It didn’t take long for arguably the most important bill of the 2021 session to work its way through the often-times tedious and laborious legislative process.
A week and three hours after Gov. Kevin Stitt and Republican leaders announced the framework of the state’s $8.8 billion spending plan, the annual budget bill passed the Legislature Thursday on its way to the governor’s desk.
The budget, along with companion bills that include hundreds of million in tax cuts, passed largely along party-line votes in the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
But in sailing through the Legislature as the session enters its final, the public largely was left out of the debate.
Unlike several other states, Oklahoma does not require — and rarely offers — the public a chance to comment before bills reach a final vote. No members of the public were allowed to testify in committee or before the final votes.
And with little time for lawmakers to review budget bills, there were few chances for the public or special interest groups to lobby lawmakers before committee or floor votes.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said the process was so rushed that lawmakers were handed finalized bills, still warm from the printer, minutes before they had to vote on them in committee.
“We need time to see and analyze the bills and that means having enough time for the public and our constituents to see and analyze those bills,” she said. “You don’t ask someone to buy a home and sign a mortgage without reading it first.”
The Legislature will consider bills that would expand expungement access, eliminate some court fines and fees and overhaul Oklahoma’s criminal code.
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Floyd and other Democrats spoke out against the budgeting process during a press conference Thursday. They called for changes — including requiring public hearings on the budget and subjecting the Legislature to the state’s open meetings laws — to bring more transparency.
It’s not unusual for the minority party to be left out of budget negotiations, especially with the GOP holding supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
GOP lawmakers have defended the process, saying they must rush to meet constitutional deadlines, including the requirement they end the session by May 28, while not compromising negotiations between the two chambers and the governor’s office.
“This budget is not result of shady deals, not a result of things happening behind the scenes,” said Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, as he ended the Senate’s floor debate on the bill. “It’s a result of negotiations.”
But an Oklahoma Watch review legislative session over the past decade found that lawmakers routinely rush the budget through, even when they don’t face the end-of-session deadline.
Over the past 10 years, it’s taken an average of five days — including weekends — for the Legislature to send the annual budget bill to the governor after announcing the framework for a budget deal.
Other typical policy bills can takes weeks or months to go through the process.
Democrats also took aim at the inability for lawmakers from either party to suggest amendments to the budget after it’s announced. As a result of this rule, Minority Leader Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said all the Legislature can do is “rubber stamp” the proposal that a few in leadership helped craft.
“You deserve better from your state government and elected officials,” she said.
Oklahoma is not alone in developing spending plans largely behind closed doors. But national studies, including one by The Center for Public Integrity in 2016, found Oklahoma to be among the least transparent.
A review of state budgets by the Oklahoma Policy Institute found that Oklahoma was one of only three states to unveil its budget so late in the legislative process.
Republican leaders did not respond to Oklahoma Watch’s question if they would support adding more transparency to the budget process next year.
But Treat, during his floor debate on the budget bill, said this was the most “inclusive” budgeting process he’s ever seen.
“The process could use improvements,” he said. “But the improvement from where the chairman inherited it and what the chairman before him inherited, is vastly better than (before).”