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Court overturns fee on cigarettes

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)  The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a $1.50 per-pack fee on cigarettes, ruling that lawmakers adopted the fee in violation of constitutional rules that dictate how and when revenue-raising measures can be approved.

The decision rejects the state's claim that the fee  which was expected to raise more than $250 million a year  was designed to protect the public by helping to reduce smoking rates and to compensate the state for the harm done by smoking. Tobacco manufacturers argued the bill's primary purpose was to raise revenue to operate state government.

The cigarette fee was among several revenue-related bills adopted in the final days of the 2017 legislative session to help close an $878 million hole in the budget and avoid catastrophic cuts to state agencies and services.

Special session looks likely

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said she was disappointed by the ruling. She said lawmakers will likely have to convene a special legislative session to fund agencies that were designated to receive the bulk of the tobacco fee revenue, including the Department of Human Services, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

"These agencies and the people they serve cannot sustain the kind of cuts that will occur if we do not find a solution," Fallin said in a written statement.

The cigarette fee was narrowly approved on the last day of the legislation session. The court's 31-page decision, written by Justice Patrick Wyrick, said the move violated guidelines in the Oklahoma Constitution that bar lawmakers from approving revenue-raising bills in the final five days of a legislative session and without a 75 percent majority vote.

Wyrick said the money-raising $1.50 fee was "the linchpin" of the legislation, not health concerns.

"The measure was motivated by the Legislature's need to raise revenue so that it could satisfy its constitutional obligation to enact a balanced budget," wrote Wyrick, the newest member of the nine-member court.

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