Hundreds of protesters packed the capitol today, demanding lawmakers agree on a budget that prevents cuts to services.
“I was completely homeless about two years ago. I’m what they considered a hopeless addict. I was hooked on heroin,” said Shannon Clymer of Oklahoma City who completed Mental Health Court. “I’ve been completely sober for 11-months. My family didn’t speak to me for about three years. They’re back in my life. My kids are back in my life.”
And Clymer is not alone. An estimated 189,000 Oklahomans will be impacted if the state cuts outpatient mental health and substance abuse services.
Monday, the governor and Republican leaders pushed a bill to increase taxes on fuel, tobacco and alcohol to fill a $215 million budget deficit while offering teachers and state workers raises. It passed in committee today, but not without opposition.
“You’re asking those people who are allegedly going to benefit from this bill to pay for it,” said Representative Emily Virgin (D) District 44. “You’re asking them to pay for their own raises, you’re asking them to pay for their own earned, income tax credit. You’re asking them to pay for their own mental health services.”
Representative John Bennett (R) District 2 added, “This is a regressive tax and it punishes our citizens. And instead of addressing the real problems here and that is we are kicking the fiscal problems down the road.”
Democrats say they won’t back the Republican plan because it doesn’t include a tax increase on oil and natural gas production.
“We’re asking the least among us to pay more while we’re asking the most wealthy industry in the history of the world to pay not one more dime in taxes,” said Representative Eric Proctor (D) District 77.
Backers admit it’s not the best deal, but it’s the best they can do now to bridge the budget gap, continue services to the needy, and end the impasse.
“I heard stories,” said Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols. “I had people cry. I cried. A lot. And what it all came down to is we are at an impasse that is absolutely absurd.”
Clymer says she doesn’t care about the politics. She says she just wants those like her to get the chance they deserve.
“The people who are coming behind me who aren’t going to get the chance that I got to change their life, and are just going to be thrown away,” Clymer said. “They act like we’re dispensable and we’re not.”
Just because the Republican plan passed in committee doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. It’s expected to be heard on the floor of the House of Representatives tomorrow and even if all Republicans back it, which is unlikely, it will still need some democratic support to pass.
Democrats say without an increase in the tax on oil and natural gas production, they won’t back it. House Speaker Charles McCall upped the ante, telling Democrats if they back the deal he will allow a vote on the floor for an increase in the Gross Production tax.
“House Democrats have demanded a vote on increasing the GPT to five percent, so here is their chance,” McCall said. "All they have to do is pass the revenue package of items they repeatedly said they want – healthcare funding, a teacher pay raise, a state employee pay raise and restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income Oklahomans. If they will pass this package, I will guarantee them a straight-up vote on GPT at five percent on the House floor. House Republicans will be allowed to vote their conscience on the GPT bill.”