Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, has chided Governor Mary Fallin in wake of last week’s Medicaid provider cuts, saying her veto of a budget plan that emerged in the fall special session was responsible for the crunch.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority announcement of the provider ate cuts through Medicaid led McCall to issue a statement, sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations:
“The bill the governor vetoed would have stabilized the Health Care Authority’s budget until a more sustainable solution could be reached during the upcoming legislative session or a later special session. The plan wasn’t perfect, but it provided funding for those health agencies and programs most affected by the loss of revenue from the cigarette fee.”
The statement reiterated points McCall made when he (and other leading Republicans in the Legislature) expressed astonishment over Fallin’s veto, coming as it did after a challenging compromise budget kept spending cuts to just over two percent for most agencies, while maintaining financing for the HCA and other health-related programs.
McCall’s statement continued: “We understand the affect that provider cuts have on access to care, particularly in rural areas of the state. If the governor had signed the budget agreement, those cuts to provider rates and any potential cuts to other healthcare services in the coming months would have been avoided.”
The Sooner State’s chief executive defended her veto, which took Republican allies like state Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, by surprise. Echols at the time told The Oklahoman that he and others did not understand “what the intent of this [veto] is,” and observing it left “a lot of unanswered questions.” Echols and others “had no notice this was coming, and we were told she was going to sign it.”
After McCall’s most recent statement, Gov. Fallin said in a statement rebuking him:
“The budget bill that I vetoed was a short-time fix to a long-term problem. When we return to regular session next year to begin work on the 2019 fiscal year budget, we will be facing a budget gap of as much as $600 million and the reality that provider rates would be cut again. I believe we missed an opportunity to address our long-term structural budget problems in special session by continuing to kick the can down the road and failing to develop a predictable solution to fix our budget and fund our core services.”
Fallin asserted: “We didn’t get our job done. Unfortunately, it took my veto pen to bring the proper focus and attention to this matter. I am committed to addressing the health care needs of Oklahoma as I always have, and I look forward to working further with legislators to find solutions.”
The latest joust among the state’s top elected Republicans renewed a war of words that had moderated slightly last week, after the state House Special Investigation Committee pulled back subpoenas issued November 30 for three close aides of the GOP governor.
After behind-the-scenes exchanges, state Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette, announced the committee had been assured full cooperation from the trio – Preston Doerflinger, acting director of the Department of Health, Denise Northrup, acting director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, and Chris Benge, chief of staff for Gov. Mary Fallin – and would therefore not enforce subpoenas.
“In exchange for their voluntary cooperation, the committee is withdrawing its subpoena at this time. We are thankful for their willingness to appear by invitation, and I hope that others are willing to cooperate as well,” Cockroft said on Friday.
He commented, “Our belief is by starting with these three individuals we will get a broad understanding of how the agencies communicate with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services and the Governor’s Office regarding the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. With this overview, we can then move forward with specific inquiries into the financial mismanagement at the Department of Health, and other agencies as needed.”
The panel he chairs is tasked, among other things, with finding out how and why the Health Department shifted at least $30 million away from required purposes, in the most startling known example of such waste in recent years. Terry Cline, long-time commissioner at that agency, resigned without comment after the spending issues became public knowledge. Other top Health Department officials have also left their jobs in recent weeks.
Two months after The Oklahoman submitted open records requests to the Health Department, the records have not been provided.
Concerning the subpoenas, Fallin said she was “pleased this matter could be resolved professionally and amicably. This will bring all of us to focus and exert our energy and attention on developing a long-term, predictable solution to fix our budget, fund core services, and provide a teacher pay raise.” Doerflinger, former head of OMES who shifted to the Health Department after the “missing” $30 million became known, had characterized the subpoenas as “obviously hostile.”
After issuing the original subpoenas, Cockroft commented, “The mismanagement of more than $30 million in taxpayer dollars is incredibly frustrating for citizens and the members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Our constituents want answers, and we intend to find out how and why this happened.
“This is not a criminal investigation. Those are being handled by our law enforcement entities. But the Legislature has the sole authority and responsibility to appropriate taxpayer dollars, and we intend to make sure that is being done according to the law and for the intended purposes that those funds were appropriated.”
Article V, section 30 of the state Constitution grants investigative authority to the Legislature in stances of government misconduct, and the lower chamber’s rules allow committees to “inspect and investigate the books, records, papers, documents, data, operation and physical plant of any public agency in this state.”
Speaker McCall has said the investigation committee may look at other agencies.
In related news, three Republican representatives have established a “Hot Line” for public employees wanting to report, on a confidential basis, instances of waste, fraud and abuse in state government (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/analysis-fallin-s-order-and-conservative-doubts).
Further, a multi-county state grand jury has begun looking at the Health Department scandal.
And, the new Agency Performance and Accountability Commission, created with enactment of House Bill 2311, will hold its first meeting on Thursday (December 7) at 1 p.m. in Room 412C at the state Capitol.
The legislation, sponsored by Senate President Pro temp Mike Schulz, aims to conduct independent comprehensive performance audits “at least once every four years of the state “agencies with the top 20 highest appropriations.”
According to a statement form Schulz’s office, “The Legislature may use the results of the performance audits to craft policies that ensure government agencies and services are provided in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.”
Both Schulz and McCall expressed dismay and anger after Fallin’s unexpected veto of the special session budget.