By Scott Carter
OKLAHOMA CITY – Mostly, it was a ‘bad news’ kind of session.
Though the Second Regular Session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature did produce a handful of good bills, Oklahoma’s legislature left most Oklahomans in a worse position than before session began, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma said.
During the 2016 session state lawmakers “spent an embarrassing amount of time and energy trying to pass legislation that targeted Oklahoma’s LGBT community and attempting to criminalize women’s reproductive choices, instead of focusing on the state’s $1.3 billion budget hole,” ACLU of Oklahoma leader Ryan Kiesel said.
“In reality, the session did very little to help people,” Kiesel said. “We saw some horrible examples of bigoted and hate-filled legislation and a poorly written budget that does more harm than good.”
Many legislators, he said, were more concerned about deflecting the public’s attention away from the budget problem.
Kiesel said bills such as Senate Bill 1552, which would have made it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion, and Senate Bill 1619, which targeted Oklahoma’s transgender residents, did nothing positive for the state and were ‘obviously unconstitutional.’
In addition, lawmakers passed a resolution seeking to remove the firewall from the Oklahoma Constitution that keeps the state from funding religious organizations with public money.
Kiesel called that resolution ‘unnecessary.’
“It (the resolution) has nothing to do with policy,” he said. “Instead, it is all about politics. The resolution is a blatant political ploy that exploits and marginalizes Oklahoma’s political minorities.”
Democratic members of the Legislature described the session as business as usual and said the state’s budget was written using financially irresponsible policies.
“The Republicans who put this year’s budget deal together will point to ‘no cuts’ to common education; but this stagnant budget leaves our schools, our teachers, and our children exposed rather than protected,” said Oklahoma Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman. “This year’s stagnant common education funding is nothing to be proud of. A stagnant budget amounts to a cut because of rising fixed costs, an ongoing teacher shortfall, and an increased number of students. Our schools and our children desperately needed money for teacher pay raises, more Pre-K and Kindergarten classrooms, reading remediation and early intervention strategies for struggling readers, strategies and programs to improve graduation rates, and more AP and college credit bearing coursework. Instead they get to continue to do more with less.”
Republican Governor Mary Fallin, however, defended the budget agreement, saying it helped avert bigger problems. Fallin said the $1.3 billion budget hole was the largest in state history.
Filling that big of a budget hole, she said, would have required state aid reductions of up to 20 percent for public schools and provider rate cuts of up to 25 percent for Medicaid providers. Those cuts, she said would have caused some hospitals and nursing homes statewide to close or dramatically reduce services.
“Thankfully, those worst-case scenarios can be averted by passing this budget,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “This agreement closes a sizeable portion of a monumental budget hole and prevents the dire, unacceptable outcomes so many Oklahomans have feared may happen this session. There are still reductions in this budget, and it requires more hard votes to pass, but it is certainly a workable budget even amid a major energy sector downturn that is creating difficulties all across Oklahoma.”
Despite a handful of modest steps forward in the area of criminal justice reform and the successful defeat of several dangerous pieces of legislation, Kiesel said that lawmakers have shirked their most basic constitutional obligations in favor political gamesmanship.
“It’s tempting to say our lawmakers are fiddling while the state burns,” he said. “But that assumes we can afford a fiddle and some matches. If we are going to emerge from these difficult times, voters must demand that the politics of division and destruction come to an abrupt end.”