- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Oklahoma House adopted a $6.8 billion spending plan and sent it to Gov. Mary Fallin for her signature Friday in the waning hours of the 2017 legislative session, where lawmakers struggled to close a projected $878 million hole in next year’s budget.

The House voted 57-42 for the general appropriations bill for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It then narrowly passed a $1.50 fee per pack of cigarettes that increases the cigarette tax to about $2.50 before adjourning the regular legislative session at 2:41 p.m.

The Senate, which approved the cigarette fee and spending plan earlier this week, adjourned before noon Friday.

The new cigarette fee, projected to raise $258 million a year, is a major source of revenue for next year’s budget. But the measure won’t take effect for 90 days because lawmakers failed to adopt an emergency clause that would have made it active immediately after the governor signed it into law.

The spending plan protects the budgets of about 15 state agencies, including those that fund the state’s public schools and road and bridge construction program. It cuts many others by about 5 percent, including the Regents for Higher Education and the Department of Health.

The House passed next year’s spending plan and the cigarette fee following bitter and contentious debates in which some Republicans joined the chamber’s 26 Democrats in voting against the measures.

Supporters said the spending plan closes the budget hole and protects public core services.

“We have moved mountains on this budget,” said Rep. Mike Sanders, a Kingfisher Republican.

But even supporters lamented that it does not include a pay raise for public school teachers, a top priority of Republican legislation leaders this year.

“I didn’t get what I wanted - I didn’t get a teacher pay raise,” said GOP Rep. Scott Fetgatter, of Okmulgee.

House-approved legislation calling for a $1,000 teacher pay raise next year, $2,000 the following year and $3,000 in the third year died in a Senate committee after lawmakers could not identify a funding source. A $1,000 raise would cost about $53 million a year.

Rep. Leslie Osborn, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said next year’s state budget is not perfect but that it protects core services and meets the state’s constitutional balanced-budget requirement.

“It’s as good as it’s going to get,” said the Republican from Mustang.

Opponents attacked the measure because it includes hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue approved during the final week of the legislative session - including the cigarette fee - in apparent violation of a state constitutional prohibition against adopting revenue-raising measures in the final five days of a legislative session.

“A fee is a tax by any other name,” said Rep. Eric Proctor, a Tulsa Democrat. “This budget is on very, very shaky constitutional ground.”

Democratic leader Scott Inman, a candidate for governor next year, said the budget was balanced with multiple revenue measures adopted in the last five days of the legislative session in apparent violation of State Question 640, a citizen-initiated ballot measure adopted in 1992.

“You don’t have to do this,” said Inman, adding that the spending plan and the new revenue it contains may be nullified by the courts and force lawmakers to return to the Capitol for a special session later this year.

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