POSTED ON NOVEMBER 3, 2010:
Be Careful for You Ask For
They got 'em, the offices they campaigned for. But will the new batch of public servants do what we need done?
So what do the new governor, lieutenant governor and state legislators get for their months of incessant speech-making, hand-shaking and fund-raising?
Power? Prestige? Perks?
Yes, but they also get something they may not have fully appreciated until now -- an estimated $1 billion hole in next year's state budget.
Voters may be suckered by silly slogans about "Oklahoma values" and fears of Muslim law, but hell hath no fury like taxpayers whose essential services aren't delivered.
And make no mistake: Oklahoma is in serious danger of not being able to deliver the basics -- from decent roads and bridges to safe and secure prisons, child protective services to public safety.
The Tea Party crowd doesn't want to hear this, and anti-government Republicans will duck-and-dodge if you bring it up, but if it hadn't been for big, bad Uncle Sugar's $1.4 billion infusion the last two years, the lights would have been turned off in Oklahoma.
Let's put a face on that number: 1,900 teaching jobs alone would have been wiped out had it not been for federal stimulus dollars. That's 1,900 fewer paychecks helping families pay their mortgages and buy groceries -- almost certainly resulting in more demands for public assistance, not to mention soaring class sizes.
Well, it now appears the mob will get its way -- no more federal stimulus dollars are on the horizon. It's going to be up to our state elected officials to deal with the perfect storm of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, $770 million in ill-conceived tax cuts and billions of dollars in corporate welfare that sucks the state treasury dry and lines the pockets of those who least need it.
So what are these freshly elected and re-elected public officials to do? The state Constitutional (thank you again, SQ 640) makes it all but impossible to raise taxes -- you need either a super-majority (75%) of legislators or a vote of the people. The Rainy Day Fund was all but wiped out the last two years, down now to about $100 million. And though state revenues are slowly increasing once again, the growth isn't sufficient to cover an estimated $1 billion hole that must be filled in order to keep already-stretched services from the breaking point.
Even worse: If state revenue growth reaches four percent, another income tax cut will automatically kick in -- from 5.5 to 5.25 percent -- wiping out another $115 million to $175 million in money that could be spent on vital state services.
Four percent growth sounds like a lot -- until you consider general revenues collected last year were down 22.7 percent from pre-downturn heights. Can you think of many things that cost less than they did six years ago?
It's time for citizens and elected officials to face a reality check.
Let's start with the taxpayers/voters.
I'm ... going ... to ... write ... this ... slowly ... enough ... for ... my ... fellow ...Oklahomans ... to ... understand: There ... is ... no ... free ... lunch.
Roads and bridges do not magically appear. Neither do schools or prisons or highway patrol cruisers (though sometimes I wonder about those black-and-white units).
Somebody pays for that infrastructure and those services.
That somebody is you: the taxpayer.
If you want good roads and bridges and schools, and if you want to be safe, and if you want children to be protected, and if want courts ... you -- yes, you -- have to pay for them.
Now to our newly elected or re-elected officials.
Yes, everybody sucks up to you and talks about how wonderful you are when you visit the local coffee shop, spinning wondrous tales of tax cuts and bloviating about taming an out-of-control bureaucracy.
Despite the voodoo economics preached by some on the hard right, you cannot lower taxes and generate more revenues. Think of your family budget: Can you simultaneously spend more and save more, without increasing your income? Of course not.
Enough already with the pandering to the great unwashed. Oklahomans are smart enough and intelligent enough to be given the facts: Our infrastructure is perilously close to a tipping point. And it could end up costing us significantly more to fix if we wait until we're forced to play a serious game of catch up.
What if we reach a point where our roads, schools and other essentials are in such bad shape that new businesses won't consider relocating here? Or what if federal courts rule that we can no longer operate our prisons over-capacity and under-staffed?
It's like waiting too long to see the doctor or take your car to the mechanic. The treatments or repairs are likely to be more extensive and more costly. The longer you leave the problems unresolved, the bigger and more expensive they become.
Yet, some of our elected leaders still spread the canard that state government is bloated and taxes are too high (even though independent research shows we're lowest in the nation in combined state and local taxes).
They're either liars or kooks -- or both. Just once when one of these knuckleheads promotes eliminating the state income tax, I want them to detail specifically how they're going to replace the 40 percent of state revenues that would be lost.
The only way it can be done is to significantly raise sales taxes or property taxes -- or both. Who is hurt most by increasing the sales tax? Those of modest means because sales tax eats up a larger percentage of their incomes. Who is hurt most by increasing property taxes (to pay for schools and other vital services)? Seniors who live on fixed incomes.
Who is helped by eliminating the fairest tax of all, the income tax? The state's wealthiest residents.
Ask your home-owning, middle-class relatives or friends in Texas about their taxes -- they don't pay any income tax, but they take it in the shorts on property taxes, unable to afford the army of tax experts the wealthy use to shelter their assets and reduce their tax liabilities.
The problem is, Oklahomans aren't holding their elected officials accountable. Oklahomans are angry, but they're not sure why. Oklahomans smell a rat, but far too many are unwilling to do the homework necessary to know the truth about how their pay-to-play, special-interest-dominated Legislature works.
Watch your newly elected and re-elected officials closely. If they don't immediately, systematically tackle the corporate welfare bloat -- tax breaks, credits and exemptions gone wild -- demand they do. Let them know you're not buying the malarkey that halting the automatic income tax cut is the same as a tax increase -- it's not, it's common sense in these perilous economic times. And yes, insist they seriously look at all government services and the laws that impact them -- we're going broke, for example, incarcerating a higher percentage of our population than almost anyone else, when drug courts and mental health courts and other sentencing alternatives are proving less costly and more effective elsewhere.
The election is over. The votes have been counted. But this is no time to nap. Our work as citizens is really just beginning.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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