OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma residents might soon be able to direct a portion of their state income tax refunds to defend its laws against federal constitutional challenges, an ironic and unintended consequence of a lawmaker's tongue-in-cheek skewering of the cost of such court fights.
Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat from Rush Springs, said he had grown tired of seeing Oklahoma spending millions of dollars defending its proposed laws in the courts, and suggested a tax form "check-off" as a way to draw voters' attention to the costs of legal action.
But the idea of aiding Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in his defense against constitutional challenges and fighting federal statutes has been a hit. Instead of being shuffled off to a committee where it wouldn't get a hearing, the measure sailed through the House last month on an 80-15 vote, and the Republican Senate sponsor said he intends to bring the bill to the full Senate for a vote -- perhaps this week, right before federal taxes are due.
"It's getting more momentum than I expected," Dorman, D-Rush Springs, said. "I honestly did not expect the bill to even get a hearing, and here it is flying right through.
"But people do realize that we're spending a lot of taxpayer dollars, millions of dollars in taxpayer money, fighting these lawsuits," he added. Recently challenged laws included restrictions on immigrants, abortion and the use of international law in state courts.
The bill, which Pruitt did not request, would create a special fund in the state treasury that the attorney general's office could access "for the purpose of defending the statutes of this state from constitutional challenges or challenging federal statutes." Oklahoma has more than 20 funds to which taxpayers can designate a portion of their state tax refund, including programs for wildlife diversity, food banks, abused children and breast cancer.
State attorneys general launching legal challenges against the federal government is nothing new, but the effort has particularly gained steam among Republican AGs during the Obama administration, said Jill Bader, a spokesman for the Republican Attorneys General Association.
"I think this trend is a direct result of this president's unprecedented federal overreach that is incredibly strong," Bader said. "This administration is constantly skirting the legislative process and going around Congress to use administrative agencies to push their federal agenda down onto the states."
Pruitt was elected during the 2010 GOP sweep of every statewide-elected office in Oklahoma, and certainly is no stranger to fighting against what he characterizes as an overreaching federal government.
After a campaign built around a pledge to fight the federal government's intrusion into states' rights, Pruitt created a federalism unit within his office that is currently challenging the tax penalty provisions of the federal health care law, Environmental Protection Agency regulations on regional haze and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
His office also has either filed or joined challenges on EPA's rules on air pollution and greenhouse gases, and on the contraception mandate in the federal health care bill.
"As an attorney general, our responsibility is to make sure that the rule of law is followed, and that as Congress has passed legislation, they have given certain authority to the states ... and often times, of late, agencies at the federal level and sometimes the administration itself, have acted in ways inconsistent with what the law says," Pruitt told The Associated Press. "It's very important, in fact I think it's my job, to make sure that as those things happen, we seek to enforce the rule of law to preserve our ability as a state to do that which Congress has authorized us to do. It's that simple."
The bill is likely to pass in the Senate, where Republicans enjoy a 36-12 edge over Democrats, and many GOP members campaigned on a pledge to oppose the Affordable Care Act and other federal mandates.
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has not said whether she would sign the bill, but in the past has been critical of the Obama administration, saying it often oversteps boundaries when dealing with states.