A cynic might take a look at a recent study released by a Tulsa-based public policy organization and issue some crack about how it indicates that perhaps Oklahomans are just becoming better behaved.
But that viewpoint doesn't really reflect the point of the study or take into account its implications on future state revenue.
David Blatt -- director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, an organization that provides information, analysis and commentary on policy issues affecting the state -- said the fact sheet the institute released earlier this month examining the state tax revenues generated from a trio of measures adopted by state voters in 2004 reflects a clear slow down in revenue growth from those sources compared to prior years.
Those revenue-increasing measures -- the adoption of a state lottery, a tobacco tax increase and the approval of an Indian gaming compact permitting casino-style gambling -- are commonly labeled "sin taxes" by many observers. And for Fiscal Year 2010, the revenue generated from those sources did not grow nearly as fast as it had in the past.
"Our conclusions are that we seem to be reaching a point where those revenue sources are not going to grow much longer and may decline, once we reach saturation of the gaming market," Blatt said.
That's potentially bad news for state lawmakers, who have counted on the revenue from those sin taxes to help cover the education and health care programs for which they were earmarked. Yearly increases in those revenues have been offset by corresponding cuts to the personal income tax the Legislature approved over the past several years, and the specter of declining or even negative growth from those sin tax sources could leave an already tight state budget in even worse shape.
To back up his conclusions, Blatt cited figures showing the state collected a total of $335.4 million from the three sin tax sources in Fiscal Year 2010. That was an increase of only $12.2 million, or 3.8 percent, from FY 2009 -- by far the smallest increase from one year to the next since the taxes went into effect in 2005.
By way of comparison, the total jumped from $40.7 million to $194.7 million from FY 2005 to FY 2006, increased to $238.6 million in FY 2007, climbed to $286.9 million in FY 2008 and reached $323.2 million in FY 2009.
"Overall, the promise of these revenue streams to provide additional revenues to help fund education and health care seems to have been fulfilled," the report states. "However, as we stressed in this paper in 2008, while the new revenues generated by these so-called 'sin taxes' have boosted funding for education and health care, these gains have been more than offset by the revenue impact of cuts the personal income tax approved by the Legislature in the mid- and late 2000s. This trade-off of increased 'sin taxes' for cuts to the income tax has placed more of the responsibility for paying for public services on the shoulders of low-income taxpayers. And as we reach the point where revenue growth from the new revenue streams is slowing, and may soon even begin to decline, this is yet another factor contributing to the fiscal gap between the cost of services we are committed to supporting and the revenues we generate to pay for them."
Revenue generated from the lottery essentially has been flat in the five years the money has been collected. The FY 2010 total of $70 million was slightly better than 2009's total of $69.2 million, but over the three years before that, the total ranged only from $68.9 million to $71.6 million. Blatt said he wasn't terribly concerned by the latest total, given the fact the lottery historically "has performed less well than its supporters had assumed. But year in and year out, it still brings in $70 million for education. So the fact that it's been a fairly stable source of revenue is a little surprising."
As for the tobacco tax increase, the latest figure represents a much stronger indication that a long-term decline is in the cards, he said. For the first time, that revenue declined, going from $135 million in FY 2009 to $133.3 million in 2010.
"On the tobacco side, there are definite signs of declining consumption," Blatt said. "Because we've done a better job of collecting taxes from tribal sales (recently), that has helped mask how much consumption has fallen."
The fact sheet cites figures indicating that 313.8 million packs of cigarettes were sold in FY 2008, while only 262.8 million were sold in FY 2010 -- a decline of 51 million packs over two years.
Only the revenue from gaming continued to show strong growth, Blatt said, though even that growth slowed substantially. Gambling revenues reached $132.1 million in 2010, compared to the $119 million raised in 2009. But that 11 percent increase pales in comparison to the breakneck pace at which gaming revenues grew year by year before that. Starting at $18.7 million in 2006, the total grew to $56.8 million 2007 and $92.2 million in 2008.
Blatt acknowledged the weak economy had some impact on all those numbers, and on gaming figures, in particular. But he believes there's a strong possibility the gaming market in Oklahoma is close to topping out.
"Our expectation is that it is likely that revenue from these three sources will continue to slow or may even decline," he said. "We don't think we can expect much growth from tobacco and the lottery. How this turns out really depends on gaming and whether those new tribal facilities can continue to reach new markets or whether we reach the point where there are as many people gambling as their income allows them to."
Blatt said the three revenue-raising measures adopted by voters in 2004 have succeeded in their goal of supporting education and health care to some extent. But the slowing growth, coupled with the personal income tax cuts, leaves the future of funding for those services in doubt.
"We're in no better shape, probably worse shape, than we were before in terms of sustaining funding of the core services in Oklahoma we depend on," he said.
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