POSTED ON FEBRUARY 23, 2011:
Red River Revelry
When celebrating Texas, think beyond taxes
Will Oklahoma ever get over its pathetic case of Texas envy?
Yes, Texas once was its very own Republic. It's been a state longer than we have. And it's bigger in size and population.
Yawn. Bigger isn't necessarily better. Nor is older necessarily wiser.
But if you listen to Republican pooh-bahs at the state Capitol, we simply must be more like Texas if we're going to prove to the world that we're really open for business and serious about being all we can be.
There is a subtext, however, to the GOP message that often gets overlooked as our leaders exploit this all-too-familiar inferiority complex. Their real message: what makes Texas great is that it does not have a state income tax.
The richest one percent of Oklahomans automatically rise and salute the Texas model. No one stands to benefit more if Republicans embrace this preposterous "truism," jettisoning 40 percent of state revenues in one fell swoop.
And the rest of Oklahoma, the working class and the poor? They've been hoodwinked into believing Texas is the be-all, end-all -- in almost everything but football. The no-income-tax malarkey is an especially easy sell because taxes are about as popular as politicians, televangelists and journalists.
Let's leave it to a Republican, former First Lady Barbara Bush, to set the record straight: Texas not only isn't the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey -- its problems often make Oklahoma's pale by comparison.
In a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Mrs. Bush urged Texas leaders not to impose deep cuts in education to close a $27 billion -- yes, billion -- budget hole.
Why? Because Texas can't afford it. As Mrs. Bush noted, Texas is 36th in high school graduation rates, meaning 3.8 million -- more than the entire population of Oklahoma -- do not hold a high school diploma. It also ranks 49th in verbal SAT scores, 47th in literacy and 46th in average math SAT scores. And its four nationally recognized higher education research institutions lags far behind California's nine and New York's seven.
"In light of these statistics," she wrote, "can we afford to cut the number of teachers, increase class sizes, eliminate scholarships for underprivileged students and close several community colleges?"
Oklahoma's numbers aren't significantly different: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, our dropout rate is about a half percentage point less than Texas'. Most of Oklahoma's college-bound students take the ACT -- not the SAT, as in Texas -- but only one-tenth of a percentage point separated Oklahoma and Texas students' ACT results last year. Further, Oklahoma is 47th in per pupil expenditure and 49th in teacher salaries.
But where too many Oklahoma leaders insist we must be more like Texas -- or forever play second fiddle -- I call B.S.
First, Oklahoma's in far better shape fiscally than Texas. Our state's budget hole is down to about $500 million. And there wouldn't be a budget hole at all if state leaders would get serious about eliminating $2 billion in corporate tax breaks that never created a single job.
Some might argue that, of course, Texas has a bigger budget hole -- its population is almost seven times larger than Oklahoma's. But even if you divide Texas' shortfall in half (since the state enacts two-year budgets), its per capita budget hole is nearly 10 times Oklahoma's.
Second, Oklahoma has an abundance of the 21st century's most precious natural resource: water. So much, in fact, that Texas has tried almost every scheme imaginable to tap into Oklahoma's aquatic largesse for years. Every economic development expert with half a brain will tell you that jobs and growth will be following the water in the generations ahead.
Third, Oklahoma's location -- at the crossroads of three major interstate highways: 44, 35 and 40 and closer to the nation's geographic center -- is arguably superior to Texas'.
Where Oklahoma has languished in the last half century is leadership. Oklahoma was a hotbed of aviation development in the first half of the 20th century, but it was Texas that had the vision and seized the opportunity develop a major airline hub, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Talk about an economic engine.
U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr had such vision. He was derided by some for his focus on water -- especially the 445-mile-long McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River navigation system. Look at the impact today: about $600 million worth of cargo moves through the Port of Catoosa each year, generating an annual economic impact of about $300 million and an annual payroll of about $140 million.
There is a seize-the-moment opportunity facing Oklahoma leaders today -- President Obama has proposed a $53 billion nationwide high-speed rail network. Republican governors in three states -- Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio -- already have refused to participate, preferring to play short-term political games rather than recognizing the long-term economic opportunities that such infrastructure investment afford.
Could there be a better location than Oklahoma to serve as a hub for a new nationwide high-speed rail network? Imagine the construction, service and supply jobs that would be created if Oklahoma got in on the ground floor of the next generation's transportation equivalent of D/FW airport.
I can hear the wailing now: We can't afford it. It's another government subsidy. Baloney. It's an investment. And before you get all high and mighty about "subsidies," remember this: virtually all transportation in America is subsidized by the taxpayers. Who builds the airports? Who pays for the air traffic controllers? Who builds the highways and bridges?
I won't hold my breath waiting for Sen. Tom Coburn to understand the potential. But others among Oklahoma's Republican leaders no doubt will see the wisdom of Oklahoma pursuing a starring role in this project. They'll just have to figure out a way to finesse the Tea Party types who never understood the connection between taxes and services -- and who'd prefer we return to the horse-and-buggy days or yore.
(-Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net)
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