POSTED ON NOVEMBER 30, 2011:
Taxes, Assets or Pixie Dust
How to fund state services
In the spirit of the holidays, I offer good news first: State lawmakers finally have awakened to the fact our majestic Capitol is crumbling around them -- a $100 million-plus facelift sorely needed.
The bad news: They are positioning themselves to undertake a sell-off of "surplus" state property to help finance what clearly is anything but one-time Capitol maintenance.
Does your home need painting only once in a generation? Or a new roof? Or new carpeting? Of course not. It's a question of when, not if. So you squirrel away money for just such expenses, right?
State Rep. T.W. Shannon thinks there may be more than enough "surplus" property that can be sold in order to create an endowment that could underwrite such maintenance for years to come.
The question isn't whether a permanent repair fund for the Capitol and other state properties is wise or necessary. The question is whether lawmakers can be trusted to use the money for its intended purpose.
Oklahoma's Legislature often proves itself maddeningly adept at playing politics, yet frighteningly inept at managing taxpayer dollars. The last 30 years or so offer classic examples:
In the glory days of the early 1980s oil boom, a Democratic-majority Legislature pandered to voters by enacting huge tax cuts. When the bust came -- as it always does -- it was forced to impose huge tax increases to keep schools open, prison doors locked and children protected.
In the high-flying early years of the 21st Century, an emerging Republican legislative majority opted to repeat history, slashing taxes $770 million. Even in the midst of a worldwide recession, lawmakers this session refused to block another $120 million tax cut set in motion several years earlier.
You don't purposely lower your income when you know your bills are coming due, right? The Oklahoma Legislature does. Is it any wonder we're constantly deferring maintenance on our Capitol, laying off teachers and praying bridges don't collapse?
The reality is, the penny-wise, pound-foolish antics end up costing us all more. That $100 million or so price tag for Capitol repairs undoubtedly would have been considerably smaller if we hadn't waited until the limestone façade began falling off and electrical wiring and plumbing became dangerously outdated.
I'm heartened that Shannon, the 2013 House Speaker-designate, has taken up the Capitol maintenance cause. Our nearly century-old seat of state government is a treasure that should be protected for future generations. Like it or not, its appearance says much about us as a people -- akin to what your lawn says about you.
Fiscal prudence also suggests it's not unreasonable for state lawmakers to take a hard look at all state-owned properties to determine which are useful and which are not.
"When state government owns 9,000 buildings, there is clearly room to liquidate some of those holdings," Shannon, a Lawton Republican, said recently. "At a time when dollars are very limited, it is inexcusable for agencies to cling to expensive facilities that are no longer necessary to carry out the agencies' missions or basic operations of government."
The problem is this: In the midst of tight budgets, lawmakers may well be tempted to jettison some properties that should be kept merely because their sale generates cash now. Further, some legislators could be persuaded to sell because their big campaign donors want a shot at buying prime properties.
Oklahoma could end up with a severe case of seller's remorse.
The political gamesmanship isn't limited to cutting taxes and selling surplus properties. It also involves borrowing money: State lawmakers next year may well ask voters to approve a $1 billion bond issue to help finance myriad state projects.
On the capital improvements wish list: $40 million for weigh stations, $40 million for the state Medical Examiner's office, $170 million for the National Guard, $40 million for the Native American center in Oklahoma City, $40 million for the Oklahoma Museum of Music/Popular Culture in Tulsa and $20 million for the Muskogee Music Hall of Fame.
Think about it: State lawmakers would rather cut taxes with one hand and borrow money for these projects with the other. Does that make any sense? Why borrow and pay interest when you can pay-as-you-go?
Nothing, of course, curries favor with rank-and-file voters like tax cuts. They've been conditioned over the years by ultra-rightwing media -- like the state's largest newspaper, the Oklahoman -- and politics-playing preachers into believing government is defined by corruption and bloat. There is some of that, no doubt. But it's just as pervasive, if not more so, in the flag-waving corporate world. Bernie Madoff, anyone?
A better approach to state government would be to adhere to this maxim: You get what you pay for. Or this: There is no free lunch. State services aren't financed with pixie dust and the wave of a wand. They're paid for with hard-earned tax dollars.
Enough already about corporations and high-rollers being "over-taxed." They wouldn't be able to get their goods to market in order to build their fortunes if they didn't have access to excellent roads, highways and bridges and a well-educated workforce financed by all of us.
Unfortunately, until Oklahoma voters wake up and demand more from their elected officials, we'll continue to live in a netherworld where tax cuts trump sound fiscal policy.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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