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Legislature passes general appropriations bill after debate

Legislature passes general appropriations bill after debate

Article first appeared in the Journal Record.

May 22, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma Legislature is directed by the state constitution to do just one job – write a balanced budget. Well into the evening on the day before adjournment, lawmakers bitterly fought over the balanced budget legislative leaders had proposed – before voting overwhelmingly to pass the bill.

“Shame on you,” said state Rep. Glen Bud Smithson, D-Sallisaw, at least a dozen times during his debate against Senate Bill 216. Smithson chastised his fellow lawmakers for including more than $5 million for renovating their offices in a budget that cuts the appropriation for veterans, mental health and other key areas of government.

State Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, slowed the process on Wednesday by questioning each of the appropriations bills that came to a vote on the floor of the state House of Representatives. Each of the hundreds of state agencies, boards and commissions in Oklahoma would have their own appropriations bill, and Reynolds gave no indication he would give up after just a few.

The Legislature has the option to pass all of its appropriations measures as one general appropriations bill. However, only one general appropriations bill is allowed per session under the constitution, preventing the Legislature from going back and passing additional spending bills this session.

“I hope to accomplish transparency,” said Reynolds on Thursday. “People talk about how hard the Legislature is working – the Legislature is working hard to make sure the budget is not transparent.”

The legislative system directs members of seven appropriations subcommittees in the House and six appropriations subcommittees in the Senate to make decisions on how much money the agencies under their authority will need for the next fiscal year. Those recommendations are supposed to be vetted by the full membership of House and Senate Appropriations committees and the Legislature as a whole.

Instead, the practice has been that lawmakers will vote earlier in the session to pass empty shell bills that have zeros where the appropriation amount should be. Those bills are used as vehicles for the House and Senate leadership to use at the end of the session to pass the budget legislative leaders devise.

Though members of the legislative leadership assert that the recommendations made by committees were taken into account, only a few lawmakers were invited to the negotiating table when the final budget was worked out. The budget agreement includes $7.1 billion in spending, and makes use of $631 million in federal stimulus funds.

To say that most agencies took a 7-percent cut is a distortion of the facts, said Reynolds, because several agencies are able to collect fees on their own and may have their own “slush funds” of surplus money carried over from the previous year.

“I just found out today the Oklahoma Supreme Court has $30 million hidden away,” said Reynolds. “I’m trying to find out if anybody else has money like that squirreled away.”

Once this year’s general appropriations bill, SB 216, reached the House floor later on Thursday, Reynolds wasn’t the only one willing to debate and rail against the process. State Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, noted the budget agreement contains $60 million in “revenue enhancements,” also known as fee increases for state agencies. Several Democrats debated against passage of the bill, though they realized passing SB 216 could shave hours off the process and allow lawmakers to adjourn a week ahead of the constitutionally mandated deadline.

“We do not have time to reopen this budget,” said state Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Contrary to the implications made in debate, state troopers will not need to be furloughed, said Miller. He defended the renovations to lawmakers’ offices as the responsibility of the current leaders to maintain the building where the people’s business gets done.

After nearly three hours of debating the fine points of the budget, House members finally voted 92-7 to pass the bill, which now goes to Gov. Brad Henry for his signature.

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