Stitt vetoes
With Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and House Speaker Charles McCall watching, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (Michael Duncan)

Gov. Kevin Stitt uncapped his veto pen and struck down three bills this afternoon, including one for which he previously had not announced his plans. About an hour and a half later, Stitt announced he had also vetoed SB 1922, the general appropriations bill for a state budget he could not stomach.

Over the next five hours, however, both chambers of the Legislature overrode all four Stitt vetoes and crammed the Fiscal Year 2021 state budget down the governor’s gullet and into law.

What happened after the Stitt vetoes

Shortly before 5 p.m., the Senate brought up SB 1922 and voted 35-11 to override the veto. Democrats voted against the override, as did Sen. Joseph Silk (R-Broken Bow) and Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Tulsa). Both chambers must override any bill, and the House did the same by a 79-20 vote around 8:30 p.m. Democrats and Republicans alike blasted Stitt for being disconnected from the budget process and making “misleading statements” through the media.

“That’s the stinking part of D.C. politics people hate,” Rep. Josh West (R-Grove) said on the House floor. “So I want him to look in the stinking mirror.”

For his part, Stitt referenced another element of a house — doors — when explaining to the public why he had vetoed the budget.

“This budget was created behind closed doors, without meaningful input or consultation from the executive branch,” Stitt said in announcing his SB 1922 veto. “This proposed budget does not reflect the values of Oklahoma or the clear directive voters gave elected officials at the ballot box of living within our means and making hard decisions when times get tough. Instead, Senate Bill 1922 reflects misguided policies that conservative Republicans have spent the past decade reversing. It is propped up with one-time funds that will not be available for Fiscal Year 2022.”

Stitt said his goal is to “protect the taxpayer.”

“As governor, I was elected to manage the executive branch, which includes managing expenses and right-sizing agencies,” Stitt said. “This budget is going to back the state into a financial corner, which leaves us with very few options in FY 2022 — we will either have to raise taxes or implement draconian cuts. As governor I am here to protect the taxpayer — not harm them.”

West minced few words in countering the governor’s claim.

“I think it’s easy to sit back from the sidelines and armchair quarterback when you don’t participate in the process,” West said.

House Minority Leader Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) urged her colleagues and the governor to move beyond foolishness over metaphorical furnishings.

“Let’s get past who was in the room, who was locked out of the room, who was right, who was lying, who was wrong. The people of Oklahoma deserve better than that,” Virgin said. “It is the democratic process, but if I were someone who was watching I would say, ‘God, I just wish they would get it together.”

Legislature overrides other 3 Stitt vetoes

The three other bills — HB 2741, HB 2742 and HB 2743 — are part of the Oklahoma Legislature’s creative attempt to limit funding cuts for education agencies, which make up about half of the state’s appropriated budget. The House began votes to override those vetoes shortly after 5 p.m. Needing two-thirds majorities to figuratively stick the ink back up the governor’s pen, the House first voted 94-4 to make HB 2741 “become law not withstanding the objections from the governor.”

House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) uttered that motion and then took Stitt to task for “inaccurate statements” in his veto message. Specifically, he chided the governor’s claim that pension funds were being destabilized.

“We are not touching the corpus,” Wallace said. “That’s another false statement. Totally untrue. (…) There’s hardly anything in this veto message I agree with. A lot of misrepresentations, misinformation and inaccurate statements.”

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) issued a joint statement around 4:20 p.m. previewing the Legislature’s veto override plans.

“Since the governor refused to do so, legislators will rise to the moment to enact a balanced budget for the people of Oklahoma that protects education from deep cuts without harming the transportation or public retirement systems,” McCall and Treat said. “The deep education funding cuts the governor’s vetoes cause are unnecessary and unacceptable, as is his false rhetoric about the bills’ effect on the transportation and retirement systems.”

But after overriding SB 1922, Senate Republicans went into a caucus around 7:45 p.m. and stayed that way until about 9:45 p.m. The Senate GOP caucus emerged and passed veto overrides of HB 2741 (34-12), HB 2742 (34-12) and HB 2743 (44-2).

Stitt vetoes
Members of the Senate GOP Caucus exit Room 535 of the State Capitol around 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Tres Savage)

Stitt: ‘Do not go backwards’ on pension solvency

Stitt announced Monday that he would veto two of the bills: HB 2741 and HB 2742.

He elaborated on his decisions in his official explanation today.

“While I understand the importance of a balanced budget, it is improper to do so at the expense of the solvency of the Teachers’ Retirement System, which has been greatly improved through the Legislature’s commitment to fiscally conservative policies,” Stitt wrote in both of his messages for HB 2741 and HB 2742. “It is important we do not go backwards on the meaningful gains we have made.”

Stitt wrote that HB 2741 “would add $186,200,000 to the unfunded actuarial accrued liability, which was last reported as $6,529,854,740.”

Passed by the Legislature as part of last week’s budget packageHB 2741 and HB 2742 would make temporary and then long-term adjustments to the percentages of state sales, use and income taxes apportioned “off the top” to state pension funds. Neither bill changes the payments that state retirees receive.

HB 2741 passed the House with a veto-proof majority, but its 28-19 approval in the Senate would fall short of the two-thirds requirement for a veto override. HB 2742 also received more than 70 votes in the House, but it likewise had only 28 senators support its initial passage.

But in their own press conference following Stitt’s, legislative leaders said the governor is either engaging in “false communication” or simply does not understand the bills sent to his desk.

“If those vetoes stand, there will be a $111.9 million cut to public education,” said Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah). “I believe that our caucus and our chamber will rise to the occasion.”

Stitt also vetoed HB 2743, which passed 89-10 in the House and 43-4 in the Senate. The bill would transfer $180 million an Oklahoma Department of Transportation fund to the State Department of Education.

“As governor, my goal is for Oklahoma to become a Top-10 state. This includes becoming Top Ten in infrastructure, specifically in roads and bridges,” Stitt said in a press release. “House Bill 2743 would force ODOT to unnecessarily take on additional debt through the use of bonds. Because of the state’s dedication to the ODOT plan, we are now up to 13th in bridges and improving our roads. I understand and agree with the use of bonds in limited circumstances. However, I cannot support the use of bonds to plug budget holes.”

Interestingly, Stitt signed HB 2744, which authorizes $200 million of bonds for the Department of Transportation to use on its eight-year construction plan. Lawmakers intended that measure to free up the $180 million for common education.

“That keeps the eight-year plan right on target. We have done this in the past. We have bonded out some construction projects, and we are able to use our cash. So all of those things we believe are good for Oklahoma,” Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) said earlier Wednesday. “We want to make sure the state stays fiscally healthy, and by doing that we need to be able invest in the state.”

By the day’s end around 10:05 p.m., the Legislature had overridden all four Stitt vetoes.

(Update: This story was updated at 4:25 p.m. Wednesday, May 13, to include comment from McCall and Treat. It was updated again at 4:50 p.m. to include Stitt’s veto of SB 1922 and other times throughout the day and evening. It was updated a final time at 10:06 p.m. with a new headline.)