Friday, May 26, 2017

Sine Die: Legislature passes budget, new taxes, adjourns


"There is nothing that will upset a state economic condition like a legislature. It's better to have termites in your house than the legislature [in session]."

"The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets."

"Never blame a legislative body for not doing something. When they do nothing, they don't hurt anybody. When they do something is when they become dangerous."

The above quotes from Will Rogers, Oklahoma's favorite son, come to mind when thinking about the potential from the 2017 legislative session that adjourned sine die today.

The House passed the $6.8B FY2018 budget by a vote of 57-42, with 16 House Republicans (mostly from the conservative wing) and all 26 Democrats voted against it. The Senate had previously passed the appropriations bill on Wednesday. Shortly after that vote, the House narrowly passed a $257M cigarette tax smoking cessation fee 51-43. 18 Republicans and 25 Democrats opposed that measure, which I believe fails to meet constitutional muster.

On the Senate side, they passed a $123M tax hike on vehicle sales, which also likely fails the constitutionality test. 14 Republicans and 4 Democrats voted against that bill, which passed 25-18.

Conservative think-tank OCPA had fairly positive comments about the end of session, noting that "the Legislature deserves credit for passing a budget that minimizes damaging tax increases on Oklahomans compared to what was called for at the start of session."

Governor Mary Fallin kicked off the year with proposals to raise a variety of taxes by nearly 2.6 billion dollars. While she did get her cigarette tax smoking cessation fee increase of $257M, she didn't get her $635M fuel tax increase, or her $1.7B sales tax hike. That is a positive that we can take from this session.

However, a real and very dangerous question must be answered by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The Legislature very clearly and brazenly defied Article 5, Section 33 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which states that "No revenue bill shall be passed during the five last days of the session," as well as "Any revenue bill originating in the House of Representatives may become law without being submitted to a vote of the people of the state if such bill receives the approval of three-fourths (3/4) of the membership of the House of Representatives and three-fourths (3/4) of the membership of the Senate and is submitted to the Governor for appropriate action." The aforementioned tax/fee hikes were passed within that 5-day window and without 3/4ths approval, clearly breaking the spirit and letter of the law, which is in the State Constitution by virtue of the Oklahoma voters passing State Question 640 in 1992 in response to the Legislature passing tax increases.

If the courts do not clearly respond to this action, future legislatures will be able to raise revenue at any time and in any manner with complete impunity.

Three takeaways:
  1. It was not a good legislative session. There were difficulties resolved in poor ways.
  2. It could have been much worse. Even greater damage was averted.
  3. It could be much worse in the future if Article 5 Section 33 of the Oklahoma Constitution is not properly enforced.

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