A few minutes after 4:00 pm last Friday …
Charles McCall shifts his car into drive and pulls out onto North Lincoln Boulevard. As he speeds away, he catches a fleeting glimpse of the Oklahoma Capitol Dome in his rear-view mirror. He smiles contentedly and purrs, “I did it.”
After nearly two months of carefully orchestrated legislative kabuki theater, also known as the Special Session, McCall had been able to fight off multiple attempts from Democrats and even members of his own party to raise taxes to deal with a “made up” budget crisis.
He thinks to himself: “Those fools didn’t know who they were dealing with.”
He reaches over to his cellphone on the passenger seat and notices an incoming text from Harold Hamm. The billionaire CEO of Continental Oil had just sent a congratulatory text praising the House Speaker for his tenacity and impeccable fortitude. “Well done, Mr. Speaker,” the text concludes.
He eyes the intersection ahead. Still green.
Charles muses, “We don’t have a revenue problem in Oklahoma. We have a spending problem. We have to learn to live within our means. Why is that so hard for people to understand?”
Approaching rapidly on his left, Charles spots the vehicle of the Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz. As Schulz pulls even with McCall, the two share a knowing glance and cagey grin.
Together, the two legislative leaders had spent the last two months engaged in a friendly joust, a faux fight meticulously designed to give the public the perception that they truly wanted to address the structural problems of the FY2018 budget. When the cameras were on, the two talked earnestly about implementing revenue solutions to shore up the state’s lagging health and social services budgets and fund teacher and state employee pay raises. They even tossed in an increase in the Gross Production Tax just for fun, knowing full well “strings could be pulled” if necessary to ensure the bill would never pass.
Of course, it wouldn’t.
And now, eight weeks after they hammered their gavels to bring the session to order, they had presided over passage of House Bill 1019X, a patchwork of half-baked solutions built on shifting sands: a drawing down of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, pillaging of agency cash reserves and revolving funds, and a 2.44% across-the-board funding cut for a majority of state agencies.
This action was more than simply kicking the can down the road. This was filling the can with kerosene, lighting a slow fuse, and burying it under the capital building for the next legislature to deal with.
Schulz rolls down his window and yells, “Where you off to now, Charles?”
McCall replies with a smile. “I’m thinking of heading down to Mexico. How about you, Mike?”
“Not sure yet. Anywhere but this place for sure!”
“We pulled it off, Mike. Can you believe the Governor and her lackeys really thought we might actually raise taxes? That’s not what the taxpayers of Oklahoma want, well … not the ones who are important anyway. They want the state agencies to tighten their belts, work more efficiently, and stamp out corruption. Drain the swamp, right?”
“Spot on, my friend!” Schulz exclaims.
Suddenly, McCall’s eyes fall on the now RED LIGHT ahead.
Schulz accelerates to pass him to avoid the signal.
Simultaneously, Governor Mary Fallin, as the front-seat passenger in a gray GMC Suburban, approaches the intersection from the west, gathering momentum.
Too late for the gentlemen to brake, she directs her driver to “goose it” and PLOWS into both vehicles, resulting in a CACOPHONY of wrenching metal, screaming tires and shattered glass.
McCall’s vehicle is flipped on its side, smoke pouring from under the hood, its tires still spinning wildly. Broken glass surrounds it like glistening seawater.
Schulz’s car spins several times until it rattles to rest like a slow-spinning coin. “What just happened?” he mumbles.
Astonishingly, both legislators are able to exit their vehicles without a scratch.
“Did you see that?” McCall screams. “The light went from full green to RED with no yellow. How did that happen? We had no warning whatsoever.”
“Well, it helps to know the director of the street maintenance department,” says a female voice behind them.
Recognizing the familiar voice, McCall and Schulz turn around to see the Suburban which had just rammed them, along with individual in the passenger seat.
“What in the world are you doing, Governor? You completely blindsided us. I thought we agreed it was safe to leave town.”
To which the Governor replied, “Sorry, boys. I changed my mind. Your work is not done.”
McCall picks up a loose hubcap and a mangled wiper blade from the wreckage at his feet. “This is an absolute mess, Mary! How do you expect us to put this back together?”
“Figure it out,” Mary yells from her passenger window as her driver maneuvers around the pile of broken glass and metal in the middle of the road.
It’s not pretty at all. And this collision of political wills happened so suddenly and unexpectedly, it is going to take us all a moment to absorb the full aftermath.
Truly, what does the Governor’s crashing of this budget deal mean?
Will the Governor order another special session this year? If yes, what will change? The House and Senate couldn’t agree on a revenue deal during the regular session in May. They also couldn’t agree in September, or October, or November.
What makes anyone think they can find an agreement in December?
Will the legislators who voted NO to new revenues in House Bill 1054 suddenly have a change of heart and vote for a replacement bill just to get out of town? It would take persuading five more House members to make that happen.
Or, is it more likely the House and Senate will reconvene only to have leaders muster enough votes to override the Governor’s budget crashing veto?
Is it possible House Democrats flinch first and drop their demands for higher GPT and less reliance on regressive taxes? Or will recalcitrant House Republicans put aside their allegiance to Grover “No New Taxes” Norquist and decide to put the needs of Oklahomans first?
Is there any chance fiscal hawks in the legislature will abandon their well-honed narrative that Oklahoma agencies have more money than ever and are simply not serving as good stewards of taxpayer funds?
Will House and Senate leadership decide to push back against the Governor and just vote for a larger across the board cut for all agencies, possibly including public education?
Or, will legislative leaders finally acquiesce and work together across the aisle to identify some stable and recurring revenue sources? Why not? Wouldn’t it be nice to not fight this budget battle year after year?
I’m not sure anyone is certain what will happen over the next few weeks to clean up this collision of wills along North Lincoln Boulevard. It’s a budget wreck that was easy to see in advance. It didn’t need to happen and it must be fixed. Yet, time and patience are growing short.
It’s time to get back to work.