pay for the standards lawmakers have passed and want to implement.

“So now we have Republican legislators who are at odds with the State Department of Education that is going to be setting the curriculum if we repeal Common Core, and then you have parents and teachers who are concerned as well,” Ashley said. “That's a growing battle.”

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