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Governor and Republican legislative leaders make budget progress; Democrats sidelined

In World
May 11, 2024

While this week’s “summit conference” on the budget lasted two days and featured the state’s top GOP leaders, it really was only notable for two things: more agreement between the House and Senate on budget items and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s announcement that he’d taken a .25% cut in the personal income tax off the table.

On Thursday, Stitt said there was “a little confusion” about his tax cut proposal though he did not immediately elaborate on detail. Instead of a cut, he said, lawmakers should reduce the number of tax brackets to help the poorest Oklahomans.

“If we just flatten out all the brackets but leave the top 4.75 (percent) bracket at the top, that would help the lowest and poorest Oklahomans deal with inflation,” the governor said.

“In other words, every Oklahoman who makes less than $27,100 would pay no (income) taxes,” he said at a news conference Friday.

Gov. Kevin Stitt addresses the group during a budget conference this week with Senate and House leaders at the Oklahoma Capitol.

Gov. Kevin Stitt addresses the group during a budget conference this week with Senate and House leaders at the Oklahoma Capitol.

Stitt estimated the income tax cut would cost about $300 million in revenue and put the state on the path to a zero income tax rate. “A path to zero is when we have excess revenue next year or the year after it automatically kicks in a quarter point tax cut,” he said.

The governor said he was “excited and optimistic” that the group was talking about tax cuts. Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat — not so much. “Let me be clear,” Treat said. “Our position has not changed on that. We just want to fully vet the proposals you all brought.”

Echoing his previous statements, Treat said he was concerned that a second tax cut would be too expensive this year.

Legislative division: Gov. Kevin Stitt, House Speaker Charles McCall against Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat

The meeting also showed the interesting dynamic currently at play at the Capitol — Stitt and House Speaker Charles McCall, together, pushing back against Treat. That alignment was visible during a recess in the negotiations. Treat and his team left the conference room and huddled in a second-floor Senate conference room.

McCall and his team, however, retreated inside the governor’s suite of offices.

The interplay underscored the alliances that have formed during the budget negotiations with Treat often the target of both Stitt and McCall. It also served as a reminder of just who was left out of the governor’s invitation: legislative Democrats.

With only a total of 28 members in both the House and Senate, Democratic lawmakers weren’t included in the governor’s invitation. In fact, Democrats only became aware of the meeting after Treat forwarded the governor’s invitation to every member of the Oklahoma Legislature.

“We might be small, but still all the Democrats in the Legislature represent more than a million Oklahomans,” said Rep. Mickey Dollens, a Democrat from Oklahoma City. “That’s a lot of people who aren’t having their voices heard. They are being left out of budget negotiations.”

More: Stitt backs away from .25 personal income tax cut; calls for ‘flattening’ of income tax brackets

Dollens said the image of Sen. Kay Floyd, the Senate minority leader and Sen. Julia Kirt sitting in the audience while Republican leaders sat at the table with the governor “was striking.”

“I saw the photo that was circulating around online. The juxtaposition between those at the table and those sitting on the sidelines was striking and concerning,” he said. “For the 38,000 constituents that I represent, they deserve a seat at the table, too.”

Dollens said leaders in the House Democratic Caucus were currently reviewing ways to have input in the budget process.

Kirt — also from Oklahoma City — was more positive. She praised the Senate’s new transparency initiative, saying it gave Democrats an opportunity to raise questions about budget priorities and to participate in, at least on the Senate’s side, the budget process.

“No, we weren’t invited, but the press was,” she said. “But the Senate’s process has included the minority party and the public more. There’s more involvement and more revealed about the budget discussions, considerations and priorities than there has been in years. On that piece, I think it’s very positive.”

Kirt said the discussions that members of the Senate have had over the last month would have previously “been bills we received hot off the press as a surprise.”

“This year, we’ve been in those discussions, we’ve gotten to actually participate,” she said.

During both budget summits, House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Kevin Wallace peppered Treat with questions about the need for Treat to seek input from the Senate’s budget subcommittees instead of just relying on agreements negotiated between himself and the leaders of the House and Senate budget subcommittees.

“Let’s be honest, you retracted. You reneged on negotiations. Your subcommittee chairs were in there,” Wallace said.

Treat said he understood Wallace’s frustration and said both parties could continue using the Senate Joint Resolution numbers and those from the House plan of April 16. “We’re up to where we were yesterday with the subcommitee’s approval,” Treat said.

Tense budget talks

Thursday’s summit was, at times, tense. Still, some progress was made, lawmakers agreed on several areas of education funding, including a $2.6 million line item to continue to pay student teachers for the next year.

There were also several areas where the House and the Senate disagreed, including funds for some schools ― about $16 million worth ― for teacher pay increases; a $125 million line item for upgrades to state water systems; funding for a 17 percent pay increase for members of the judiciary; spending for deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs; and possible funding increases for both the House and Senate.

Lawmakers have until 5 p.m May 31 to finish their work.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma budget summit sees few agreement, lots of talk about tax cuts

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