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Hundreds converge on state capitol to urge lawmakers to fund mental health

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Hundreds rallied at the Oklahoma State capital Tuesday to urge legislators to support mental health funding.
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OKLAHOMA CITY- As hundreds of Oklahomans filled three floors of the Oklahoma State Capitol Tuesday morning, hundreds more waited and gathered outside to send a strong message to legislators to move forward on a plan to fund mental health and developmental services.

The Save Our Services rally attracted citizens across the state as a Nov. 1 deadline to fund mental health and development services loomed. The rally came on the heels of a budget agreement announced by the Oklahoma Republicans that would include a $1.50 increase in cigarette tax to help fund the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a motor fuels tax increase and an alcohol tax increase.

Supporters of mental health services gathered outside of the state capital as all floors filled with advocates for mental health funding Tuesday. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

While many Democrats and others felt the newest budget agreement would not pass without support of Democrats, who have pushed for an increase in gross production tax and income tax, many in the mental health services said any plan at this point is better than nothing.

“We are at a crisis Defcon One, and it’s really time to put people before politics,” said Janet Cizek, CEO and managing partner of The Center for Therapeutic Interventions, who helped organize the rally with the Oklahoma Behavioral Health Association and other mental health services organizations.

“We are facing a budget shortfall, and when the cigarette fee was deemed unconstitutional this summer, that left us in a $75 million hole for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. That’s 25 percent of the budget, and most private providers like me receive contracts. We are faced with catastrophic cuts, and my business will be shut down. We treat 3,500 clients a year, and I have 45 employees. We will have to turn clients away if a deal isn’t reached.”

Cizek said while the budget agreement announced Monday wasn’t “a perfect plan,” it was at least a plan of some sort.

“Without a plan, on Nov. 1, we will start to dismantle. Nearly 200,000 Oklahomans will lose services and 8,500 employees in the mental health services will lose jobs,” she said. “We are at the cliff’s edge here where lives are on the line. They have to do something.”

If state legislators do not reach a budget agreement and no additional funds are appropriated, the cuts to mental health and substance abuse services will go into effect Nov. 1. Andy Moore, founder of Let’s Fix This citizen advocacy group, said hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans would be affected if a budget agreement was not reached.

“I think the legislature must understand that people’s lives are at stake here,” he said.

Katy Knight, who attended the rally from Oklahoma City, agreed.

“I think services and agencies who don’t receive funding from The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health will also be impacted,” she said.

Andy Moore, Katy Knight and Jeanean South show their support at the Save Our Services Rally at the Capitol (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

During a special press conference Monday, Governor Mary Fallin, Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz and House Speaker Charles McCall said they reached an agreement to fill the $215 million budget hole and provide a teacher pay raise. Not all legislators are pleased with the deal, however.

If passed by the Legislature, the agreement would place a $1.50 tax on a package of cigarettes, provide for a 6-cent fuel tax increase, change taxes on alcoholic beverages, restore the Earned Income Tax credit, provide for a $3,000 teacher pay increase, effective Aug. 1, 2018, and provide for a $1,000 increase for state employees, effective Aug. 1, 2018. It does not pertain to higher education, legislators or constitutional officers, such as statewide elected officials and judges.

The agreement makes no mention of a gross production tax increase, something state Democrats had pushed throughout the Legislative session and special session, however.

“This agreement is the result of countless hours of discussions and meetings,” said Fallin. “It is apparent that rapid changes in our economy have created unsustainable and unpredictable revenue collection patterns. We need to seek long-term sustainability and stability as opposed to unpredictability and volatility.”

Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-OKC) attended the rally Tuesday as well, saying that when citizens get involved, changes could occur. He added that the Republican package would not solve Oklahoma’s long-term fiscal issues.

“I don’t think it was ever meant to solve our problems,” he said. “We need a real budget solution, not a band-aid. We need a significant amount of forward revenue, not just to fill our year after year deficit, but to invest in a future that allows for growth. There are a lot of good ideas, but we need to start with issues that caused these problems, which were cutting the income tax rate too low and lowering the gross production tax. Compromise will put us on better footing.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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