OKLAHOMA CITY — In a historic rebuke, the Oklahoma Legislature overrode Gov. Kevin Stitt’s vetoes of the fiscal year 2021 general appropriations bill and three other budget-related measures Wednesday night, just hours after he issued them.
The House and Senate reached the necessary two-thirds majorities on Senate Bill 1922 — the $7.7 million general appropriations measure — and House Bills 2741, 2742 and 2743 with room to spare, particularly in the House, where every single Republican voted to override the SB 1922 veto.
It was the first time in memory that any governor has had four budget vetoes overridden on the same day, much less by a Legislature dominated by the governor’s own party. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said SB 1922 takes care of health and education and preserves the teacher pay raises granted over the last two years.
“Senate Bill 1922 represents our constituents and the core values of Oklahoma,” Thompson said. Lawmakers were miffed by what they viewed as Stitt’s disdain for lawmakers and the budget process and what they said were gross inaccuracies in his veto statements.
Many took particular offense at the statement attached to SB 1922, which suggested that lawmakers were not prepared to make tough decisions.
“I’ve been here six years, and I can tell you we made some very tough decisions,” said House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston.
Unlike Stitt, who had no experience in government before becoming governor last year amid an economic surge and overflowing tax coffers, Wallace and many other current legislators remember the traumatic sessions and special sessions of 2014-18, when revenue plummeted and angry constituents prowled the Capitol halls.
And those who didn’t experience those difficult days personally were largely elected because of them.
“What we’re doing is what we told our constituents we would do by protecting teacher pay raises and other educational investments,” said Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso, who was part of the tidal wave of new legislators swept into office in 2018 on promises to restore education and basic government services.
Wallace, who presented three of the four override motions in the House, declined to directly criticize Stitt — although he was more or less invited to do so by several of his colleagues — but he did reveal some frustration with the governor and his advisers.
“It’s real easy to blame the Legislature,” Wallace said. “Everybody loves to hate the Legislature, but that’s not the problem at this time.”
GOP leaders in the House and Senate say the administration stopped participating in budget discussions in late March when they refused to accede to demands presented by Stitt’s budget director, former state Sen. Mike Mazzei.
Stitt has denied that that’s the case but agrees that his administration was not involved in the Legislature’s budget talks.
On Wednesday afternoon, Stitt vetoed the three House bills and then, a short time later, the general appropriations bill.
The three House bills direct more than $300 million to the so-called 1017 funds for common education by reducing direct appropriations to state pension funds and to a special highway fund.
Without that money, Wallace said, much of the gains in education funding of the past three years would be lost.
The two bills dealing with the pension funds affect 25% of direct apportionments to them but don’t touch the principal or affect the regular employer payments made by state agencies to the funds. The two bills call for the diverted funds to be paid back over five years beginning in 2023.
The third bill takes $180 million in direct apportionments from a special highway fund. Stitt, in his veto message, said the measure would force the Department of Transportation into unwise borrowing, but he signed a fourth bill authorizing the department to issue $200 million in bonds to make up for the lost cash.
“This budget was created behind closed doors, without meaningful input or consultation from the Executive Branch,” Stitt said in his veto message for SB 1922. “This proposed budget does not reflect the values of Oklahoma or the clear directive voters gave elected officials at the ballot box of living within our means and making hard decisions when times get tough.”
State Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, said he respects Stitt but was offended by that message.
“I was elected in 2016. I was expected to come up here and make some very hard decisions,” he said. “My first year I was called into two special sessions, a teacher walkout, a regular session. I was called on to make decisions that made Republicans and Democrats both dislike me.
“For the governor to say we’re not making tough decisions, that’s an inaccurate statement.”
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