POSTED ON NOVEMBER 2, 2011:
Behind the Times
Will Oklahoma always play catch-up in the world of political leadership?
Let the countdown begin -- less than two months until we ring in 2012.
I know: It's hard to believe 2011 is nearly gone. I've long been warned that the older you get, the faster the years roll by. I am here to testify: Sad, but true.
What's even more lamentable, however, is this: The closer we get to 2012, the more it seems we're really approaching 1912 or 1812 -- at least here in Oklahoma.
I'm not suggesting we're on the verge of returning to horse-and-buggy or outhouse days, of course. But all-too-often our politics are driven by those locked into pioneer rather than 21st Century thinking. Three recent news items help illustrate:
Oklahoma lawmakers failed yet again to update the state's antiquated, oft-ridiculous liquor laws -- testament to the political power of liquor wholesalers/distributors and tea-totaling religious denominations.
A legislative task force created to study the wisdom of allowing grocery stores to sell strong beer and wine -- just like most other states -- abruptly disbanded after only two meetings, concluding that differences of opinion could not be bridged.
How's that for your Legislature in action? Makes you proud, eh?
The bottom line is this: Current liquor store operators fear a substantial loss of income if grocers -- and maybe even convenience stores -- can offer wine, strong beer or both. Grocers naturally would love the opportunity to provide customers more choices.
If you've shopped at groceries in any of the 35 states that permit wine sales, you know how convenient it is.
Somehow these other states are able to balance the economic interests of liquor stores, groceries and consumers -- the latter oft-forgotten when these matters are debated at the state Capitol.
This is a classic case of politics makes strange bedfellows: Liquor sellers fighting on the same side with some fundamentalist religious groups that would outlaw alcoholic beverages if they could.
Of course, we tried Prohibition -- talk about rolling back the clock -- and it failed miserably. But that never prevented some holy rollers from working overtime to impose their morality on the general public.
The failure of Oklahoma's political leadership leaves modern-thinkers with little choice but to circulate an initiative petition to force changes in the law.
One of those elected officials actively working to lead Oklahoma into the 21st Century on a variety of important issues -- including liquor laws -- is state Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City.
You may remember Rice, now 38, as the Democratic Party's 2008 U.S. Senate nominee against incumbent Jim Inhofe. Rice didn't come close in a landslide Republican year, but his political future seemed bright.
Unfortunately, Rice, the current state Senate minority leader, announced recently that he would resign his seat in January because his family is moving to Nashville, where his wife, Dr. Apple Rice, has accepted a can't-miss opportunity.
Rice is just the sort of bright, young, progressive mind that we all-too-often seem to have trouble keeping in Oklahoma -- and that we sorely need if this state is to ever reach its potential.
He almost always could be counted on to stand against the worst excesses of a corporate-controlled Republican majority Legislature that gives far too much leeway to its misogynistic, theocratic, redneck fringe.
We didn't agree on everything -- taxes, for example -- but Rice provided an important voice in our ongoing civic dialogue. Will he be replaced by a modern thinker or someone who'd be more at home in the 19th or 20th Centuries?
The early favorite, Democratic Rep. Al McAffrey, would continue the area's long tradition of electing progressive voices. But in low-turnout special elections (this one scheduled Feb. 14), anything can happen.
From Gov. Mary Fallin to the GOP-controlled Legislature, Oklahoma's elected leaders continue to beat the drums for eliminating the state income tax -- a move that would roll tax policies back to the dark ages.
How so? The income tax is the fairest tax -- based on one's ability to pay. It's also the state's largest single revenue source, so it would have to be replaced by other taxes, most likely whopping increases in sales and property taxes.
Sales taxes disproportionately impact those with middle- and lower-incomes and property taxes are bad news for seniors -- just study the Proposition 13 movement in California or ask your friends in Texas.
Here's something that should give pause to conservatives of modest means who are fighting to replace the state income tax with higher sales taxes: It could lead to bigger, not smaller, government.
I recently unearthed (they don't refer to my office as "the abyss" for nothing) a 2010 column by Mickey Hepner, dean of the University of Central Oklahoma's College of Business Administration, explaining how this could be:
"Interestingly, the sales tax lowers the perceived cost of government services because consumers pay only a little sales tax on each transaction. Virtually no one knows just how much sales tax they actually pay throughout the year.
"This is not true with other types of taxes, though. Each year when you file your income tax return, there is a line that reports exactly how much your income tax liability is. Likewise, each year you receive an invoice from the county assessor detailing how much property tax you paid that year."
The fact that sales taxes are something of a hidden tax burden helps explain why there is little political resolve to reduce them -- even though, as Hepner notes, Oklahomans actually "pay more in sales taxes than either income or property taxes."
Hepner, one of the state's brightest minds on taxes and economics, argues that "if the true tax burden is perceived to be lower than it is, then taxpayers are more likely to demand more government services than they would if the true cost was known."
Tea Partiers, take note.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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