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COMMENTARY
State Question 640
House members talk amongst themselves one morning during special session. (Elizabeth Sims)

Much has been made of State Question 640’s requirement that any revenue-raising measure pass the Oklahoma House of Representatives with 76 votes, but perhaps it should be viewed another way: Any revenue measure can be blocked if 26 seats do not vote in favor.

Does “seats” seem like an odd way to phrase such a statement? It should not. Consider Wednesday’s revenue package — the biggest vote the Oklahoma House took all year. While the chamber features 101 seats, only 98 votes were cast. Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) was dealing with a family matter, deceased Rep. David Brumbaugh’s position will be filled by special election Tuesday and Chickasha Republican Scott Biggs resigned Nov. 2 during this unusual special session.

That meant those opposed to HB 1054X’s slew of tax increases — petroleum interests, tobacco companies, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party — needed only 23 “No” votes to thwart the measure. Those in favor — hospitals, disability advocates, mental health consumers, educators, state employees and others — needed to pull 3.3 times as many people to go green on more than $426 million in new taxes.

You don’t need a degree in political science to guess which task might be easier.

‘An absolute joke’

Following the bill’s 71-27 outcome that fell five votes shy of passage, lawmakers who voted in favor exhibited a range of emotions: frustration, fear, finger-pointing and fatigue.

Some pitched the argument that, if he really wanted the bill to pass, House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) would have threatened to punish the 22 Republicans who voted “Nay,” potentially by revoking committee chairmanships. McCall, some members argued anonymously, may have worked the vote in a manner so it was “probably designed to fail.”

“For (McCall) to act like he couldn’t get Terry O’Donnell or Michael Rogers to flip is an absolute joke,” said another GOP House member on the condition of anonymity.

O’Donnell (R-Catoosa) is McCall’s majority whip, and Rogers (R-Broken Arrow) is chairman of the House Common Education Committee. O’Donnell did not return a weekend phone call seeking comment for this editorial.

Rogers, however, spoke to NonDoc immediately after he voted “Nay” on Wednesday’s revenue package, which surprised onlookers and helped spur the theory that McCall actually wanted the vote to fail, despite voting “Yes” himself alongside Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC).

“Obviously, people are going to question my heart on teachers. My heart will never change for teachers,” said Rogers, who carried the vast majority of teacher-raise proposals this year. “I do believe that if the state of Oklahoma really wants to make teachers a priority, we can do it. We can do it overnight. You look at what’s happened with the Department of Health, they’re missing $30 million. Guess what? We’ll find a way to fix that. When agencies get cut, we run supplementals to make sure they get shored up.”

Rogers, an assistant majority whip for McCall, said he “regretted” his vote in favor of the previous revenue package that included “all this stuff basically except for GPT.”

“Really, my decision on this one was, one, we’re not fixing anything. There’s no reforms that are fixing anything long-term. There’s nothing in the bill that really addresses any of the needs we’re going to have trying to identify new revenue moving forward,” Rogers said. “And, really, it’s regressive. I don’t care what you say. I found myself agreeing almost with everything Eric Proctor said, and he was right.”

Not just a Grand Old Problem

Proctor (D-Tulsa) was one of five Democrats who voted against the revenue bill, debating at length that more revenue would have been raised on the backs of average Oklahomans than wealthy individuals or corporations by a 30-1 ratio. He was joined in opposition by caucus leaders Rep. Steve Kouplen (D-Beggs), Rep. Cory Williams (D-Stillwater), Rep. Shane Stone (D-OKC) and outgoing House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City), who made his first Capitol appearance since announcing a pending resignation.

With the vote open but stalled at 70 members in favor, Inman entered the House gallery, leaned into a glance at the board and pointed down — meaning “Nay” — before trotting out a back stairwell as quickly as he had appeared.

In the end, the former gubernatorial candidate tossed mud in the eye of his foe, McCall, and got to enjoy what was perhaps his caucus’ best political day of the year. With Democrats voting for what the public wants (a compromise solution) at a greater percentage than Republicans, the revenue bill’s shortcoming meant Inman’s party will retain gross production taxes as a wedge issue for a 2018 election atmosphere that will reek of GOP-led cuts.

State Question 640 makes ‘No’ coalition easy

McCall could have avoided that 2018 undercurrent had he and Echols convinced Rogers, O’Donnell and three other GOP House members to switch their votes during an unusual mid-vote caucus gathering. Multiple caucus members said the message from leadership was to “search your hearts” and “own your vote,” be it red or green. When Republicans returned to the floor, only Rep. Ryan Martinez (R-Edmond) changed from opposing to supporting the bill.

Over the ensuing days, lawmakers and Capitol insiders oscillated between two unflattering theories about McCall: He was either effectively nefarious or perplexingly feckless. Numerous people offered speculation, but — as with most “scandals” fed to media — none had hard proof one way or another.

As such, what facts are apparent? Throughout his first year as speaker, McCall has appeared to oppose raising the gross production tax incentive rate on new oil and gas wells, his vote Wednesday after the Senate forced his hand notwithstanding.

But while the Senate’s vote surfaced and passed in a matter of minutes, those opposing the big revenue package had two full days to rally troops, make calls, pressure members and duct tape together a House coalition of “No” that needed only 23 thumbs pointing down.

Among those advocating against the bill were two major Oklahoma political players: Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm and U.S. Sen. James Mountain Inhofe. NonDoc has been told by multiple members that lawmakers received calls and other contact from Inhofe staff opposing the bill.

Combined with threats of far-right GOP primary challenges and shocking financial floundering at state agencies, requests from oil and gas executives and pressure from Inhofe — the state’s most feared political revenge artist — proved more than enough to trump the goals of an unpopular governor and the unusual public coalition built on the pillars of #TeacherShortage and #SaveOurServices.

‘It is time to move on’

After the vote closed, McCall released the following statement, referencing State Question 640:

As we have said throughout the session, the 75 percent super majority requirement of State Question 640 is a high hurdle. We heard from our constituents more on this bill than any other in a long time, and it was clear that the House listened and voted the way their constituents encouraged them to vote. The bill passed with a large majority, which makes it eligible to be voted on by the people of Oklahoma at the ballot. It is time to move on to what can pass and help this year’s budget. Last week, the House — in four bipartisan votes that all received more than 90 percent support — sent several appropriations measures to the Senate that would use existing cash to ensure vital health services and programs will continue without interruption into April 2018. We also approved a bill that would increase the gross production tax to 7 percent on more than 6,600 existing wells and generate $48 million for this year’s budget. I encourage the Senate to act quickly to pass those measures for the citizens of Oklahoma.

While his statement notes political realities, McCall did not offer a plan to address the “high hurdle” of State Question 640. Nor did the speaker express frustration or disappointment that the bill he voted for failed to achieve 76 votes.

Instead, he used the same “move on” phrase that his office employed following the same bill’s dubious 11-11 committee tie on Oct. 27. That did little to dissuade either competing notion about McCall’s political profile.

Either way, it might be time for voters to relax State Question 640’s three-fourths requirement for revenue measures.

“Maybe send to a vote of the people ‘two-thirds?'” Rogers said after Wednesday’s vote. “Allow them to make that decision. Do you want there to be a little bit lower of a threshold? Because 76 votes in the House is nearly impossible on anything.”

The public is left to wonder whether the speaker will push for a threshold adjustment to be on the 2018 ballot.