OKLAHOMA CITY — A Republican lawmaker should apologize for calling state agencies “terrorists” that routinely try to extort money from the Legislature, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said.
Fallin and officials with Oklahoma Public Employees Association said state Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, owes agency heads and public employees an apology for comments he made Wednesday while debating against a proposal to increase taxes on oil and gas producers.
“No one wants their taxes raised, but the agencies getting the money are telling our constituents, ‘Hey, the sky is falling,’” Bennett said during the debate. “And the agencies (are) telling our citizens they’re going to cut their services to the most vulnerable.
“So what’s the answer here? Raise taxes, right? That’ll fix everything ’til the next year or the next year when they come with their hand out and threaten to extort money from us again,” Bennett said.
Lawmakers have been meeting in special session at the Capitol for six weeks now in an effort to ward off devastating cuts to health care, mental health and social services as the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, Department of Human Services and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse grapple with a combined $215 million budget shortfall. Lawmakers caused the deficit by passing an unconstitutional cigarette tax increase that was supposed to fund the agencies.
As of Thursday, the Republican-controlled Legislature had managed to get one budget measure to Fallin’s desk — a bill that would fill $23.3 million of that hole by tapping the state’s savings account, better known as the Rainy Day Fund. Other proposals, including raising taxes on cigarettes, beer, gasoline and oil and gas producers, have failed to garner enough bipartisan support to advance.
The state agencies, meanwhile, have warned Oklahomans that if lawmakers don’t take immediate action, they’ll be cutting Medicaid reimbursement rates, outpatient mental health treatment, home health care services and other social service programs for the poor and most vulnerable.
“It is unacceptable behavior for a lone legislator to call state agencies and their employees terrorists,” Fallin said in statement released on Twitter on Wednesday night. “An apology should be given.”
A Fallin spokesman said Thursday that he didn’t know if Bennett had issued an apology.
Bennett did not respond to a request for comment.
State agencies “aren’t some big nebulous thing,” said spokesman Tom Dunning of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, which represents thousands of state employees. The group believes Bennett’s comments were aimed not just at agency heads but also those who serve the public on the front lines.
Dunning’s group sent Bennett a letter asking for an apology. As of midday Thursday, they hadn’t received one, he said.
Dunning said lawmakers have long failed to properly fund state agencies, and employees have little choice but to ask lawmakers for help and let the public know that services are in jeopardy.
“State agencies are reacting the only way they can to the lack of funding the Legislature gives them,” Dunning said. “There are no more pencils and paperclips left to cut.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.