All but lost in the glowing headlines proclaiming an end to the state's fiscal crisis was a matter-of-fact assessment from outgoing state Treasurer Scott Meacham that should give all Oklahomans pause.
Barring a second federal stimulus or other unexpected windfall, he said, state agencies better brace themselves for the fact that deep budget cuts imposed the last two years "will be more or less permanent."
It's taken nearly 20 years but the seeds of anti-government zealotry are now in full bloom in Oklahoma, methodically choking out those evil, socialist state agencies and services -- damn the consequences.
The first step was to hoodwink Oklahomans into approving State Question 640, the 1992 constitutional amendment that makes it all but impossible to raise taxes. Easy sell. Who likes taxes?
The second was the Republican takeover of the Legislature that began in 2004, giving plutocrats, corporatists and government haters the power to enact more than $700 million in tax cuts -- most benefiting the state's wealthiest residents.
Now that a brutal recession further tightens the noose on state revenues -- down 20 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30 -- the third scheme to de-fund state government looms: Another one-quarter percent tax cut that automatically kicks in if state revenues somehow increase four percent in a fiscal year.
That translates into another $140 million or so in lost revenue that could be spent on sorely needed services in a state where, for example, poverty is so rampant that half of the state's school children receive free or reduced lunches -- for many their only hot, nutritional meals of the day.
To the Grover Norquist starve-the-beast crowd, of course, four percent is more than sufficient government growth. Meacham, though, implored lawmakers to revisit the trigger, correctly noting that four percent growth in one fiscal year wouldn't begin to recoup the state revenues lost in the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression.
Just so you know, Meacham would never be confused with a wild-eyed, free-spending liberal. He's a conservative western Oklahoma banker and attorney who's scorned by many Democratic loyalists as a DINO -- Democrat in Name Only. In fact, he's publicly endorsed Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, as his successor.
Meacham, however, strikes me as someone who's smart enough to know that a state that fails to invest in its children and its infrastructure isn't going to easily reach its potential. And it certainly won't be attractive to expanding, cutting-edge, high-tech companies that produce the best-paying jobs.
"I'm not going to be here," noted Meacham, when asked if he had advice for future lawmakers. "It's their decision to make." But he made clear his opinion: "You ought to re-work that trigger" that would further cut the state's income tax rates, at least in the near future.
Lawmakers, including the most ardent anti-government types, might have little choice. In November, Oklahoma voters will decide the fate of a constitutional amendment (SQ 744) that would force the Legislature to fund public schools at the regional average.
Opponents, particularly Republican legislative leaders and corporate interests that feast at the taxpayers' trough, complain it would earmark at least $850 million more for public schools -- at the expense of other vital state services.
It's a delicious irony that one of the selling points Republicans used to help win majorities in the House and Senate was that, unlike Democrats, they would fund education at that level. They haven't delivered, of course. Not even close -- Oklahoma's per pupil spending is even less than New Mexico and Arkansas, for goodness sake.
Even worse, common education's percentage of the state budget in recent years has declined significantly.
A second irony: Many of the same sorts of groups and anti-government activists who championed SQ 640 in 1992 now are whining that SQ 744, known as the HOPE (Helping Oklahoma Public Education) Act, will tie the Legislature's hands on spending.
What they're saying is: We were gung-ho to shackle legislative spending when Democrats were in the majority because they didn't use the state treasury to favor our special interests. Now that we're in charge, we're going to do everything we can to ensure an ever-increasing share of the taxpayers' largesse is steered into the businesses run by our political benefactors.
Yes, there are die-hard Democrats -- and more than a few nominal ones (DINOs) -- who oppose SQ 744. Most I've visited with are opposed philosophically to tax-and-spend limits imposed by initiative. After all, there's already a mechanism to express displeasure with legislative priorities: It's called an election. All 101 House seats are on the ballot every two years. The 48 senators face the voters every four years.
But you'd think the earth is on the verge of spinning off its axis the way Oklahoma's powers-that-be are amassing their resources to fight SQ 744 -- which, by the way, enjoys strong support in early statewide polling. In fact, don't be surprised if the effort to defeat SQ 744 shatters all records for spending on proposed constitutional amendments.
The state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, already has fired up its ever-infamous, right-wing editorial drumbeat against the measure. So has the Tulsa World, especially enamored of the bogus argument that other states would end up determining what Oklahoma spends.
Hmmmmm. I don't seem to recall our state's political, civic or mainstream media leaders expressing dismay when we were "forced" to match our top incentive packages offered by other cities or states in order to stay in the hunt for new industries. Nor do I recall them complaining that other cities were setting standards that "forced" Tulsa and Oklahoma City to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on new arenas, ballparks and other quality-of-life infrastructure.
We already compete against other states in our region on a variety of fronts, including education. Check with corporate CEOs. One of the deciding factors in relocation or expansion is the quality of schools, both public and private. It's an important consideration for relocating workers and their children. And it's key for companies assessing the quality of the available workforce.
These are difficult times for state government, made worse by a legislative majority that panders to voters with unwise tax cuts and to corporate interests who underwrite their political campaigns.
Oklahoma currently ranks 49th in per pupil education spending, locks up more women per capita than any other state, imprisons the fourth highest number of men nationally, and its bridges and highways are all-too-often rated among the nation's worst -- facts that hardly burnish our state's image.
Like SQ 640 nearly 20 years ago, SQ 744 may just be another tool for voters to express their frustration with the Legislature and its priorities. If they do so, Oklahoma's greedy plutocrats and noisy government-haters will have no one to blame but themselves.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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