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Big tax bills Shuttled Off To Legislative Conference

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Senate Democrats on Tuesday voted to send to a joint conference committee two bills that would cut taxes almost $570-million a year when fully implemented.

A Republican leader said Democrats had effectively killed the measures for the session.

Democrats blocked Republican efforts to force floor votes on a $480 million annual income tax cut and an $87 million annual estate tax reduction. If they had been considered and approved, the bills would have gone to Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.

Afterward, state Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said it is unrealistic and "silly" to pass the tax-cut bills "in a vacuum" and apart from overall budget negotiations.

Morgan said the two sides "are miles and miles apart" on the budget and hinted the possibility of a special session is growing.

"We have real trouble on the horizon if the leadership of the House doesn't get realistic about doing their job," he said.

Morgan said even a special session would not help if Republicans, including House Speaker Todd Hiett, did not abandon their insistence on tax cuts of the magnitude contained in the bills sent to conference.

Asked how much of an income tax increase Democrats would support, he said: "Not much."

"It's not something we want to do," Morgan said, saying Democrats strongly opposed "mortgaging the future of this state" by not using surplus revenue for education and other key programs.

He said Democrats are willing to negotiate on the tax issues, however.

He said state House leaders had reneged on a pledge to Senate Finance Chairman Jay Paul Gumm that all tax bills would go to conference, where a final agreement could be hammered out that lines up with other budget proposals.

Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow, introduced the income tax plan, which would reduce the maximum rate from 6.25 percent to 4.9 percent. Senators approved the plan earlier with the title off the bill, meaning it could not be enacted without another Senate vote.

When the bill got to the GOP-led House, Hiett took over authorship from Rep. Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, restored the title and ushered it to passage.

Morgan says Hiett's race for lieutenant governor was the reason for those developments. Pruitt also is a GOP candidate for that post.

Pruitt held a news conference to urge fiscal conservatives to "stand up and hold the line on cutting our income tax to 4.9 percent." He said Hiett should remain committed to the plan.

Senate Democrats also sent to conference a bill Republicans have been pushing to make several changes in the state's civil justice system.

Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, GOP leader of the Senate, accused Democrats of "effectively killing" the three bills.

Morgan said he would appoint himself as a conferee on the civil justice bill and would make sure it did not emerge from the joint House-Senate committee in its present form.

He said the bill favors big business too much and would "close the doors to the courthouse" to average Oklahomans.

Republicans say the measure is needed to reduce the number of lawsuits and the cost of doing business in the state.

The votes on the three bills were along party lines. The state Senate had 25 Democrats and 23 Republicans. One Democrat was absent during Tuesday's session.
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