Osborn sketches “one of the strangest” legislative sessions ever, Morrissette calls it “unbelievably bad”

OKLAHOMA CITY – One lawmaker described the recently completed legislative session as “strange,” while another asserted that it was unproductive and “incredibly bad.”

The post-mortems were aired on the “Your Vote Counts” program that was broadcast Sunday and later was posted to the Internet.

Moderator Scott Mitchell noted that the news in the 2015 session’s final days was dominated by the stormy weather, by a GOP conference in Oklahoma City, and by the Memorial Day holiday. Consequently there was “very little media coverage” of the annual four-month regular legislative session, which adjourned on May 22.

So, Mitchell asked metaphorically, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around when it happens, did it make a sound?”

Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, said this year’s legislative session was “the strangest one I’ve been through” in her seven years at the State Capitol. 

Efforts to plug the $611 million hole in the state budget “sucked all the air out of the room.” However, she said, prescription monitoring legislation was signed into law, and the right-to-farm issue was approved for submission to state voters ( in the not-too-distant future).

(Earlier this spring, state Rep. Scott Inman, the House Democratic leader from Del City, had characterized the session as the least eventful of his career.)

“This session was unbelievably bad,” countered Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. The budget gap “was a disaster of the Republicans’ making,” he asserted. “They have super-majorities in both the House and the Senate” and the governor, too, is Republican.

The shortfall was filled by siphoning $50 million from the Unclaimed Property Fund, $150 million from the state’s “rainy day” savings account, more than $125 million was diverted from 40 revolving funds, and 49 state agencies – including Veterans Affairs, the Transportation Department, Tourism, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority – experienced budget cuts ranging from 0.75% to 7.25%.

In addition, Morrissette said, the Republican majority did not touch the $1.6 billion in tax credits enjoyed by several wealthy corporations, and worthwhile legislation pertaining to nursing homes and regulatory agencies “got killed” by the majority party.

The State Department of Education received a standstill budget, and the Health Care Authority received an additional $18 million in its appropriation, Osborn related. Nico Gomez, the HCA’s chief executive officer, said last month that the $18 million from the Legislature will be coupled with $20 million remaining from the agency’s previous budget.

The Health Care Authority actually needed an extra $78 million, largely because of a reduction in the federal dollars it receives for Oklahoma’s Medicaid program that serves low-income citizens, the Legislature was informed earlier this year. 

In addition, the General Appropriations bill approved in May diverted $25 million from a Health Care Authority revolving fund that pays premiums for the Insure Oklahoma program for low-income citizens.

That left the HCA with a shortage of at least $65 million, in the agency’s view.

The Health Care Authority provided Medicaid services to more than one million aged, blind and disabled Oklahoma adults and children – approximately 25% of the entire state population – in Fiscal Year 2013-14.

As for the Department of Education, it effectively received a budget cut even though its appropriation was not reduced, Morrissette and others contend.

Increased enrollment last year of 7,000 students, to 688,000 children statewide, means more money is needed to hire more teachers and to buy more classroom textbooks and other materials. 

As an illustration, a flat budget for common education will result in a $2.8 million funding shortage for the Oklahoma City public school district, the largest district in this state, because of increased enrollment, some analysts conclude.

House Democratic Leader Scott Inman “said rural people got the shaft in this budget,” said Mitchell. He asked whether that was an accurate assessment.

The appropriation to the Rural Economic Action Plan “was the payoff for rural Oklahoma” in the budget, Osborn said. The Legislature appropriated $10.88 million to the REAP for infrastructure improvements in smaller communities in FY 2016, the same amount that was appropriated in FY 2015.

However, the REAP was established at $15 million when it was created in 1996 by Democrats who dominated the House of Representatives. Thus, the REAP has been reduced by 27 percent in recent years, ledgers reflect.

Morrissette pointed out that the GOP siphoned $72 million from the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges (CIRB) fund just days before a wave of “torrential rains” damaged or destroyed numerous county roads and bridges. Moreover, not a single Republican legislator nor the governor contacted any county commissioners before they diverted the CIRB funds, he charged.

“We need a special session” of the Legislature to appropriate funds from the “rainy day” account to start the recovery process, Morrissette asserted. Nevertheless, “We will not have a special session,” he predicted. “We will turn a blind eye” to the counties’ “misery.”

There was indeed “a lot of damage” to county roads and bridges after the legislative session ended, but that could not be foreseen, Osborn said. The governor and her staff are “researching every means available” to help. “Right now we’re in discovery mode” to get an accurate estimate of the damage before deciding what steps to take, Osborn said.

Finally, Osborn boasted that Oklahoma has “one of the best” unemployment rates in the nation, but Morrissette fired back with, “We have the lowest wages in the country.”

“Your Vote Counts” is a 10-minute program that features a point-counterpoint format. It airs Sunday mornings on KWTV-9 in Oklahoma City; afterward, the show is uploaded to the Internet at www.news9.com/yourvotecounts .