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Oklahoma Democrats Want Legislative Disaster Declaration, Blame GOP

Gov. Mary Fallin delivers her State of the State address on Feb. 1, 2016 in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

Oklahoma Democrats feel there is a point that needs to be made and they are the ones who have to make it.

Simply put, Democrats charge leadership in the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature is such a mess that it deserves an official disaster declaration.

Budget deficits, state agencies suffering funding reductions, poorly performing medical facilities and even too many people afflicted with mental illnesses — legislative Democrats are blaming their Republican counterparts for all of Oklahoma’s woes.

Democrats even introduced a resolution to that effect April 11. It asked the Legislature to “issue a disaster declaration for the state of Oklahoma due to leadership failure and urge the Legislature and the governor to act immediately to secure assistance in safeguarding services for our most vulnerable populations.”

Republicans, who run things on Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City, never allowed it to come up for a vote.

This goes beyond textbook political partisan gridlock. And it couldn’t come at a worse time as the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin (R) try to create a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

House Democratic Leader Scott Inman and Senate Democratic Leader John Sparks pushed for a public session to discuss and craft the new state budget. At the top of the agenda is coming up with the $1.3 billion to offset a budget deficit.

“Historically, the budgeting process under Democratic and Republican leadership has been marked by closed-door, backroom dealings between only a select few members,” Inman and Sparks wrote in their invitation to Gov. Fallin and the Republicans. “If we are to overcome the enormous budgetary challenge before us, we must abandon that faulty policy and flawed process.”

The GOP response was not overwhelmingly positive.

Rep. Earl Sears, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations and Budget Committee, said he’d check his calendar.

“So far the only Democratic plan has been to roll back the state income tax cut, expand Medicaid and throw grenades at everything else,” Sears said. “They want to make us look like we are stupid and can’t govern.”

Gov. Fallin introduced what she labeled as “Executive Budget 2.0” in mid-April. Democrats didn’t care for that idea any more than Rep. Sears cared for the prospect of holding an open-door, town-hall style meeting to work on the state’s spending plan.

“Nothing good has come from [Fallin’s] leadership or that of the Republican legislature. It is troublesome to watch her stand in front of a room full of people and talk about ‘tough decisions’ and ‘tightening our belts,’” said Sarah Baker, the communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party. “If we tighten the belt anymore, we’re going to lose our bottom half.”

Those whose budgets are being cut agree.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services informed its employees and contractors April 22 of the agency’s estimated $100 million state funding shortfall — that goes up to $150 million when lost federal funds are added to the red ink — and of potential cuts in the next fiscal year that would further reduce services and mean additional employee layoffs.

Oklahoma DHS Director Ed Lake told his managers to prepare for “unprecedented” reductions in programs and services.

“Our fiscal circumstances are so serious that we must examine the potential for reductions in every administrative, service, benefits and program area in this agency,” said Lake. “This news cannot be sugar-coated — the results will be painful, barring what would be some kind of fiscal miracle.”

Gov. Fallin’s budget proposal included an 8.6 percent increase for DHS next year; however, her plan is dependent upon the Legislature increasing revenues, eliminating some tax incentives and passing a bond measure — none of which the Legislature has yet embraced.

The AP reported college and university presidents from across the state held closed-door meetings with Oklahoma House and Senate budget committee leaders on April 27.

Oklahoma Chancellor of Higher Education Glen Johnson said he and his colleagues warned lawmakers of the consequences of another round of funding cuts, on top of the $112 million that was trimmed from the current fiscal year’s budget.

He said some schools had already laid off staff and several imposed furlough days on the faculty and staff that remained.

Republicans, like Rep. Jason Murphey, said, “Higher ed has to modernize.”

“It’s still a lumbering 1980s-era type dinosaur, whereas I think you can look at higher education institutions in other states and see that they’ve modernized and are adapting to current times and technologies in a way that drives down the cost to the students,” Murphey said.

Gary Hicks, the owner of Tiffany’s Restaurant in Noble, Okla., went to his Facebook page in late March to express frustration with the last round of state budget cuts.

Hicks wrote he was prepared to “rant and rave about something I couldn’t control.”

Instead, he offered free meals to Oklahomans, 88,000 of whom had their DHS benefits put on hold until July and “would have to make a decision,” Hicks wrote, “on which bill is paid or whether or not to eat for the next three months.”

“The people that are getting these payments are at poverty level already,” Hicks wrote. “We will feed you until you are able to make ends meet.”

Hicks said his Facebook post was shared more than 1,500 times in only 20 hours.

All this as Democrats and Republicans continue to wrestle over respect and the side issue of a new state budget.

Democrats are so outnumbered — 39-9 in the Senate and 71-30 in the House — that attaching amendments to bills sponsored by Republicans is the only tactic that gives them any hope of advancing their agenda.

The Oklahoman reported that has slowed legislative work to a crawl, citing the example of two amendments that were almost identical. One was voted down. Republican Rep. Lee Denny said there was no reason to waste time voting on the second, because the two bills were so close to being the same thing.

Democrat Rep. Ben Sherrer disagreed. He pointed out the punctuation was just a bit different between the two bills.

Denny said the only difference she could find was a comma in one piece of legislation that was not in the other.

Sherrer said she was wrong.

He had found a comma and a period that were different.

The Oklahoma Legislature stayed in session until 11 p.m. that night.