‘24’ at the Capitol: A day of verbal warfare, or a hiccup?

Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 14-May-2010

At mid-morning on Wednesday (May 12), a visibly upset Glenn Coffee, the Republican president pro tem of the Oklahoma Senate, met with state Capitol reporters.

While remaining “respectful of the confidential nature of the discussions with the governor,” Sen. Coffee made clear that he was upset with “legislative Democrats” for insisting on passage of a hospital provider “fee.” The issue threatened to derail progress toward a budget accord.

Coffee said, “It is important to have the basic funding in place. If not, we will have to advance without the legislative Democrats to get the funding in place. … Now, if we can’t put together an agreement, we will have to reduce some funding more than we want to.” He stressed, “I want to emphasize that it is my preference and desire to stay at the table and stick with it until we have a budget agreement.”

Concerning the proposed levy, he said, “If the legislative Democrats want to follow Barack Obama’s lead, they can try to get it done. They can’t have it both ways. They can support the process and the negotiations process, or not.” He continued, “The governor understands where we are, I believe. We have $5.4 billion certified, compared to a $6.8 or $6.9 budget originally envisioned. That’s the gap. It’s that simple.”

Soon thereafter, most House and Senate Democrats met with journalists to make their case. Leading the group were state Sen. Andrew Rice and state Rep. Scott Inman, both of Oklahoma City, who have been designated next year’s leaders of their party in the respective chambers.

Rice said members were “united to do our best to assure there are zero cuts or no cuts to the budget. A hospital provider fee is desired by the industry, supported by the industry.” Such a fee, he said, “would enable to save thousands of Oklahomans from what will otherwise be terrible cuts.

Inman declared, “We are going to stand with the constituents we represent. These folks have already endured 15% cuts. It is clear that many in the other party are comfortable with … more in cuts. We are not.”

Rice said the envisioned fee would “enable us to generate $400 million in income for the health care system, plus another $800 million through the federal match.” He said, “If they don’t give us a vote on this, we will stall, we will withhold the emergency clause.” (Emergency clauses are needed for legislation to take effect immediately after a governor’s signature. Otherwise, there is a three-month delay in implementation.) 

Rice said budget negotiations have been “backroom closed-door meetings. We have not been included.” The group repeatedly stressed the budget does not take effect, even under an emergency clause, until July 1.  Rice said, “They need our votes. They need us.”

Rice also said, “There is one person who’s stopping this from happening and that is Glenn Coffee.” Saying the fee was designed to trigger federal matching funds, Rice asked, “Why should we let our dollars go to Washington, D.C.?”

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Sen. Rice said the fee proposal had been in Governor Brad Henry’s “budget from the very beginning.” (Later, in response to a follow-up, Paul Sund, the governor’s spokesman said, “Gov. Henry is supportive of the provider fee concept and has been for several years.  While it was not in this year’s budget book, it has been previously.”)

At Wednesday’s event, Rep. Inman asserted, “This is not a tax increase. This is a fee. These are venue enhancements without one single dollar of tax increase. Rep. Danny Morgan of Prague, the current leader of House Democrats, stressed, “This is not a new idea. It is something the hospitals have put forth.”

Thursday morning, Speaker of the House Chris Benge responded to assertions he had been part of a closed or inappropriate process. He told the Capitol press corps, “I would characterize the talks we’ve had as good. We just had a meeting with the governor that was productive.”

He reflected, “Some of the criticisms have come from people who are only remotely connected to the budget discussions. The provider fee proposal has been out there as a point of discussion and we’ve listened to what people have said.”

He continued, “It is true that eventually medical funding simply has to be addressed. We have to do that to maintain our medical infrastructure. We’ve used a lot of the stimulus money to address our medical infrastructure and funding issues.”

Pressed on whether or not the provider fee is a tax, he said, “I honestly don’t know at this point. I would only be able to make a decision on that if I could see on paper exactly what it is that is being talked about.”

Benge characterized the contentious rhetoric as “a hiccup. Every year the budget process goes in fits and starts. People find things to disagree about. I just do not see the provider fee as a major problem. I’ve been a part of several of these processes. I believe there is absolutely still time to do this, to get an agreement.”

He did not accept most criticisms as valid, saying, “It’s important to remember that we had to start with a process of backfill on the 2010 budget when we got back this year. We had to address that first and that might make it seem like we have had no time for the other issues. The bottom line is we have had income that is 20-25% below prior estimates.”

Much of the shouting “is healthy. Members are expressing their opinions and criticisms in real time, on an ongoing basis. We have had input from the whole body, from every part of the Legislature. That’s healthy, but you cannot have 101 different budget proposals.”

CapitolBeatOK pressed: “Is some of this posturing?” Benge replied, “There is definitely some posturing there. I can’t believe that when it comes down to the end on the tax credits and some of the tax exemptions, on the standard deduction and on the low income tax credit they would be for doing away with those and causing those constituencies to suffer.”

He continued, “We used to complain when we were the minority. And they certainly complain about it now.”

Asked if it were possible the budget process could be derailed or unhinged by the clash of ideas now underway, Benge said, “That is a possibility every single year. That is always a risk. We’re not any more at risk this year than any other year. We will get a final budget.”

He added, “If the Democrats carry through on the threat to deny the emergency cause on individual bills we could have a problem. A number of the agencies would have a serious cash crunch for awhile. I have to believe they don’t want to do that. If they do, and they go ahead and deny the emergency, many agencies will have terrible problems until September. And there will be a delay in paying bills.”

By the time of his briefing for reporters at mid-day Thursday, Coffee said he believed a timely budget agreement would be reached and announced.

On the issue of contention, he insisted, “Concerning the provider fee, it is a tax. I am opposed to it. I voted to keep it alive, but have not supported it on the merits. … [I]f it’s a tax, it will require a three-fourths majority. Even if we didn’t disagree on that among ourselves here at the Capitol, we can be certain there would be litigation from others.” (A new tax requires a vote of the people.) He said, “I do not believe the provider fee debate will be an impediment to reaching agreement.”

Concerning criticisms of the process in which he has been a key player, he said, “I’ve never thought chaos was a good way to do business. As for the claim they’ve not been in the discussion, the governor has been a critical part of the discussion, and he has been informing the Democratic caucus of what’s gone on.”

He continued, “It’s still early compared to all of the other budget agreements I remember. We are working through a process that has worked for hundreds of years. I think it’s kind of a function of human nature that people will use the amount of time available and expand the number of issues they raise to fit that time.

“I’m not sure there’s a good alternative to the process of fact-finding, discussion with the media, answering questions from reporters, from members, from the general public. You have seen that in the way we have examined at length in open hearings the effect the possible budget cuts will have on the agencies of government and on the services they provide.”