POSTED ON FEBRUARY 10, 2010:
Governor and top legislators are acting like their names imply--lame ducks
It's a bad sign that it took only four days into the new legislative session before House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Ken Miller publicly blew his cool.
Miller, an Edmond Republican, didn't raise his voice on the House floor, but he was clearly agitated, lecturing colleagues that "this session is not the time for grandstanding" and adding, for good measure, that they best not assume he will be "as charming as I usually am."
What drew Miller's ire was a dust-up over a seemingly innocuous procedural vote designed to ensure lawmakers are positioned--should they so choose--to provide another year's funding for western Oklahoma's fledgling spaceport.
Lawmakers spent about $500,000 on the project last session (out of a $7 billion state budget), but in these lean times, even the smallest appropriations can become flashpoints as competing interests work to salvage as much state funding as possible.
Facing a nearly $1 billion revenue shortage this year and as much as $1.6 billion the next, what this powder keg of a budget crisis cries out for is leadership.
What Oklahomans are receiving instead is just enough effort to get by--punting the tough, but critical decisions to the next governor and Legislature.
Bad politics. Even worse public policy.
The truth is, Oklahoma not only suffers from the double-whammy of the worst worldwide financial calamity since the Great Depression and a series of ill-advised state income tax cuts, but also from the fact the state's three top leaders are lame ducks.
Gov. Brad Henry, House Speaker Chris Benge and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee are short-timers--unable to run again because of term limits--and they're acting the part.
They decided by fiat that this year's nearly $1 billion budget hole would be patched by tapping the state's Rainy Day fund, deploying about half the state's remaining share of federal stimulus dollars and imposing across-the-board budget cuts to state agencies that average about 7.5 percent.
It's the equivalent of shouting in unison: "Get me the hell off this flaming hot seat!" Call it the Path of Least Resistance strategy--cutting blindly with little or no effort to establish priorities for spending the taxpayers' money.
Isn't it time for these guys to tackle the really tough questions, like: Which state services and programs should survive and which shouldn't? Is it prudent to repeal some or all of the $770 million in-state income tax cuts enacted when energy tax revenues were overflowing?
Of course, repealing the tax cuts would require state leaders to explain that--despite decades of political rhetoric to the contrary--there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Highways, schools, prisons, law enforcement and other essential state services cost money. Where does that money come from? Taxes.
And, sorry, supply-siders: It's time once and for all to accept the reality that tax cuts do not generate more state revenues. That canard is known by its scientific term: "voodoo economics."
President Reagan's fiscal guru David Stockman discredited it a quarter century ago and Oklahoma suffers today because too many political leaders--and their constituents--believed in a Tooth Fairy-like fiscal policy.
Democrat Henry joined with GOP legislative leaders (and weak-kneed Democrats) to enact the cuts, despite the fact the state wasn't even paying its bills. Two prime examples: The state never repaid money it borrowed from pension funds during a fiscal crisis early last decade, and it still owed the federal government for building Sardis Lake in southern Oklahoma.
The leadership vacuum was on full display during the governor's eighth and final, session-opening State of the State address, which turned out to be a combination trip down memory lane and Zig Ziglar-esque ode to positive thinking.
His address was loaded with warm fuzzies like:
"We have accomplished much together."
"We are bold when others hesitate."
"I am heartened by the certainty that our best days lie ahead."
"I am so proud," he said, "of the contributions we have been able to make to this incredible state these past seven years."
It's true that Oklahoma's early childhood education program--a cornerstone of Henry's administration--is world renowned. Cutting-edge research in Alzheimer's, sensor technology and weather forecasting is putting Oklahoma on the map internationally. And, as the governor noted, the economic storm won't last forever.
Still, Don't Worry, Be Happy isn't a leadership principle. What Oklahoma really needed in the governor's address was a Call to Arms--a sober acknowledgement of where we are and a specific prescription for how we can change things for the better.
In his budget, Henry did suggest consolidating some agencies (folding the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control into the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, for example) to save money and stepping up tax collections (the state is losing as much as $180 million in sales taxes on items purchased via the Internet) to bolster the sagging treasury.
Sadly, none of these are specific initiatives that Henry will push. In fact, his financial guru, state Treasurer Scott Meacham, described them simply as "ideas" for legislators to consider--or not.
How about this for real leadership: Rather than "suggesting" lawmakers repeal or eliminate a few small corporate tax credits--some of which are being abused or aren't working as designed--why not lead the charge to look at Oklahoma's hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare?
Not too long ago, state Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, tried to persuade legislative leaders to repeal all of the state's corporate tax exemptions and start over. His plan was dead on arrival.
The governor has political capital to spare. His approval ratings are still above 60 percent--almost unheard of for a governor in his eighth year. He could be a real hero if he used his bully pulpit to push for an end to corporate welfare--especially given the hard times facing so many Oklahomans.
This may be a situation, though, where rank-and-file state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, are ahead of the governor and legislative leaders.
Seventeen Republicans and 34 Democrats joined forces to initially torpedo the spaceport legislation in the House--signaling that they are not content to rubber stamp the quick-and-dirty spending blueprint negotiated by the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tem.
A day later, after some serious arm-twisting, Benge and Co. revived the measure, triggering another round of heated debate that included budget chairman Miller's tart broadside.
The legislation ultimately was approved, but the skirmish portends a long, angry session as lawmakers and all Oklahomans come to grips with a fiscal crisis so severe that it threatens to cripple state services for a generation, if not more.
Don't Worry, Be Happy?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A29193