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Fast and Furious: Democratic Party leaders assail GOP in wake of court ruling on tobacco tax

Monroe Nichols (left) and Colin Walke. Photos provided.
Oklahoma State Representatives Monroe Nichols (left) and Colin Walke. Photos provided.

Staff Report

OKLAHOMA CITY – Although widely anticipated, the Oklahoma state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision striking down the tobacco “fee” enacted in May is provoking reactions ranging from shocked to celebratory. To be sure, the judicial ruling has also provoked political positioning in anticipation of a possible (perhaps likely) special legislative session.

The City Sentinel’s initial report focuses on the minority party response.

On Thursday, August 11, Democratic leaders praised the state High Court’s ruling on Senate Bill 845, a law/budget measure projected to raise more than $200 million for this fiscal year’s state budget by charging cigarette wholesalers a $1.50 per pack tax.

The measure passed in the spring regular session on a vote of 51-43, a margin House Democrat leaders characterized, in a statement on Thursday (August 10) as “a partisan vote.”

Proposed revenue from S.B. 834 affects seven percent of the appropriated budget to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, ten percent of the appropriated budget to the Department of Human Services, and 23 percent of the appropriated budget to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

As asserted in a House Democratic staff release, “The court’s ruling will likely prompt a special session, costing the state an additional $30,000 per day, and requiring lawmakers to return to the capitol to fix the now incomplete budget.” State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said in the staff release:

“In order to appease special interests, Republicans made a decision to ignore the House Democratic Caucus, Oklahoma citizens and the Oklahoma Constitution. As a result of that decision, we are now facing a $200 million hole in our current budget. It is time for the Republican Leadership to stop playing political games and to start working on real solutions to fund state government. As we have been all year, the Democratic Caucus stands ready to negotiate a long-term solution to fix Oklahoma’s funding crisis.”

Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, a freshman Legislator said that he was elected to work for every day Oklahomans. He said in the staff release, sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, “The Democratic Caucus will not support a solution that depends on regressive taxes while wealthy individuals and corporations continue to receive government handouts through tax credits, exemptions, and a decade of irresponsible tax cuts. It is time for the Republican majority to realize that an investment in the people of Oklahoma is an investment in the future of our state and it is absolutely imperative that the cycle of crisis created by negligent budgeting practices end.”

Democrats conducted a public forum on budget issues at the House Chamber of the Oklahoma Capitol on August 3, inviting members to listen to statements regarding, the release said, “the importance of these now threatened core services and to begin the work to reach an agreement in the event any of the revenue raising measures were struck down.”

After the Forum, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman stated, “We were sent to the Capitol to act in the best interest of the people, to provide core services for those most in need, to fund our schools, and build infrastructure for growth.

The Democratic Caucus released a compromise budget plan that incorporated stable revenue to not only fill the budget shortfall, but also began the process of restoring cuts that have taken place over the last ten years.”

The House Democratic Caucus, in the release responding to the state Supreme Court ruling, urged Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, “to call a Special Session immediately. Several members are requesting legislation be drafted reflecting proposals contained in the Restoring Oklahoma Plan, released in March of this year, with the intention to maximize the time used in a Special Session to not only restore cuts tied to the cigarette tax but also to put Oklahoma on a better path forward.”

Democrats in the upper chamber of the Legislature were equally critical of the majority party. State Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, said in a statement this week, “The opinion … by the Oklahoma Supreme Court finding that the so-called ‘cigarette fee’ passed by the legislature was, in fact, an unconstitutional tax comes as no surprise. We knew this tax was unconstitutional when it was passed by the legislature back in May.”

Sparks stressed, “We made the same arguments that the Court has articulated.”

He continued, “This kind of unconstitutional legislation is nothing new from the Republican leadership at the Capitol.

Unfortunately, we are used to wasting money paying lawyers to defend their unconstitutional bills. What makes this situation new, and worse, is that now we are going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in a special session doing the job that should have been done back in May.

“We need to approach a special session thoughtfully with real plans for revenue measures that can fill the $215 million budget hole which has been created at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority and the Department of Human Services. We need to set clear priorities, take hard votes and make tough choices with all revenue options on the table for open, transparent discussion and debate. This is a time for cooperation and compromise. This is the time for a plan of action, accountability and real results. This is what our constituents demand of us and what they deserve from us with no exceptions and no excuses.

“We cannot continue to let the most vulnerable Oklahomans suffer because of a continued lack of leadership among the Republicans at the Capitol and their unwillingness to do the hard work and take the hard votes necessary to properly and fully fund our healthcare agencies.”

The Oklahoma state Democratic Party, speaking through communications director Angela Allmond, said Thursday a special session is just around the corner. The party statement asserted, “Republicans have failed Oklahomans. The Republican-Super-Majority had a chance to work together with Democrats on developing sustainable recurring revenue during session, but they instead chose to knowingly push through unconstitutional bills, wasting tax payer’s time and money.

“Oklahomans shouldn’t have to pay for Republican failures. It’s time for Republicans to step up and prove they care about Oklahomans and do their job. It’s time for Republicans to work with Democrats on a long-term sustaining recurring revenue plan.”

NOTE: Editor Pat McGuigan contributed to this report.

Emily Virgin and John Sparks. Photos provided.
State Rep. Emily Virgin and State Senator John Sparks. Photos provided.

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