Give Gov. Mary Fallin credit: She hasn't tiptoed around the giant elephant in the dome.
"Plenty has been spoken and written about incentives," she said in her recent inaugural address. "Here is the bottom line: tax incentives that produce jobs ... stay -- incentives that do not produce jobs ... go."
Amidst the snowflakes and the hundreds of Fallin loyalists gathered on the south Capitol steps, I couldn't glimpse the Chamber of Commerce set, but I envisioned their facial expressions were akin to sucking on a lemon.
Why the dour disposition? The state's three biggest chambers -- the state, Tulsa and Oklahoma City -- recently released a joint manifesto urging lawmakers to preserve economic development incentives despite the state's fiscal crisis.
Seriously? Oklahoma has $5.8 billion in tax breaks, incentives and credits on the books -- an amount that rivals the entire state budget. Moreover, an estimated $2 billion of the taxpayer-financed goodies never created a single job. Nada.
And yet, just as lawmakers -- an ultra-conservative, Republican majority, I might add -- begin reviewing corporate welfare line-by-line, the Chamber triumvirate fires a cannon blast across the Legislature's bow.
When the chambers speak, Republican legislative leaders listen. Why? Just check their lists of campaign contributors.
Of course, the state chamber's chief, former state Rep. Fred Morgan, didn't want to appear too greedy, so he added the caveat that all three pro-business groups support a review of state incentives.
But with the state facing a half-billion-dollar budget hole, their message really couldn't have been clearer: Don't Mess With Taxes. At least those that divert taxpayer dollars into corporate pockets.
The corporate types are nervous that a systematic, public review of tax incentives might careen out of their control, meaning an end to some wholly unnecessary, but bottom-line-satisfying handouts.
Which is one reason that Fallin's very public, very specific promise in her inaugural address is so significant -- and why it should never be forgotten.
Taxpayers keep delivering the message they want their tax dollars spent wisely and effectively. They may disagree about the services that government should provide, but left or right, Democrat or Republican, all want as much bang for their tax bucks as possible.
One of the serious challenges confronting the GOP's corporatist legislative leadership is how to mollify the party's expanding -- and increasingly potent -- quasi-populist, Tea Party-esque Liberty Caucus.
These lawmakers don't appreciate tax incentives quite as much as their corporatist colleagues. In fact, they openly regard them as a betrayal of the taxpayers, if not free-market capitalism itself.
It won't be possible until this spring's session is in full swing to know how many senators and representatives are committed to the ultra-right brand of populism.
But it's not difficult to imagine the number exceeding 30, including two dozen or so in the House alone.
Thirty-plus votes could create real headaches for corporatist Republicans who claim devotion to the free-enterprise system, but all too often crassly deploy tax dollars as a means to guarantee corporate profits.
What will Fallin do when rhetoric meets reality this session? Will she keep her Inauguration Day promise? Will she fold under pressure from pro-business groups -- and many of her financial supporters? Will she dance a political sidestep, declaring major reform when it barely scratches the surface?
There is reason for optimism: It appears legislative leaders are feeling -- and responding to -- serious pressure to address the corporate welfare scandal.
Best evidence: State Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, is vowing to use his chairmanship of the House Revenue and Taxation subcommittee to undertake a detailed study of the state's tax system.
Of course, Dank and Republicans want nothing more than to eliminate the state income tax, which would disproportionately benefit the state's wealthiest citizens and penalize middle and lower classes via skyrocketing property and sales taxes.
Even so, Dank has fought for several years to protect Oklahomans, particularly seniors on fixed incomes, from escalating property taxes. So it's difficult to imagine how abolishing the state income tax could get much traction, at least in the near future.
What's even more noteworthy is that Dank pledged to seriously, systematically address corporate welfare -- a crusade he's pursued tirelessly.
"We have to get a handle on this process and take the decisions out of the hands of lobbyists, who have a vested interest in securing tax credits for their clients, and start applying some common sense rules," Dank said in a written statement. "Rule one is, 'does a proposed tax credit promise to truly create new jobs in substantial numbers?'"
Dank said a recent opinion by then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson helped clarify the constitutionality of some credits, as well as the conditions under which they may be authorized.
"It is apparent from that opinion that some of the tax credits currently on the books are unconstitutional," Dank said. "We are going to go after those first, and then examine every other tax credit to see if it is actually doing what it promised."
Imagine what could be done with the $2 billion, the amount believed to have been squandered on corporate welfare schemes that never created a single job. Imagine what could have been done to improve roads and bridges, schools and child welfare, mental health services and corrections.
Imagine an Oklahoma if Fallin and Dank were able to fulfill their promises.
Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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