Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address Monday didn’t even mention Oklahoma’s earthquake crisis.
That was probably the most glaring omission in a speech that offered mostly proposed generalities about increasing revenue to meet an expected budget shortfall of approximately $1 billion next fiscal year, which begins in July.
To her credit, Fallin did propose $3,000 annual raises for the state’s public school teachers, and she did offer some good ideas or starting points for good ideas about prison-sentencing reform. But can the state really generate the money for the raises under Fallin’s budget framework and will GOP law-and-order conservatives, who dominate the legislature, really adopt major corrections reform that would eliminate or lower sentences for non-violent drug offenders?
I hate to be negative, but, frankly, I don’t see that it’s likely in either case. I hope I’m proved wrong.
Proud to deliver my sixth State of the Address today. Read more here and for links to my speech and budget proposal: https://t.co/wDzHZ7iwz5
— Governor Mary Fallin (@GovMaryFallin) February 1, 2016
The fact, however, that Fallin didn’t once address the earthquake problem should be the largest takeaway from the speech. Oklahoma leads the nation—some say the world—in earthquakes now. Scientists long ago determined the quakes are caused by the injection well process deployed by the oil and gas industry in hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Lawsuits related to earthquakes are pending against major oil and gas companies here, and homes and other property are getting damaged on a fairly regular basis now. This doesn’t even consider the millions of people living in Oklahoma who continue to deal with the nagging anxiety of shaking homes and worry about when the large, catastrophic quake will hit.
Fallin’s omission is a strong indicator that she and other state leaders, including members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, will continue to avoid taking strong action to stop the quakes. One answer is to shut down injection wells, a solution used elsewhere with great success. It’s difficult to see that happening here when the state’s governor won’t even mention the problem in her annual speech to the legislature.
Fallin’s proposals to generate more revenue is based on several different models, but I will focus on two of them. One proposal would supposedly modernize our sale taxes collections and eliminate some sales tax exemptions. This is the exact language from the proposed budget:
State sales and use tax exemptions total an estimated $8.1 billion annually. Oklahoma applies sales tax to fewer services than all but two surrounding states and does not charge sales tax on items delivered electronically, like digital music.
The proposed budget would also raise the tax on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack. Here’s the language on that issue from the proposed budget:
Raising the $1.03 per pack rate collected by the state when someone chooses to buy cigarettes to $2.53 per pack will save lives, reduce health care costs and generate recurring revenue for core services.
Rock n’ roll and cigarettes? I’ll try to not poke too much fun at these two proposals, which is far too easy to do, but new taxes on digital music are not going to save Oklahoma from its fiscal problems, and what exactly are the specific sales tax exemptions that are going to get eliminated? That lack of information is telling. Moreover, if more people stop smoking because of the new tax on cigarettes then wouldn’t the tax-revenue benefit decline as well? See, the expected health benefit of the proposal is undercut by the financial gain in the proposal. We’ll tax cigarette smokers so much they won’t smoke, but we’ll fund education with the money from the new tax we squeeze out of smokers, who will want to quit smoking because they finally realize they can’t afford it. It doesn’t make sense.
Other revenue would include money from non-appropriated agency renewal money and the elimination of the personal income tax double deduction. Again, here’s the budget proposal in its entirety. The question is whether the legislature will find any of these proposals feasible.
The absolutely bright spot in Fallin’s address was her push for reducing prison times for non-violent offenders, primarily those with simple drug-possession charges.
Fallin noted in her remarks:
This session, I’m calling for lowering Oklahoma’s mandatory drug possession sentences.
First, let’s allow district attorneys to have the discretion to file any first drug offense as a misdemeanor.
Next, we lower the mandatory sentence from two to 10 years in prison, to zero to five years in prison.
For second felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from two years to life, to zero to 10 years.
And for third felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from six years to life with no probation to zero to 15 years.
For property crimes, let’s raise the value of a felony crime from $500 to $1,000. The $500 benchmark has been in place since 2002, and it needs to be raised. A teen who steals someone’s smartphone today could be branded for life as a felon because smartphones cost more than $500; twenty years ago, most cell phones cost less than $100.
Maybe that’s too long of a quote from a speech that doesn’t necessarily deserve it in terms of its quality of writing and oratorical delivery, but these proposals coming from a Republican governor, who also called the state’s high incarceration rates a “decades-long problem,” deserve our undivided attention. The state leads the nation in its per capita female incarceration rate and is always in the top five nationally in its male incarceration rate.
Again, I don’t know how much traction these proposals will get in the Republican-dominated legislature, but just the fact the state’s top leader is suggesting such measures is a hopeful sign that more people are waking up to the fact that the so-called war on drugs has been an abysmal failure.
— OurChildrenOK (@OurChildrenOK) February 1, 2016
One item to discuss more specifically is the proposed $3,000 raises for teachers. One way to view Fallin’s proposal is that it’s meant to preempt University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s proposed ballot initiative to raise the state sales tax by one penny to, among other things, give teachers here an annual $5,000 raise.
— Tulsa World (@tulsaworld) February 2, 2016
Here are some thoughts on the issue: (1) Fallin probably wouldn’t even be proposing teacher raises, except for the obvious pressure exerted by the Boren proposal. (2) Boren’s proposal not only gives teachers $5,000 in annual raises, or $2,000 more than Fallin’s proposal, it also gives money to other education agencies, including higher education, which would lower college tuition increases. Fallin’s proposed budget would cut funding to higher education by 6 percent next fiscal year. (3) Eliminating certain sales tax exemptions and raising taxes on cigarettes can be construed just as regressive as the one-penny sales tax proposal, an exclusive tax for education, which would actually benefit low-income school children the most. Studies show people on the lower spectrum of income smoke the most. (4) In her speech, Fallin’s said she supported Education Savings Accounts (i.e. ESAs or school vouchers), which would take even more money away from public education.
Fallin’s speech centered on the state’s budget problems, and any ensuing dissection of it doesn’t matter one iota if the economy here continues to tank and tax revenues continue to decline astronomically. We’ve been here before in the 1980s. Here we go again, folks. Will we see another mass exodus from the state?
But the earthquake crisis, no matter how the economy fares in the months ahead, needs to be addressed with bold action right away. Fallin’s speech fell far short of validating Oklahomans’ concerns about their personal safety and damage to their property as the manmade earthquakes continue to roll here. This is a scary place to live right now, and Fallin’s “lack of speech” only increases the fear and anxiety.