- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World. Aug. 20, 2017.

In addition to clearing the air about what is and isn’t a tax, the Supreme Court set an important precedent concerning the public nature of justice when it heard a challenge to the state cigarette tax increase.

Facing the potential for an overflow crowd in its state Capitol complex chambers for oral arguments in the case, the court broadcast the proceedings on its website and the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority website.

It was simple, efficient and problem-free.



At one point, the broadcast drew about 700 viewers - not exactly the rating of an NFL football game, but far more than the court chamber would have been able to hold.

The Supreme Court building didn’t burst into flames, injustice wasn’t set loose in the streets of Oklahoma, and none of the main players in the real-life courtroom drama felt the urge to start chewing the scenery for the camera.

The way some Oklahoma judges respond to the idea of cameras in their courtrooms, you’d expect just that sort of horrifying result if the highest court in the state ever went on the air, but it didn’t.

We’re proud of Chief Justice Doug Combs for coming up with a common-sense solution to the logistical problem of how to allow the public to see its justice system in action.

Other than the budget issues involved, there’s no reason the court couldn’t continue the practice. If they didn’t want to pay anything, of course, they could take advantage of private broadcasters, who’d love to bring the public into the courtroom for high-profile cases.

We hope the Supreme Court - and the lower courts under its jurisdiction - will find a way to continue allowing live broadcasts of important cases. Such a move would remove the mystery of the judicial process and give the people a greater sense of ownership of their own courts.

___

The Oklahoman. Aug. 21, 2017.

Oklahoma government’s continuing budget shortfalls seem to owe much to bad financial practices and questionable planning. A call to convene a special session inadvertently reinforces that impression.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently ruled a smoking-cession “fee” approved by the Legislature was a straightforward cigarette tax increase passed in violation of constitutional guidelines. This has created a budget hole estimated at $215 million. Most of the money was earmarked for three agencies.

Gov. Mary Fallin wants to convene a special session to address this problem, rather than allowing the Legislature to provide supplemental funding when it reconvenes in regular session next February. But the financial claims made in calling for a special session raise additional questions about agency funding, spending and oversight.

According to the governor’s office, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state’s Medicaid agency, would have received $70 million from the cigarette tax. That accounted for about 7 percent of the agency’s total appropriation, according to the governor’s office. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services would have received $75 million, which represents 23 percent of its appropriation. And the Department of Human Services would have received $69 million, which represents about 10 percent of its appropriation.

If lawmakers don’t replace the cigarette tax money, Fallin’s office says, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority will run out of state funds by January, the mental health department will do so in November, and DHS will be out of state appropriations by May.

The state’s budget year started July 1 and runs through June 30, 2018. So one wonders: How could a 7 percent cut in state appropriations leave the OHCA without any state funding roughly halfway through the fiscal year, even accounting for lost federal matching funds? That suggests the agency will run out of state appropriations by February even if it receives tobacco money. Were agency officials really planning to spend 93 percent of their state appropriation in the first six months and then stretch the remaining 7 percent over the last half of the year?

Similarly, one would expect a 23 percent reduction in state appropriations to leave the mental health department without state appropriations roughly three-fourths of the way through the fiscal year, not less than halfway through it.

It’s possible the agencies’ expenses are front-loaded. But are they that front-loaded?

The news release from the governor’s office referred only to agencies running out of state appropriations and state funds. That’s notable, because state appropriations account for only a share of funding at these agencies. According to a Senate report, state appropriations accounted for about 18 percent of total expenditures at the OHCA in the 2017 budget year. At mental health, state appropriations represented nearly 75 percent of expenditures. And at DHS, state appropriations represented less than 29 percent of agency expenditures.

There may be a good explanation for the apparent financial discrepancies. If so, state officials need to provide it immediately, and with excessive transparency. Because as it stands now, citizens may have reason to question if politicians’ budget statements are more a public relations game than reality.

___

Enid News & Eagle. Aug. 22, 2017.

It didn’t take long for the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn the $1.50 per pack fee on cigarettes.

Rejecting the claim that the fee protected the public by discouraging smoking, the state Supreme Court quickly ruled the cigarette fee was an unconstitutional tax. That’s because laws prohibit legislators from passing revenue-raising measures in the final five days of session, and require those measures to receive the approval of three-quarters of lawmakers, not a simple majority.

Last spring lawmakers pushed through measures to help bridge an $878 million shortfall.

Other lawsuits are fighting the elimination of a 1.25 percent tax exemption on automotive sales along with a fee on compressed natural gas and electric vehicles.

Shortly after the cigarette fee ruling, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement saying a special session would be “the best option” to plug a $215 million hole in the state budget.

Can the state afford this? Readers may remember that a special session would cost about $30,000 a day. The House has estimated each special session day would cost it $21,800. The Senate projects to pay about $8,500 daily.

The Oklahoman Capitol Bureau Chief Dale Denwalt recently outlined several options. In a special session, legislators could redistribute the cuts across other agencies. Or a moratorium could be placed on certain tax incentives.

Another option would be to play the waiting game until February when the 2018 session starts. At that point, lawmakers possibly could opt for a supplemental appropriation or tap the rainy day fund again.

A final strategy would be to do nothing at all. It’s difficult to predict what Oklahoma’s revenue picture will look like in 2018.

David Blatt with the Oklahoma Policy Institute told The Oklahoman it’s up to the Legislature to fix the budget that was adopted against the rules for how to raise revenue.

“We now have a huge budget hole and the obligation to come back and make it right,” Blatt said. “We can’t continue to cut further into the budgets of our health and human services agencies. And we shouldn’t just try to spread it out to other agencies that have also endured major cuts in recent years.”

Finding legislative leadership will be a challenge. Revenue bills have to generate from the House, meaning the Senate will have to wait.

Having a special session will waste money unless legislators come to 23rd and Lincoln with a plan.

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