POSTED ON MAY 18, 2011:
Breaking the Bank
Oklahoma should end tax breaks for special interests and focus on core services
Here is what the state budget crunch hath wrought: Thousands of mentally ill are on waiting lists for treatment. Developmentally disabled children are on waiting lists for wheelchairs. Educators are waiting, too -- will they receive a new contract for next year or a pink slip?
And that is just the beginning.
Oklahoma suffers today -- and will for years to come -- not because of the worst economic times worldwide since the Great Depression. Our state suffers because of years of poor decision-making at the highest levels of government.
Decisions born of ignorance -- too many who know the cost of everything and value of nothing. Decisions born of venality -- too much campaign and special interest cash corrupting the process. Decisions born of rigid ideology -- too much demagoguery and extremism, not enough critical thinking.
Just think about this year's budget-related decisions alone. Republicans control state government's premier power levers -- governor and Legislature. Their single-minded mantra: shrink government.
It makes for a pithy TV sound bite or newspaper quip, but it's not a plausible governing principle, something that all-too-many rank-and-file Oklahomans are learning -- or soon will -- much to their chagrin.
As school class sizes explode, as highways and bridges crumble, as child welfare services disappear, the connection between taxes and state services will become sharper.
Here's a better governing principle: Spend the taxpayers' money judiciously by ending the obscene cornucopia of special interest tax breaks. Focus instead on core services and infrastructure -- and, yes, extend a hand up, not a handout, to those in need.
When the 2011 Legislature wraps up -- perhaps as early as Friday -- you'll hear a cacophony of self-congratulation and backslapping about how they balanced the budget and wrapped up their work early. Both of which are true -- but they don't begin to tell the whole story.
The real failure of the 2011 session -- one that will haunt Oklahoma for a generation, at least -- was leadership's refusal to fast-track a serious, systematic review of nearly $6 billion in tax breaks, much of it corporate welfare that amounts to a legalized looting of the state treasury.
The giveaways amount to nearly as much as the entire state budget -- $6.5 billion for FY 2012. At least $2 billion of the tax incentives never created a single job. The taxpayers were fleeced -- and the costs of corporate welfare will be enormous.
Just ask Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard, who eliminated 225 teaching positions last year and may have to cut another 150 or so in the next budget year. Or ask Chickasha Superintendent Jim Glaze who's looking at laying off nearly half of the district's principals and assistant principals.
Moreover, the gutless wonders masquerading as state leaders refused to block another .25 percent cut in state income taxes that will disproportionately benefit the state's wealthiest citizens while costing the state treasury an estimated $120 million in annual revenues.
Income tax cuts and corporate welfare are political pandering taken to the extreme. Nothing elected officials love more than parade through their districts, crowing about how they cut taxes. Well, maybe one thing: delivering on tax breaks for their wealthiest campaign contributors.
The taxpayers who think they can get hefty tax cuts and good state services aren't in touch with reality. There is no free lunch. Those roads, schools and prisons don't magically appear. They're built with tax revenues.
Further, it's way past time for rank-and-file Oklahomans to hold their legislative leaders accountable for giving away the store. It never ceases to amaze me that so many flag-waving, chest-thumping free-enterprisers end up first in line at the taxpayers' trough, effectively socializing their profits and losses.
Isn't rugged individualism the whole idea of free-enterprise capitalism?
Guess all that rhetoric was just plain old smoke-and-mirrors nonsense, designed to obfuscate and confuse. What they really were saying is: No government oversight. And once we've been unshackled, we'll back our trucks up to the state treasury and help ourselves to billions in tax breaks.
The State Chamber of Commerce plays the GOP leadership at the Capitol like a fiddle. With apologies to Charlie Daniels, the tune I keep hearing is The Devil Went Down to Lincoln. The state's deep-pocketed corporate interests not only did a masterful job protecting the corporate welfare bounty, but also limiting corporate liability and attacking worker rights.
Now the State Chamber has launched a hilariously ironic web site entitled "Legislative Watch: We're Watching Them So You Don't Have To." Translation: Any who refuse to bow down and swear their devotion to the plutocracy is attacked as anti-bidness.
Ten state lawmakers appeared last week on the Chamber's Ten Most Wanted list of "repeat offenders" for anti-business votes wearewatchingthem.biz. Their sin? They refused to toe the Chamber line. The list includes three GOP House members -- John Bennett of Sallisaw, Randy Terrill of Moore and Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City; six House Democrats -- Rebecca Hamilton and Richard Morrissette, both of Oklahoma City, Larry Glenn of Miami, Steve Kouplen of Beggs, William Fourkiller of Stillwell and Mike Brown of Tahlequah; and one state senator, Tahlequah Democrat Jim Wilson.
Full disclosure: Two of my Urban Tulsa Weekly columns -- or at least snippets of the columns -- appear in a section headlined "Pro Business Positions Attacked in the News." UTW is referred to as a "liberal weekly magazine" -- which might come as a shock to some of the conservative voices that grace these pages.
The fact is, Oklahoma's budget problems would be over in the blink of an eye if the Legislature eliminated the $2 billion in tax breaks that so far haven't created a single job. In fact, lawmakers could not only make major investments in education and highways and other vital infrastructure and services, but also cut income taxes, if they were so inclined.
In other words, there's plenty of money to go around. It's just being directed into the wrong category -- corporate welfare.
There is a sliver of good news in this otherwise gloomy landscape: State Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, hopes to begin a systematic review of the tax breaks by mid-June. His task force is expected to meet monthly, if not more often, studying each tax break/credit to determine which are effective and which should be eliminated.
Dank has a clear picture of the problem: He knows that developmentally disabled children aren't getting needed wheelchairs because the state is giving away too much of the taxpayers' money "based on politics and not on good, sound fiscal policy."
I can't wait for June. If Dank and Co. are allowed to seriously review the tax expenditures, it could signal a magnificent new era in Oklahoma.
But the sad fact is, some of the state's corporate powers-that-be don't want this process to be anything more than window dressing.
By fall, we should have a good notion whether Dank's dream can become a reality -- or whether it's just another nightmare for the state's rank-and-file taxpayers.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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