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State lawmakers struggled through dysfunctional, difficult session
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State lawmakers struggled through dysfunctional, difficult session

Lawmakers struggled through dysfunctional, difficult session

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Dysfunctional. Tough. Difficult.

Those are a few of the descriptions given for the legislative session that wrapped up Friday.

“I have said the same thing every year,” said Gary Huddleston, a former state Senate staffer who has been a lobbyist for 21 years. “It can’t get any worse.”

“It was absolutely dysfunctional,” said Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman.

Three lawmakers resigned amid controversy during the session.

Former Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa, resigned in early February after a House panel recommended he be expelled in the wake of an investigation into sexual harassment claims against him. Kirby said he was not guilty.

A few weeks later, his political consultant, former Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, resigned after being charged with engaging in child prostitution, engaging in prostitution within 1,000 feet of a church and transporting a minor for prostitution/lewdness.

Last month, former Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, resigned amid an investigation into how he used campaign funds.

In addition, David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, died April 14.

As the session ground toward its required close, lawmakers were poised to go into special session after budget negotiations between Republicans, who control both chambers, and Democrats broke down. Each side blamed the other.

House Republicans knew they needed Democratic votes on revenue-raising measures but reportedly didn’t include the minority party in negotiations until the last minute.

“We should have been invited to the conversation months ago instead of in the last two weeks of session,” said Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater.

After budget negotiations failed, Republicans decided to go it alone.

A measure that failed as a cigarette tax increase was rewritten to be called a “fee,” requiring only 51 votes in the House as opposed to the 76 needed for tax increases.

Another measure eliminates the sales tax exemption on car sales, effectively raising the combined excise and sales tax to 4.5 percent.

Both helped lawmakers reduce the $878 million budget hole. The shortfall was the result of depressed energy prices, tax cuts and an inability to significantly reduce the number of tax breaks given in an effort to generate economic activity.

“It is reckless budgeting,” Sparks said.

Former House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, had a different take.

“What I am most in comfort with is that we didn’t crash state government,” Sears said. “I was afraid that might happen.”

Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, had a different opinion.

“We didn’t just take lemons and make lemonade,” he said. “We took a pile of manure, planted a lemon seed, grew a tree, picked the lemons and then made lemonade.”

If either measure falls based on a legal challenge, lawmakers could be called back to the Capitol for a special session or agency budgets would be reduced across the board.

“All in all, it has been a difficult legislative session,” Gov. Mary Fallin said. “We knew it was going to be because we stated out with just right around a $900 million budget shortfall. It is never easy to close that type of gap.”

The session began with new leaders for the House and Senate and their respective budget committees. It also involved several new lawmakers.

“Difficult would be the word to describe it,” said Jim Dunlap, who served in the House and Senate before becoming a lobbyist. “We started the session with 45 new members, 32 in the House and 13 in the Senate. That number has grown since session started. You have got a young Legislature with a very difficult situation.”

Barbara Hoberock

405-528-2465

barbara.hoberock@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @bhoberock

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