OKLAHOMA CITY — A proposed $1.50 per pack increase in the state cigarette tax backed by Republican leaders and the Oklahoma State Chamber lumbered from the House Appropriations and Budget Committee late Monday afternoon on a less-than-overwhelming vote.
As now written, House Bill 1841 by Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, would ultimately direct revenue from the proposed tax increase into a Health Care Enhancement revolving fund for “activities eligible to be matched with federal Medicaid dollars or mental health safety net services.”
The increase, which would become effective Sept. 1, has a hard pull to become law.
Because it is a tax increase, it would have to secure at least 75 percent of the vote in both the House and the Senate. A similar proposal failed last year when House Democrats refused to back anything that did not include expansion of the state’s subsidized health insurance program for low-income workers.
On Monday, the House Appropriations and Budget Committee voted 17-10 for the measure, with six of eight Democrats and four of 19 Republicans opposed, a breakdown that does not bode well for finding the 76 votes needed for passage on the House floor.
Two Republican resignations in the House probably make leadership’s task all the more difficult. They reduce the number of members from 101 to 99 and the number of Republicans from 75 to 73 while changing the number of votes needed for passage.
The Democratic minority, and particularly Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, have shown little interest in voting for a tax increase without revisiting recent cuts in state income and oil and gas tax rates.
On Monday, Inman and Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, poked Osborn, the Appropriations and Budget Committee chairman, about failing rural hospitals, Oklahoma’s relatively high uninsured rate and whether GOP leaders could be trusted not to use the cigarette tax increase to shift revenue to other areas of government.
“I am not interested in being partisan,” Osborn said. “I’m not playing those games. If you look at the situation going forward, I’m offering what I believe is the best solution.”
“Is it a solution?” Inman responded. “I asked that, and you dodged the question. Is a $1.50 cigarette tax going to keep the hospital in Atoka (Speaker Charles McCall’s home town) open? I don’t believe it is.”
Gov. Mary Fallin’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal included $257.8 million from a $1.50 cigarette tax increase. HB 1841, which would not take effect until two months into FY 2018, does not yet have a revenue estimate.
The bill calls for revenue collected in FY 2018 to be divided among six special funds to support health-care services.
The largest share, 45 percent, would go to Medicaid.
Beginning in FY 2019, the revenue would go to the Health Care Enhancement Fund to be appropriated by the Legislature for health care.
• The House passed and sent to the Senate a bill that would strengthen the prosecution’s hand in cases of rape by instrumentation in which the victim is unconscious or incapacitated. HB 1005, by Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, is in part a response to a string of serial rapes on the University of Tulsa campus.
• The Common Education Committee advanced several measures dealing with teacher retention and recruitment and one that would require daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in all public schools.