(This story has been updated)
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signaled support on Thursday for releasing applications by state agencies, the public and businesses for billions of dollars in requests for federal coronavirus relief funds, effectively reversing a stance by the state’s purchasing agency.
Stitt made the comments during a budget press conference where he called for the Legislature to come back in a special session June 13 to vote for tax cuts that weren’t included in the $9.7 billion budget lawmakers sent him last week. Stitt wants to eliminate the state’s share of the grocery sales tax and cut personal income tax rates ¼ of a percentage point.
Stitt said he vetoed three tax relief bills. Two would have set up and funded one-time payments of $75 for single people and $150 for married couples to deal with rising inflation. Senate Bill 1075 eliminated the 1.25% state sales tax on vehicles. The governor also said he would line-item veto several provisions from the main budget bill, forcing a confrontation with GOP leaders in the House and Senate as they wrap up the regular session on Friday.
The Legislature can override the vetoes with a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate.
Stitt said a typical four-person family would save more than $450 per year under his tax relief plan, which he first unveiled at his State of the State address in February. He called the inflation relief plan in the Legislature’s budget “a slap in the face to hardworking Oklahomans.”
“Investing in meaningful tax reform is the answer,” said Stitt, who noted Oklahoma was one of just 13 states that tax groceries.
Stitt said the budget would still balance because eliminating the one-time inflation payments and keeping the state sales tax on vehicles would be about the same as stopping the state sales tax on groceries and cutting personal income taxes.
Republican Legislative leaders didn’t have any immediate comments on the governor’s vetoes or his call for another special session. House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, said in a series of tweets it’s the Legislature’s job to write the budget.
“Did the Governor get everything he wanted in this budget? No. Neither did the House or the Senate,” Hilbert tweeted. “I appreciate the work of all legislators to prepare the FY23 budget as it is a great budget for the people of Oklahoma.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she was happy to see Stitt’s proposal to eliminate the state’s 4.5% sales tax on groceries. Democrats in the House and Senate have been calling for that tax cut for several years.
“Not only is it permanent, but it also makes sure that those who have larger families, those who are feeding more people, that they see the most relief rather than the one-size-fits-all solution that legislative Republicans proposed,” Virgin said.
Virgin said it’s unlikely House Democrats would support cutting the state income tax again. Last year’s budget cut personal income taxes ¼ of a percentage point to 4.75%.
“What we’ve said is that it’s time to focus on the sales tax, the regressive tax that we have,” Virgin said. “We’ve given income tax relief. We’ve given corporate tax relief. It’s time to focus on that sales tax.”
Federal Relief Funds
The state has $1.87 billion to spend in federal coronavirus relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act. The state asked for requests from the public and received more than $17.8 billion of requests across more than 1,400 applications.
Oklahoma Watch filed open records requests earlier this year to get the applications. The state’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services denied those requests. Oklahoma Watch then filed a lawsuit against the agency in April.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services later provided the records to Oklahoma Watch, which is reviewing the spreadsheet with more than 1,400 projects and ideas.
The Legislature last week called itself into a concurrent special session to further vet applications under the federal relief program. At Thursday’s press conference, Stitt said he was in favor of more transparency.
“My message, though, is don’t let this be led by lobbyists. Don’t let this be led by special interests,” Stitt said. “But as long as it’s a transparent process, this is an opportunity for Oklahoma for a generational impact.
“This is $1.8 billion we get to strategically invest. My fear is that it’s going to be spread like mayonnaise across the state of Oklahoma and every single House and Senate member is gonna get a little $500,000 project in their district.”
Stitt said he was unaware a lawsuit had been filed over the applications but said they should be available to the public.
“I’m sure we’ll make that public as soon as we’re able to,” Stitt said. “I think there’s probably a process. I don’t know if there’s NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) where people were putting requests in before we made those public. There was a website; we wanted transparency, so we gave every Oklahoman an opportunity to submit a request.”
More than $4.2 billion in federal relief funding applications came from state agencies.
“That should be released,” Stitt said Thursday. “There was probably a technicality from a legal standpoint why it wasn’t, but I think that absolutely needs to be released.”
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.