- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Within hours of being sworn into office, newly elected Republican state Rep. Zack Taylor faced a tough choice - whether to approve a series of tax hikes that would generate an estimated $500 million to help close a hole in Oklahoma’s budget.

Fresh off the doorsteps of the eastern Oklahoma County voters who sent him there, Taylor had gotten an earful from residents.

“I didn’t feel comfortable casting that vote for my district,” said Taylor, R-Seminole, who ended up voting against the measure.

“They just don’t feel like they should have to pay too much more in taxes at this time,” said Taylor, who started his job last week following a special election to fill an empty House seat.

But Republicans like Taylor who campaigned on lower taxes and smaller government delivered neither during the 2017 session that ended on Friday, as a budget crisis forced lawmakers to come up with creative ways to generate revenue and keep state programs afloat.

The final $6.8 billion budget deal that Republicans developed used a combination of agency budget cuts and tax hikes on things like cigarettes, vehicle purchases and sports tickets. The Legislature also eliminated some tax subsidies and raided the state’s Rainy Day Fund and dozens of agency revolving accounts.

Gov. Mary Fallin said the budget plan is far from perfect but indicated she would sign it because it maintains flat funding or provides slight funding boosts to 15 “core-mission” state agencies like Department of Human Services, Health Care Authority, prisons and public schools.

Under the plan, most state agencies will see cuts of more than 4 percent.

“They’re not pleasant, but it’s either that or you cut the budget 16 percent on top of the cuts we’ve already had,” Fallin said.

Fallin got little of what she called for in her executive budget as lawmakers rejected her proposals to increase teacher pay, eliminate the corporate income tax and the sales tax on groceries and add the state sales tax to dozens of services.

The plan to hike teacher pay, which was strongly supported by the governor and the House, faced too much opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate.

“My husband and I are fortunate … but I have so many teacher friends who are single, single moms, and they are just defeated,” said Teresa Seabolt, a high school history teacher at Southmoore Public Schools in Moore whose classroom swelled to 34 students this year. “This is the hardest job I’ve done for such little money.”

The budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and many of the key mechanisms used to fund it, were unveiled in the final week of session after talks between Republican leaders and minority Democrats broke down. Democrats, whose votes were needed to reach the three-fourths threshold for approving any tax increase, were holding out for an increase to 5 percent in the tax on oil and gas production that was deeply slashed to 2 percent three years ago during the oil boom.

After the impasse, Republicans relabeled the cigarette tax a fee and passed it with a simple majority, a move that members on both sides insist will face an inevitable legal challenge that will likely force them to return in a special session to fix the budget.

Democratic Rep. Regina Goodwin of Tulsa described the final budget as an “illegal, unconstitutional train wreck,” while Democratic leader Rep. Scott Inman chastised his colleagues for passing key revenue bills in the final days of session, which also is prohibited under the state Constitution.

“I am highly confident that one or more parts of the revenue package used to patch this budget together are unconstitutional and will bring us back, either because of a revenue failure or because it’s been ruled unconstitutional,” said Inman, D-Oklahoma City.


Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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