Oklahoma has cancelled its annual dignitary trip to Taiwan after Gov. Mary Fallin announced she will call a Sept. 25 special session to address the state’s health care budget hole. House Speaker Charles McCall was scheduled to lead the trip.
McCall (R-Atoka), House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) and House Majority Whip Terry O’Donnell (R-Tulsa) were scheduled to represent Oklahoma on the trip to Taiwan. The two governments formed a sister-state agreement July 25, 1980, and the island nation sends delegations to Oklahoma regularly as well.
“It’s disappointing that it had to happen — the cancellation — because it’s too late to send other members. I absolutely was looking forward to representing the state of Oklahoma in Taiwan, but I have a job to do,” Echols said when asked about the trip. “If [Fallin] calls special session the week of the trip or the week after the trip, I can’t be gone.”
While McCall’s office and Echols told NonDoc the trip was cancelled hours after Fallin’s announcement Wednesday, multiple people associated with budget negotiations were still under the impression this afternoon that GOP House leaders would be absent the week before special session.
Echols and other state leaders said Sept. 18, Sept. 25 and even dates in October were being considered for special session. Echols said the trio of lawmakers would have had an easier time making the trip if special session started Oct. 4 or Oct. 11.
“If we had done the 11th, I probably still would have gone on the trip,” Echols said. “The 4th would cut it close.”
He said it was possible Fallin chose Sept. 25 instead of Sept. 18 in an attempt to prevent cancellation of the trip.
“It is a little embarrassing, it is. This trip has significant economic benefit, and it’s something we do every year,” Echols said. “Taiwan was very excited. They had [our] speaker of the House coming. He was the head of the delegation. We’ve learned that means a great deal in their culture, and he was going to be expected culturally to do certain things (like) give gifts. Is it possible the governor took that into account in her call? Absolutely, and I would thank her for trying to work with us. With that being said — and I can’t read her mind, I don’t know what she did — we’re not going to do that. We have a job to do.”
McCall’s press secretary, Jason Sutton, sent NonDoc the following statement when asked when the trip was cancelled and who was paying for it.
“When the governor announced that she intended to call a special session, the speaker immediately cleared his calendar so he could focus on his legislative duties, which is his foremost priority,” Sutton said. “He cancelled numerous meetings and his trips to both the National Speaker’s Conference in Ohio and his trip to Taiwan.
“The trip to Taiwan is one that lawmakers from multiple states have gone on throughout the years. It was scheduled for Sept. 15-23 and no state funds would have been used on either trip. When the speaker travels, he typically does so at his own expense and does not use state funds.”
Sutton said the trip was being organized by the Taipei Consulate Office in Houston.
‘Time is money’
Whenever they ultimately return — Fallin has not formally called a special session yet — lawmakers will be addressing a $215 million budget hole affecting primarily three state agencies: the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
While GOP House leaders have said those agencies will be able to operate through the end of the calendar year ahead of a revenue fix, additional cuts to any agency would be magnified over the remaining months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2018.
“Literally, if there was ever a time that the expression ‘time is money’ was appropriate, it’s now,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger on Friday. “Whatever we might do is going to be spread over a shorter time frame. We’re eating into the fiscal year with every day that goes by. If cuts are part of the equation, those cuts are harder to spread over a shorter period of time. They get bigger, if you will.”
McCall announced Tuesday that he intended to place only the cigarette tax on the table for new, recurring revenue. McCall said if House Democrats refused to support that bill for a 76-vote supermajority required of new tax measures, he would attempt to pass it with simply 51 votes and place it before the people of Oklahoma on a statewide ballot. Details of how that would work remain unclear, though it would almost certainly delay implementation of the tax.
“The agencies really are stressed over the uncertainty and how they’re going to manage whatever action may be taken in special session,” Doerflinger said.
Echols said the House GOP caucus would have had fewer conflicts if special session were held in October, but that members are working to change schedules for the presumed Sept. 25 date.
He said two GOP members are on active duty with the U.S. National Guard, and one will need federal permission to return to the Capitol for special session.
Oklahoma and Taiwan connections
In 2016, Oklahoma exported about $23.2 million in goods to the island nation, which sits 112 miles off the coast of China.
Organizations in both China and Taiwan have spent millions of dollars to woo U.S. elected officials over the past decade. From 2006 to 2011, Chinese entities sponsored more than 200 trips for U.S. Congress members and their staffs, according to a 2013 Washington Post report. Over the same period, Taiwanese organizations sponsored an additional 100.
According to LegiStorm.com, Oklahoma congressional offices have accepted 30 trips to Taiwan at a reported expense of $158,220 since 2000. The site does not track state lawmakers’ travels to the nation.