Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

These Three Things for Oklahoma

Republished with permission from One World House

In conversation with hundreds of Oklahomans over the past couple of years and after years of analysis concerning systemic change in the Oklahoma context, I am convinced that Oklahoma needs three things to happen before we will be able to begin digging ourselves out of our current crisis, and these things are:

1.) the Repeal of State Question 640,

2.) the Restoration of the 7% Gross Production Tax on Oil and Gas, and

3.) the Implementation of Ranked Choice Instant Run-Off Voting. All three of these together will not fully get Oklahoma where it needs to go for the creation of a flourishing human community, but without these three things, we will remain a glaring example of what happens to our social fabric when we cut taxes for the wealthy to the detriment of the common good and encourage the economic and political hegemony of the oil and gas industry.

The repeal of Oklahoma State Question 640 would allow the Oklahoma Legislature flexibility to raise state taxes to address Oklahoma’s budget crisis. State Question 640 was passed by a vote of the people in 1992 and requires a 75% vote in both the senate and the house of representatives of the Oklahoma Legislature in order to raise taxes. The effect has been multiple tax decreases over the past 25 years, mainly for the wealthy and large corporations, and no tax increases, even in times of severe revenue failure and budget crisis. Only one other state (Arkansas) has a threshold that is this high for approving tax increases. At the very least, we need to lower the threshold for approval, if not revert back to a simple majority vote. (See https://www.facebook.com/RepealOKStateQuestion640/)

Restoration of the 7% Gross Production Tax (GPT) rate on oil and gas is needed to save our schools and save our state from its revenue failure. Oklahoma’s effective tax rate on oil and gas production is 3.2%  and is one of the lowest in the country. Restoration of the 7% rate is essential to raising teacher pay and reversing the largest decline in general state spending on public education in the entire country since 2008. Oklahoma has the lowest teacher pay in the nation, and ranks fourth lowest in the nation in per pupil spending. Our neighbor Texas, by contrast, has an effective tax  rate of 8.3%  on oil and gas production and pays its new entry-level teachers about $20,000 more than Oklahoma. Over time Oklahoma has lost billions of dollars of revenue owing to our unnecessary tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. (See https://www.facebook.com/OklahomansForRestoring7PercentGrossProductionTax/)

Ranked Choice Instant Run-Off Voting would strengthen participation in our democracy by allowing persons to vote for their candidate of choice in elections with three or more candidates without the concern that their vote would be wasted or contribute to the election of their least favorite candidates. This would allow political parties outside of the Democratic and Republican parties to gain more traction and to be taken more seriously in the political debate. It would likely also increase political participation of those citizens who do not feel represented by the two major parties. In such a system, you could give first preference to the candidate you really want elected. If he or she does not have enough votes to make the instant run-off,  your vote would go to your next preference on the ballot. (See https://www.facebook.com/RCVOklahoma/)

These three things (repeal of 640, restoration of the 7% GPT, and ranked choice voting) will at least give us a fighting chance for systemic transformation in our state, and for that very reason, those who benefit from the established environment will do almost anything to keep these three things from happening. If Oklahoma is to have a future other than becoming even more of a commodity colony than it already is, the people must take back their power through sustained participation in the political process to achieve these three things and then press on towards more systemic change for a more just, peaceful, participatory, and sustainable Oklahoma.

Once these three things happen, it will be more possible to do what is necessary to generate adequate revenue for education, infrastructure, basic services, public safety, environmental protection, healthcare (including mental healthcare), and care for the least vulnerable among us.

Once these things happen, we can begin to focus on diversifying our economy and break the dominance that the oil and gas industry has over our economic and political processes.

Once these three things happen, we can build on the increased political participation that will come when people have more political choices and are able to vote for their first choice in elections without hurting their second choice or helping their least favorite candidate. Vibrant third parties will finally be able to gain traction to allow more diverse voices in our political process.

You can see why these three things will be resisted, which is the very reason we must do all we can to begin with these three things. It is possible…

Oklahoma Oil and Gas and the Charade of Greed

Reprinted with permission from One World House

Harold Hamm and Larry Nichols are desperate to keep Oklahoma’s gross production tax on oil and gas at extremely low levels because they know that if they keep it low again this year, they will likely be able to keep it low for a number of years to come.

Here’s why – They know that the Saudis are cutting back on production to stabilize and increase global oil prices. They also know that the Oklahoma Legislature they own will likely pass lessened restrictions on long lateral horizontal drilling in non-shale formations. In other words, Hamm and Nichols know that a boom is likely on the horizon, and they want to enjoy that boom with the lowest GPT possible.

They also know that with a boom on the horizon there will be an increase in drilling and production and therefore an increase in revenue coming to the state from GPT even if there is not a restoration of a higher GPT. The increase in revenue will by no means cover the budget shortfall, but it will be an increase. When this happens, Hamm and Nichols will say “See, the Oklahoma Legislature did the right thing by keeping the GPT low because it led to an increase in production and therefore an increase in revenue for the state, and they will create a bunch of fancy videos with the chamber of commerce and the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board touting the return of economic prosperity to OKC and Oklahoma and highlight oil and gas as the fuel for that prosperity.

What they won’t tell you is that the increase in drilling and production that will likely occur in the next couple of years will have almost nothing to do with a low GPT rate and will have almost everything to do with global oil and gas prices, and perhaps some to do with less strict environmental regulations that will endanger our health and the climate over the long run but make it cheaper to drill wells and transport oil and gas.

They also will not tell you that in the last boom we cut education more than any other state owing to all of the tax cuts we keep giving to the wealthy and the oil and gas companies.

The oil and gas companies will have so much extra money from the coming boom that they will be able to increase their charitable giving, which will still be a tiny fraction of what they should be paying in taxes, and they will use this tax deductible giving as free advertising to claim that they are responsible corporate citizens even though many of the agencies they donate to might not need to exist if they paid in taxes here what they have to pay in other states.

The problem is that enough people keep believing this charade of greed and will thank the oil and gas companies for leading the state from a more horrible state of hell to a less horrible state of hell, and our politicians and their oil and gas patrons will pat themselves on the back for keeping the GPT low, which will mean billions to the oil and gas companies in the years ahead while our schools, hospitals, mental healthcare, and other basic services continue to languish; and we gullible Oklahomans will likely continue to reward them for this charade.

This is why it is so critical to restore the 7% GPT now, so we can enjoy a reasonable recovery towards a more flourishing state in the years ahead. Will we have the political will to make these changes, or will it continue to be the same as it ever was?

Oh. and by the way, with higher global oil and gas prices and higher production, there will be more waste water produced; so unless we figure out a way to deal with that appropriately, get ready for some more shaking, and guess who gets to pay for the earthquake damage?!

Oklahoma: A State of Codependency

Reprinted with permission from One World House. `

For most of its existence as a state, Oklahoma has been dependent on the fossil fuel industry as the driving force of its economy. There have been ups and downs, booms and busts, but Oklahoma’s history is a history that was fueled by oil and then by both oil and natural gas. It is not surprising that in a state so dependent on oil and gas for its economic fortunes that the fossil fuel industry in Oklahoma has possessed and continues to possess tremendous political clout.

Speaking critically of the oil and gas industry or resisting its will is the closest thing to the kiss of death in Oklahoma politics. The fossil fuel industry knows this and so do the politicians. Oil and gas executives don’t try to hide this fact. They don’t have to. Historically what is good for oil and gas has been seen as what is good for Oklahoma. A politician following the will of the oil and gas industry was viewed simply as being a good Oklahoman.

Until very recently this political and economic hegemony of oil and gas went unquestioned and was both respected and feared by Republicans and Democrats alike. It is extremely difficult to succeed in Oklahoma, politically or economically, without good relations with and support from the industry that fuels the economic engines of our state. And this goes for persons in and out of political office. Speaking ill of oil and gas has been the third rail of Oklahoma politics and social survival – you just don’t go there.

Virtually no sector of Oklahoma society is untouched by the power of the fossil fuel industry, and all sectors are in some way dependent on it. Higher education, the arts, non-profit social service agencies, college and professional sports, entertainment venues, and even churches all find fiscal support from oil and gas companies, either directly or indirectly. They fund our plays, concerts, and musicals. They own and sponsor our beloved Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team. They are leading givers to charity (albeit their tax-deductible gifts are far less than the tax breaks they are given). The fossil fuel industry has established itself as the indispensable Oklahoma industry.

Oklahoma has come a long way with oil and gas, but there are significant signs that the relationship has evolved in ways that are no longer contributing to the overall flourishing of our state. The natural cycles of boom and bust are to be expected. That cannot be laid at the feet of the oil and gas companies, nor is it the underlying systemic problem of the relationship. Yet for systemic reasons, what was once an Oklahoma given, that the oil and gas industry is good for the state, has now become an extremely debatable assertion.

Perhaps the most significant problem with the industry that has made our state what it is today is that the production and use of its primary product pollutes our air and water and is quickly creating an unlivable climate. These are all assertions that the most prominent Oklahoma politicians refute because if they didn’t, they would no longer be among the most prominent Oklahoma politicians; but science is, well, science, and the evidence points strongly in the opposite direction of their denials. The recent experience of thousands of oil and gas wastewater injection induced earthquakes has made it more difficult to deny the negative environmental impacts of the industry as the Oklahoma earth literally shakes our consciousness and in some cases our conscience into new awareness.

Even if you take away most or all of the worst and very real environmental problems of oil and gas, there remain systemic factors in the state’s relationship to fossil fuel that are contributing to a less healthy relationship than what was experienced in the past. One of these factors is the importance of economic diversification. We have become so dependent on oil and gas that we fail time and time again to adequately diversify our economy to weather the times of bust in the boom/bust cycle. During every bust we promise ourselves that we will diversity, but when boom times come, we seem to contract a statewide collective amnesia.

Other forms of energy are becoming highly competitive with fossil fuel, and instead of embracing a multi-faceted energy economy with a broad mix of renewable energy sources, the fossil fuel industry uses its political clout to protect its interests over its competitors. This has played out in this year’s Oklahoma legislative session as incentives for renewable energy have been cut and electric cars taxed while Oklahoma Legislature Republicans seem resolute to keep hundreds of millions of dollars of annual tax breaks in place for oil and gas.

Fossil fuel executives lament that the industry is providing approximately 25% of the state government’s revenue, but what can we expect when we continue to fail to diversify? It should also be noted that we have made significant cuts to the budget over the past few years, so 25% today is less actual money than it was before the latest bust, and the state was already making budget cuts even during the boom cycle owing to a series of tax cuts, especially for the most wealthy and the fossil fuel industry. Compared to our peer oil and gas states, the fossil fuel industry in Oklahoma enjoys the lowest tax burden, with an effective gross production tax (GPT) rate of 3.2%. Our neighbor Texas, by contrast, has an effective rate of 8.3%

Faced with public pressure to restore the gross production tax rate to 7%, oil and gas executives and lobbyists argue that this will have a significant negative effect on oil and gas production in Oklahoma even though the rate will still be lower than most other states. However, a small number of vocal leaders in the industry, like George Kaiser and Dewey Bartlett Jr., are in favor of an increase in the rate and argue that a return to a 7% GPT will have a negligible impact on production, but it will have a significant positive impact on the state’s budget.

But most fossil fuel industry leaders want even more profit, and they are using their considerable political clout to pressure the politicians they have supported financially through the years for such a time as this. Schools are closing and moving more and more to 4-day school weeks across the state, teachers are paid abysmally and are leaving to other states where they can get paid $20,000 or more per year than in Oklahoma, hospitals are closing, mental health care is grossly underfunded, persons with special needs go underserved, and our incarceration rates are at record highs. Our state is failing, and as a third generation Oklahoman, I can already see my teenage daughters eying more flourishing communities beyond our state lines. Many people, especially young people, want out, and who can blame them? In the mean time, Oklahoma oil man Harold Hamm, the 32nd richest person in the United States and 87th richest person in the world, with a wealth estimated at $12.3 billion, is arguing that it would be “unconscionable” to raise GPT rates. The evidence of revenue failure in our state, I think, shows that it would be unconscionable not to raise them.

Oklahoma is experiencing a life threatening level of codependency on the oil and gas industry as the industry acts out its addiction to political and economic power at the expense of the overall health of the Oklahoma family and the well-being of our human and ecological communities. We have become a state of codependency, and any time we strive for more autonomy and independence from the fossil fuel industry or just simply ask oil and gas to pay its fair share, we are warned that disaster awaits us if we don’t stay the course, if we don’t stay in line.

What would we do without oil and gas, without the charitable giving, without the plays, without the concerts, without our beloved OKC Thunder? Just look at the majestic Devon Tower! See how far we have come! We are warned that we have to keep things just as they are, or we just won’t be able to make it. Yet behind the shiny tower, the professional sports, and the arts and entertainment (all of which are good within a flourishing community), we see a state that is languishing, a state that is failing, and a state that is codependent on the industry that may have made the state what it is, but is now keeping the state from becoming what it can be, both now and in the future.

The first step to recovery is to admit to one another that we have a problem. Without this first step, be prepared to remain high on the lists we don’t want to be high on and low on the lists we don’t want to be low on. Those lists are abstractions, but they represent real suffering of our neighbors and friends, suffering that will continue unless we break our current state of codependency.

Let’s come together as Oklahomans and take this step of recovery towards a more flourishing state, and our first step includes demanding that members of the Oklahoma Legislature restore the 7% gross production tax on oil and gas to save our state. Oil and gas companies won’t like that, but they do not own us. Healthy states and healthy people are not owned by anyone.

#RunningForGovernorTogether2018

Reprinted with permission from One World House. `

I have tremendous respect for the three declared Democratic candidates for Governor in Oklahoma: Drew Edmondson, Scott Inman, and Connie Johnson. I wish I could vote for all three of them, and I will definitely be voting for the Democratic nominee for governor.

Given my respect for all three Democratic candidates and my awareness that none of them is what has come to be known as a typical politician, I would like to make a suggestion about how the Democratic Primary Campaign for Governor could be conducted going forward. We need Democrats to be as united as is possible when one of these three candidates wins the primary. They all have tremendous ideas and gifts to share, and I believe all three of them are running for the state, not for themselves.

Therefore, I am asking the three candidates to consider participating together in a series of town hall forums (not so much debates) as an opportunity for all three of them to hash out together the ideas that are needed for our state to move forward for all people. I am confident that these candidates can show the state that the Democratic Party is the party of vision, ideas, and pragmatism to take us in a new direction so desperately needed, and in these forums they could model what good politics is meant to be – the art of developing a good and just society in and through community.

Maybe they could even have a bus tour around the state for these forums – maybe even ride together in the same bus, seriously, working as colleagues together to help each other be the best candidate for governor, whoever may win the primary election. Maybe even have a big watch party together the night of the primary election standing side by side with whomever is given the mantle of moving to the general election and show the people of Oklahoma what politics can be when done by responsible adults. I know, it is unconventional, but I truly hope they will consider it. Our state needs something different. We need these three excellent candidates to model what collegiality and good and decent politics can do for our state. We certainly have seen what the opposite has done to our state and nation.