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.

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.

Oklahoma Faces Budget Problems Once Again

So here we are once again in a state budget mess as time begins to wind down in the legislative session and, faced with a $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, lawmakers and stakeholders have starting offering up proposals.

On one side of the proposals, a small group of legislators and their supporters are suggesting the state raise the oil and gas production tax back to its historic level of 7 percent and increase income taxes on the wealthiest Oklahomans. This could put a dent in the shortfall

On another side, there are proposals to tax more services and raise taxes on cigarettes and fuel, which would help the financial situation somewhat and could lead to teacher raises but would hardly solve the problem. Some people see these as regressive taxes, as well, because people with less income pay more of a percentage of their income for the essentials of life. One can argue whether cigarettes are “essential,” of course.

Then there’s The Oklahoman editorial board, which recently warned “ . . . if lawmakers raise taxes on oil and gas production and cause curtailment of drilling, they could quickly turn the current state recovery back into a recession.”

In the end, funding cuts seem to be a given once again this coming year.

So we’re stuck in a dire situation. Oklahoma, it has been noted repeatedly, has cut education the most on a percentage basis than any other state since 2008. Teachers haven’t had an across-the-board raise in years, and many are flocking to other states for better pay and support.

Virtually all areas of state government have been slashed financially in recent years as the hydraulic fracturing boom evaporated because of the world oil glut and because of tax breaks for energy companies and recent income tax cuts that primarily benefited wealthy people. The Oklahoman notes, “Energy production is a foundational element of Oklahoma’s economy,” but, well, that’s both the point and the problem.

As I’ve written here before, Oklahoma needs structural change in its economy and its tax revenue streams. What if peak oil demand and the creation of more renewable energy means Oklahoma won’t ever again enjoy the real “boom” side of the boom and bust cycles of the fossil fuel industry? That’s a possibility.

Oklahoma does have plenty of land, electricity and a decent location with two major Interstate highways running through it. It makes it ideal for growth in technology companies and tech-related businesses, but how can that happen without a more educated workforce?

How do you get an educated workforce after draconian cuts to education at all levels, which includes a16 percent funding cut to higher education last year.

Where Is The Plan To Fund Oklahoma Teacher Raises?

Legislators have apparently yet to come to an agreement on how they plan to fund proposed teacher raises and with their session scheduled to end in about a month that’s not an encouraging sign.

NewsOK.com reported that the Oklahoma Senate has not scheduled a hearing on a proposed House bill that would raise teacher salaries by $6,000 spread out over three years. This means it missed a Thursday deadline, although by rule it could still be worked out by the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget, according to the NewsOK.com article.

The Oklahoma Legislature, at least in recent years, has been noted for bringing up companion legislation and passing budget deals at the very end of the session, which is a practice that sometimes gives little time for public input on crucial matters impacting the state.

The teacher pay raise, which is a crucial matter given that some teachers here are flocking to other states for better salaries, has been endorsed by a number of Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin. The sticking point, of course, is that the state faces an $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year. How will the raises be funded?

The lack of an agreement on a funding plan may well mean at least some legislators want to be perceived as trying to fight for teacher raises when, in fact, they know that given the dire budget situation there’s no way any significant increase is possible.They want to have it both ways. Even a nominal raise would help, but committing the state to a three-year, $6,000 teacher pay increase without significant tax hikes or additional revenue streams would mean drastic cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Gov. Fallin has suggested the state start taxing a list of services, which has been met with mixed approval. There is a proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack. The Democrats in the legislature have suggested raising taxes on higher incomes and restoring the overall oil and gas production tax to 7 percent. There’s still no real agreement on these issues.

Is it possible that education will face cuts again and teachers will go without raises? It could happen.

Got A Light To Help The State Budget? Increasing Cigarette Tax Under Consideration Again

I don’t necessarily see anything wrong about raising the state’s cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, but the legislative effort to pass it again shows how Oklahoma is still dependent on small fixes to help shore up its budget.

The proposed tax increase would generate around $184 million the first year in a budget of approximately $7 billion, and some $50 million of that would go to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which is a good thing. With additional matching federal funding for health programs the amount of money the tax would generate has the potential to increase incrementally.

The problem though is that part of the mission of the tax is to get people to stop smoking so, if that happened, fewer smokers would mean declining revenue. It’s a tax that seeks its own demise.

In addition, those of us that don’t smoke won’t contribute at all, and smokers would pay a steeper price for their habit. The tax is regressive in that lower-income people, if they smoke, spend more of a percentage proportion of their money for cigarettes. I understand why smokers would oppose the cigarette tax and feel singled out, but the evidence is clear that long-term smoking can and does lead to severe illnesses, such as cancer and emphysema. The nicotine contained in cigarettes is also a highly addictive drug, and it’s difficult to quit. The tax is regressive, but it’s also a public health issue in terms of the overall medical costs to our society.

So it’s a debatable issue with no real answer. Do people have the right to smoke? Of course. But how much of that right infringes on other people in terms of its health costs to our society? This question will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and we know people will continue to smoke in the foreseeable future.

The state faces a $878 million shortfall for next fiscal year. Education funding is at dismal levels, and teacher pay here is ranked 49th in the nation, pushing some educators to leave the state for increased salaries. The budgets of state agencies have been sliced because of the state’s recent budget problems caused by an oil slump and relatively recent enacted income tax cuts and tax credits for the energy industry.

As I wrote earlier, the state budget faces structural financial change. What if we’ve experienced the last true fossil fuel boom in Oklahoma? Revenues from production taxes—taxes that have been cut recently—and income taxes paid by oilfield workers have always driven the economy and the state budget to an proportional extent in Oklahoma. What do we do now besides finding small revenue streams like the cigarette tax to help balance the budget? What happens when there are no more streams to find.

Resistance

The ongoing Oklahoma budget crisis, which now threatens the very viability of our public schools, was created by conservative ideology and basic malfeasance.

Let’s be clear: The Republican Political Party here has broken the state in ways that may well last for a generation or more. The state has cut funding to public education the most on a percentage basis of any state since 2008. It cut higher education funding last year by nearly 16 percent. Gov. Mary Fallin has refused to accept federal Medicaid expansion, leading to even more health problems in a state with terrible medical access. Conservatives fill up the state prisons while children’s stomachs remain empty.

All this is done under the flawed ideology of cutting taxes for rich people in the supposed belief the money will trickle down and create jobs and opportunities. That’s a big fat lie, perpetuated for decades by conservatives. I don’t think most conservative politicians here even believe it. I believe they just want to serve the rich so they can get campaign donations and get reelected.

The Oklahoma Legislature under complete domination by Republicans has slashed the state income tax, a slow drip of cuts that have primarily benefitted the rich. Conservatives have passed out tax breaks to oil and gas companies as well. All this has lead to another huge, looming budget shortfall next fiscal year—estimated at $878 million in an approximate $7 billion budget—and an immediate revenue failure, which means public education will receive yet another $11.1 million cut.

It’s simply not sustainable. Teachers here are leaving in droves to teach in other states that will pay them more money and give them more respect. The state pays money to public universities—a decreasing amount, of course, made up by tuition increases—to train many of these teachers and they then leave here. Obviously, people will leave Oklahoma for different reasons, but why are we training teachers for other states?

All of this will only get amplified under the authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump, who also aims to cut taxes for the rich. What federal programs will get slashed here as the state cuts funding to its agencies and educational systems even more? It’s difficult to believe a new fossil-fuel boom is on the horizon unless there’s a major world war. Renewable energy sources are steadily replacing fossil fuels, and we’ve probably reached or are close to peak oil demand.

Oklahoma faces a bleak future not only because of its Republican-dominated government but also because of Trump’s presidency as well.

I’ve argued at least since 2000 that there has to be a breaking point in which the right-wing extremists here come to realize how much damage they are inflicting upon themselves and others, but now the election of the dysfunctional and lying Trump and recent events in Oklahoma have made me reconsider.

What if there isn’t a breaking point but just a steady demise of our state and country under an ideology and a rigged political and election system that makes no sense? The demise of American world power and its public institutions won’t benefit Oklahoma.

The answer, of course, is to resist, to show up, to engage, to tell the truth, to call out the lies here by local conservative leaders and Trump. Oklahoma conservative leaders are destroying this state; Donald Trump is an unhinged, compulsive liar.

Don’t let the sadness weigh you down. Get angry about what’s happening to our state and country. Speak up. It might be a cliché but silence really is complicity at this point.