Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

2017 Special Session Budget Crisis: Democratic Caucus Urges Path Forward

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Mediocre “Bargain,” House Bill 1054X, failed yesterday due to the efforts of House Republican leadership. The House Democrats delivered over 80 percent of its caucus on yesterday’s vote because Democrats trusted Republican leadership would deliver on what was promised time and time again—75 percent of its own caucus.

House Republican leadership failed to deliver Republican votes to protect children, the disabled and the elderly from devastating cuts while rank and file members supported the measure. Twelve committee chairs and 10 vice chairs voted against the measure.

“It is disturbing to see Republican members who have been designated by House Republican leadership as leaders in public education, veterans, public health and long-term care oppose a measure that would provide funding for impending loss of critical services to their constituents,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “If House Republican leadership is intent on passing revenue raising measures, they alone have the ability to leverage the votes of their leadership team.”

After a heated exchange via press release in July 2017, House leadership made a change in chairmanship in the House Committee on Appropriations & Budget over a disagreement regarding cuts to the Department of Human Services prior to the Supreme Court decision on the cigarette fee. This action shows Republican leadership is clearly willing and able to remove committee chairs when there is a disagreement. The fact that similar changes have not been made to committee chairs who voted against HB1054X illustrates Republican leadership never intended for this bill to pass in the first place.

House Democrats are now urging Republican leadership to find a path forward by renegotiating a truly Grand Bargain. The House Democrats stand ready to deliver 100 percent of its members for a true Grand Bargain — a revenue package that includes a restoration of the gross production tax and the income tax restoration on high-earners that was included in the Restoring Oklahoma Plan.

“We look forward to working with our colleagues across the aisle to come together on this Grand Bargain that will prevent impending immoral cuts and put our state on a more solid fiscal path in the years to come,” said Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City.

Special Session promising to be more of same BS from Republican majority

If you don’t think the Republican caucus in the OK State legislature are going to dedicate the special session — starting Dept. 25 — solely to more cuts and “efficiencies” then you are a political neophyte, or simply brainwashed by our horrendous state media.

Here’s a news release issued Sept. 14:

Moore, Cleveland Issue Republican Budget Challenge

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Reps. Lewis Moore and Bobby Cleveland announced today they are challenging Republican lawmakers to prepare for a line-by-line budget review ahead of a pre-session Republican Caucus meeting in December. Moore and Cleveland hope lawmakers will each find $50 million to $100 million in budget reductions and efficiencies.

 “We have spent too much time and energy lately finding creative ways to increase revenue,” said Moore, R-Arcadia. “This Republican Budget Challenge is a way for us to shift our focus back to conservative principles: eliminating waste, streamlining government and finding efficiencies that benefit Oklahomans. It can and has to be done.”

 “We understand going line by line through agency budgets is a tedious task,” Moore said. “But, if we spent even half as much time rooting out waste as we have trying to increase revenue through the legislative process, I bet we could find some real savings. For the past few years, the legislature has allocated money to agencies in block grant form, with agencies determining how they would allocate funds within their agencies.  The legislature, which represents the citizen’s will, to include how much money to raise and spend, should go through each agency budget, line-by-line, prioritizing needs and dictating spending.  I believe each agency and our citizens will be better served with greater scrutiny.”

 After the December caucus meeting, Moore and Cleveland hope to release results outlining the top ideas to the public ahead of the 2018 session.

 “We urge all of our members to participate in this challenge,” said Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. “We are hearing from Oklahomans across our state who believe there are inefficiencies in state government. It is our job to ensure a more efficient system, and the Republican Budget Challenge allows us to do just that.

 “We are excited to see the great ideas that this challenge produces. At the end of the day, we cannot expect taxpayers to bear the brunt of higher taxes when we all know there’s plenty of waste to be found in our system. Our citizens deserve better,” Cleveland said.

Of course, that was only an echo to the release Speaker McCall issued on Sept. 6 which sought to redirect blame for the whole problem the Republicans refuse to acknowledge, much less deal with — insufficient income:

Speaker McCall Announces Solution for Special Session and $215 Million Gap 

OKLAHOMA CITY – House Speaker Charles McCall today said House Republicans will consider raising the cigarette tax in special session but will send it to a vote of the people if  House Democrats again refuse to support the measure.

McCall said the Legislature will likely take up the cigarette tax and use existing cash to address the $215 million budget hole created when the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the cigarette cessation fee the Legislature enacted in May. The cigarette tax, if passed in special session, would generate approximately $122 million for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. The House also likely would use a combination of $70 million of the $83 million available in Fiscal Year 2017 prior year cash and $23 million from the Rainy Day Fund, which would backfill the $215 million hole and prevent cuts to education, health care and other agencies.

“The cigarette tax is the only feasible tax option Oklahomans have said they would support. It would help us replace the funds lost when the Court rejected the cigarette fee,” said Speaker McCall, R-Atoka. “Unlike our Democratic colleagues, House Republicans have no intention or desire to tax the life out of Oklahomans just to grow government – especially at a time when our citizens are living on less. We are not going to raise a billion dollars in taxes to fill a $215 million budget hole.”

McCall said if the cigarette tax fails the Legislature will send it to a vote of the people and use targeted cuts to make up the difference in the budget hole.

“House Democrats have shown time and again they are not going to help pass the cigarette tax despite it being the most feasible among Oklahomans,” said McCall. “They have not supported the cigarette tax during either of the last two legislative sessions, and we have no reason to believe special session will be any different. If they refuse to support the cigarette tax again, any further cuts to state agencies will be on them. The Court struck down the cigarette fee, so the easiest path to replacing the funds is to pass the cigarette tax.

“House Republicans will convene in special session, as we are obligated to do. But we have to make decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens who sent us here, not what is in the best interest of special interests or bureaucrats.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats point again to their proposed budget from March, during the regular session, which includes revenue increases that are themselves modest compared to the dire need to reestablish funding to core state services, including education, which the legislature is constitutionally required to support.

For some sane and workable budget ideas that will help Oklahoma progress in addressing serious needs in education, infrastructure and criminal justice, see the ongoing work of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Democrats respond to Supreme Court ruling on cigarette fee

The Oklahoma Democratic Party and Oklahoma Senate Democrats quickly released statements after the announcement of the state Supreme Court’s ruling that the “cigarette fee” passed during the last week of the session in May is unconstitutional.

First, the Senate leader’s office sent this press release

Senator John Sparks

Oklahoma Senate Democrats Issue Statement on Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Declaring “Cigarette Fee” Unconstitutional

The Oklahoma Senate Democratic caucus issued a statement Thursday through their leader, Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, commenting on the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the “cigarette fee” and declaring it an unconstitutional tax:

“The opinion issued today by the Oklahoma Supreme Court finding that the so-called “cigarette fee” passed by the legislature was, in fact, an unconstitutional tax comes as no surprise. We knew this tax was unconstitutional when it was passed by the legislature back in May. We made the same arguments that the Court has articulated in today’s opinion when Republican leadership at the Capitol was playing partisan political games and pushing this desperate revenue measure through during the last hours of the 2017 regular session.

“This kind of unconstitutional legislation is nothing new from the Republican leadership at the Capitol. Unfortunately, we are used to wasting money paying lawyers to defend their unconstitutional bills. What makes this situation new, and worse, is that now we are going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in a special session doing the job that should have been done back in May.

“We need to approach a special session thoughtfully with real plans for revenue measures that can fill the $215 million budget hole which has been created at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority and the Department of Human Services. We need to set clear priorities, take hard votes and make tough choices with all revenue options on the table for open, transparent discussion and debate. This is a time for cooperation and compromise. This is the time for a plan of action, accountability and real results. This is what our constituents demand of us and what they deserve from us with no exceptions and no excuses.

“We cannot continue to let the most vulnerable Oklahomans suffer because of a continued lack of leadership among the Republicans at the Capitol and their unwillingness to do the hard work and take the hard votes necessary to properly and fully fund our healthcare agencies.”

 

And from the party HQ:

Special Session Around the Corner

In light of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s cigarette “tax” fee ruling, the Oklahoma Democratic Party insists that Governor Fallin call for a special session to address the budget hole crisis that was never resolved earlier this year.

Republicans have failed Oklahomans. The Republican-Super-Majority had a chance to work together with Democrats on developing sustainable recurring revenue during session, but they instead chose to knowingly push through unconstitutional bills, wasting tax payer’s time and money.

Oklahomans shouldn’t have to pay for Republican failures. It’s time for Republicans to step up and prove they care about Oklahomans and do their job. It’s time for Republicans to work with Democrats on a long-term sustaining recurring revenue plan.

Is Oklahoma coming around on legalization of marijuana?

While there is still strong resistance to legalizing marijuana from current state government leaders, as well as prosecutors and law enforcement in our state, there is evidence that the average Oklahoman is ready to reform the harsh laws that harken back to the War on Drugs of the Reagan era.

In 2016, two ballot initiatives aimed at criminal justice reform passed overwhelmingly, with voters recognizing that putting nonviolent offenders in prison, sometimes for lengthy sentences, is neither effective or financially responsible.

But again, legislators at the Capitol decided they knew better and found ways to squelch the reforms. For now.

Activists are pushing forward with a ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana in Oklahoma, and this time the state’s voters may be ready. But maybe a majority is ready to go even further. The general success of legalization in states like Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and California, with others allowing medicinal use, has begun to erode the alarmist arguments of the past decades.

Rather than the old saw about marijuana being a gateway drug, I think things have evolved to the point that medical marijuana is the gateway reform. I think it’s time to go for the whole enchilada, and in fact, that discussion is already starting on the federal level, thanks to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. It might turn out that by the time Oklahoma approves the less controversial approach, the conversation across the country will be well ahead of us.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

But I don’t think the many old fogey pols in Oklahoma will be able to use those outdated arguments much longer and not get laughed at, and they won’t be able to avoid the issue entirely either. Really, the time has come to put this self-defeating drumbeat of doom to rest and listen to the science and the personal experience of millions of users.

Political and community leaders, even in Oklahoma, need to be bolder about taking a stand to bring a saner approach to drug use in general, to stop arrests for possession of small amounts of pot, or growing for personal use or to treat medical conditions. And this is sure to become an issue in 2018 state elections with the question on that same ballot.

Connie Johnson, currently running for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and Joe Dorman, former gubernatorial candidate and currently CEO of Oklahoma Institute for Children Advocacy both were quoted with full or tentative support, respectively, in an August 4 story in The Tulsa World about New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s proposal for federal level legalization.

Both have been involved in past efforts to allow medical marijuana in Oklahoma. They were interviewed for an August 3 story in the Tulsa World by Siandhara Bonnet about Booker’s bill.

“I believe the federal government should get out of the … illegal marijuana business,” Booker said. “It disturbs me right now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not moving as the states are, moving as public opinion is, but actually saying that we should be doubling down and enforcing federal marijuana laws even in states that have made marijuana legal.”

Neither Johnson nor Dorman defended the current approach in Oklahoma, of course, because they are ahead of the curve, and have been for several years. They should not be the ones quizzed, in my opinion. Where do the current crop of candidates for governor and other state positions stand — that’s what we need to know.

It’s time for other state leaders and candidates to acquaint themselves with the realities of our times, and stop promoting easily-refuted claims of cultural calamity. crime, eventual escalation to opiates and other such myths, and support making marijuana legal in Oklahoma for both medical AND recreational use.

Private School vouchers for foster children a predictable result of SB301

Well, well, well. The front page of the Seminole Producer has an article [State-Funded Private School Vouchers Expand to Foster ChildrenOklahoma Watch report July 14, 2017] proving just what I predicted last year would happen has come to fruition. SB 301 authored by Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie and Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman expand eligibility for funds to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses to “… foster children, adopted foster children and children in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. The students are eligible if they have an individualized services plan, which ALL foster children receive within 30 days of being removed from home….”

Oh, how I was attacked for saying such a far fetched thing. Ha! I could see that writing on the wall a mile away. One more reason I adamantly opposed the local charter school being approved in Seminole. I was the only HD candidate who went to the appeal hearing at the State level and spoke against the decision to overturn the local school board’s decision.

People, according to the last report of the court monitors there were almost 17,000 children in the DHS foster care system. Imagine all the money that number could drain from your local school funds. What a loss for Seminole County.

Seeing the Light at the End of the Oklahoma Budget Debacle?

If more Oklahoma Republicans can be cured of their tax increase phobia, maybe we can get back to funding critical services in this state. Some real solutions are starting to be discussed at 23rd and Lincoln. Baby steps, but still!

Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer, but he also writes a regular guest column for The Journal Record. His latest op-ed addresses the foundational problem that has decimated our state’s budget in recent years: an out of date and unfair tax code.

In “Political spin, special interest cooks and future prosperity” (Behind paywall) Hamilton commends a handful of legislators who are trying to seriously review Oklahoma’x complex (and obviously broken) tax policies, and seek out solutions.

[I]t’s both notable and laudable that senators – led by Okemah’s Roger Thompson – took the first steps toward possible overhaul of a tax system that disproportionately burdens the working class and poor and undermines core state services whose funding is over-reliant on volatile revenue sources like oil and gas.

Noting how previous attempts to raise more revenue – like Gov. Fallin’s expanded service tax idea last year – have fizzled, optimism is not easy to come by, but the dire situation Oklahoma has in seems to have “woke” some Republicans to some realities that don’t mesh well with long-standing GOP dogma.

Thompson’s three-hour hearing this week served as a primer for senators of both parties seeking to better understand Oklahoma’s revenue picture. It also signaled that the Senate’s Republican majority has taken note of Kansas’ failed “trickle down” experiment – cutting taxes do not magically generate more income.

To me, that alone is cause for some ray of hope, but it’s a long way from the interim study currently underway and a supermajority required by State Question 640 to radically reform our tax code by changing rates and thus raising income taxes on high-earning groups. That will mean more than a handful of Republicans will have to recognize that “tax reform” doesn’t always mean cutting taxes for the wealthy and making the poor and middle class pick up the slack and suffer the effects of service cuts. Because, as Hamilton notes,

what helps create sustainable, predictable revenue streams to underwrite vital public services is a fairer, more broadly applied tax code that ensures the working class and poor have more to spend, the economy’s uber stimulant.

Slowly, it appears that this — the only real alternative to our current crisis — is getting through to those who make these decisions on our behalf. Perhaps the winning streak of reality-based Democrats in several recent special elections is playing a part in the new insights by the Republican majority.

We can hope!

What seems to Hamilton – and me – to be a very sane solution that will serve to tamp down Republican politicians’ nervousness about violating the Grover Norquist rule of polcymaking, is, yes, handing the job off to a bipartisan panel, an idea proposed recently by State Treasurer Ken Miller.

Such a group could tackle comprehensive reform – everything from income tax rates to sales taxes on services to gross production and motor fuel taxes – then present a plan for an up-or-down legislative vote.

That won’t be easy (thanks, Yes on SQ640 voters!) but can perhaps cushion the political pain for members of the majority running this state.

Because some of them are coming to the light and getting introduced to reality too. Hamilton quotes Miller, who, unlike some stubborn Norquist-bamboozled state legislators, reads the state’s books: “We need to have a modernization of our tax code,” he says. “It was built for an economy that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Ya think?!

 

Weekly News Roundup

On July 14, Our Revolution Oklahoma, a chapter of the group formed by former staffers and supporters of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, had a well-attended organizational meeting in Moore. 80 people from across the state attended. A followup meeting will be held on August 15.

The reconvene of the Oklahoma Democratic Party on July 15 went pretty smoothly once a quorum was present. Anna Langthorn was pretty universally commended for her facilitation of the event, though, afterward, she was seeking out recommendations for orthopedic shoes.

Democratic State Representatives are being pro-active about a possible constitutional showdown over the state budget and resulting special session.

Senator seeks to nail down state’s cost for defending unconstitutional laws – By Barbara Hoberock, Tulsa World, July 23 2017

A new study shows that Oklahoma is dead last in funding for higher education. Add that to the deepest cuts to K-12 public education in the country. Isn’t full Republican control of Oklahoma government great?

Tom Guild, candidate for OK-5, did a 2.5 hour AMA on Reddit.

Meanwhile, Kendra Horn, also running for OK-5, was interviewed by Red Dirt Report‘s Chelsea Copeland.

Most Republicans hold negative view of higher ed  by Ben Felder, published in the Oklahoman, July 23, 2017

Oklahoma delegation in DC works to decimate federal government – DC Report column by Randy Krehbiel in Tulsa World, July 23, 2017.

USGS in Oklahoma showed how following the dots can be really frightening!