Titanic Thursday: Dueling Descriptions of budget talks yield a day of deadlock
Published: May 19th, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY – Early on Thursday afternoon (May 18) Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, walked into the Capitol print news room for an unscheduled session with reporters.
In the course of that conversation, he replied to a question from this reporter, speculating that loss of work time due to bad weather around the state might mean that budget negotiations were going to be delayed so long that legislators would have to be under the dome all weekend to make up for lost time.
McCall said, “I’m committed to be here through the weekend, if that’s what is necessary.”
Earlier in the session, McCall asserted to reporters, “one party has broken off negotiations.”
Asked who that was, McCall told the journalists that Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, had left the negotiating table earlier in the day.
McCall said, “There’s no questions there are differences of opinion. We had not made a deal.”
He said the disagreement is over “what that rate” (in the gross production tax levied on the state’s oil and gas industry) should be.
He said right now “not everybody is at the table. Both sides need to give.” McCall told reporters, “It’s no secret we need bipartisan agreement.”
During a previously scheduled press conference that began in the Capitol broadcast press room just after 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, House Minority Leader Scott Inman said he and Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman, had left a meeting with Republican leaders, held Wednesday evening, believing there was a framework for a budget deal for Oklahoma state government.
Inman told reporters the discussion centered on a possible gross production rate of 5 percent.
He said House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Temp Mike Schulz, R-Altus, said they would take to their respective caucus meetings the framework discussed the previous evening. Inman said he discussed the 5 percent idea with his caucus and they supported it.
However, Inman asserted he had it “on good authority” that the issue was never raised with House Republicans.
And, Inman said, at a meeting Thursday morning President Pro Temp Mike Schulz said, “There is no deal.” Inman said he felt the two leaders had, in Wednesday’s discussions, misled him.
Inman said he was told Republicans wanted no more than a 3 percent GPT (gross production tax) levy.
Members of the Democratic caucus stood with Leader Inman while he made his comments and then answered questions from reporters.
Inman said he would discuss with Sen. Sparks the status of negotiations, but that he did not plan to return to the negotiations if the 3 percent figure was a firm Republican position.
When Inman and his Democratic colleagues left the press conference, the hallway near the broadcast room was lined with people who work in the oil and gas business. They held signs opposing a tax increase on their industry. Some signs read, “Our jobs matter,” and “Don’t kill Oklahoma jobs.”
Also on Thursday, some supporters of increased taxes, working in a coalition called “Save Our State” (SOS), wore costumes evoking memories of the RMS Titanic (the British ship destroyed by an iceberg and subject of numerous books and films) to convey alarm over the budget situation. Members of the group lobbied legislators to sustain or increase state government spending, and to raise taxes to achieve that. They carried signs saying simply, “7%” as they pressed to raise the gross production tax on fossil fuels to that level rather than keep it at the current 2 percent.
At the risk of some oversimplification, only two areas of agreement were expressed between the two House leaders in Thursday’s comments to the Capitol press corps.
Echoing McCall, Inman said he and members of his caucus would stay “as long as necessary” (including through this weekend) to get a budget in place. And, Inman obviously agrees with the Speaker’s statements that bipartisan cooperation is necessary to fashion a budget accord.
Because legislators cannot introduce budget provisions during the last five days of a regular session, a weekend meetings seem possible as the only timely means to avoid a special session.
Inman and his minority band of House members have been empowered this year by provisions of State Question 640 – long a target of scorn among Democratic elements at the Capitol. The measure includes strict ‘super-majority’ requirements for tax hikes.
Mandates in the voter-approved amendment (enacted in the 1990s) require 76 votes for most of the tax hike ideas that have surfaced this year. Thus, a quick majority-driven tax and spending deal has proven impossible at the Legislature during the 2017 session.
Dale Denwalt of The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, reported in Friday’s editions that budget talks had resumed late Thursday.