POSTED ON MARCH 21, 2012:
Putting On a Face
State legislature can at least pretend to care about issues
The state Legislature's Powers-That-Be have a dirty little secret.
They don't really care about Oklahoma's schools, child protective services, mental health programs, law enforcement, even highways and bridges.
Oh, sure, they give lip service to these core functions of state government. They know what voters want to hear.
But their priorities are different -- demonstrably, provably different.
What do lawmakers really care about? Rewarding the well-heeled special interests that finance their campaigns and help them maintain political power.
In less than a decade, the Legislature has slashed income tax-generated state revenues nearly $1 billion -- tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the state's wealthiest.
Now they want to eliminate the income tax entirely -- one-third of the entire state budget.
Gov. Mary Fallin is toady-in-chief for the let-them-eat-cake crowd. And she has plenty of legislative allies, many too dense to understand they are working against their economic interests.
So far this session, both the House and Senate have approved bills that would further cut state income taxes. Now the two houses must get together and reconcile the competing proposals before any can become law.
Fallin and Co. spin the tax cuts as a way for everyday Oklahomans "to keep more of their hard-earned money."
It's a great sound bite, but it's not altogether true. Charitably, it might be labeled a half-truth. But really, it's pure demagoguery, designed to spin, not inform.
The $1 billion in state revenues already lost could have helped ensure that school class sizes remained manageable.
Or that children in state custody weren't at risk because social workers are scrambling to monitor twice the number of cases experts recommend.
Or that the highway patrol had the funding to schedule new trooper training long before it became dangerously short-handed.
Anyone who suggests the rich disproportionately benefit from income tax cuts gets shouted down as a practitioner of "class warfare."
At the risk of sounding like Darth Cheney, my reply is: "So?"
It is class warfare. The state's wealthiest residents not only keep more in actual dollars, but also are less affected by the deterioration of state services.
Face it: they aren't stressed about the number of students in public school classrooms because they children don't attend public schools. They're enrolled in elite private academies.
They aren't flummoxed by a staggering child welfare system because they don't use it.
They aren't fretting over public safety because they often live in gated enclaves protected not only by local police, but also private security.
Here's the worst part: They will be least affected when the lost income tax revenue is recouped through increases in sales and property taxes -- which they ultimately will be.
Think somebody who can afford a Southern Hills membership really would feel the pinch if the sales tax on a gallon of milk doubles? No, but a family of four scraping by on less than $30,000 a year would.
Who could better absorb a 50 percent hike in property taxes? A multi-millionaire who plays the tax-shelter game with the help of an army of CPAs? Or a senior on a fixed income who wants to remain in the home they worked a lifetime to pay off?
The Republican majority in the state House and Senate has proven itself very clever at steering income tax cuts through the legislative mine fields: They protected exemptions for retirees and veterans in proposals approved so far.
The AARP's state director, Sean Voskuhl, heaved a public sigh of relief, telling the Oklahoman it was "a very positive development."
Yes, it would protect seniors... but at what cost to the state as a whole?
Shouldn't seniors be just as worried, for example, about the quality of education their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be receiving? Shouldn't they be just as concerned about the availability of funds for state health programs for the poor (including the senior poor)?
Actually, the fact that lawmakers voted to protect exemptions for retirees and veterans suggests that everyday Oklahomans are awakening to what is happening at the Capitol.
In fact, there are signs legislators are hearing from constituents who get it: You can't eliminate the state income tax and fully fund state services that people not only have come to expect, but also demand.
While Fallin and some tea partiers still embrace plans to eliminate the income tax, legislative leaders have become increasingly cautious, insisting additional cuts must be "revenue neutral."
They don't think they can afford politically to be seen as opposing more tax cuts. But they also are feeling the heat from those unhappy with the draconian, double-digit cuts in their public schools and other vital services.
It's all about choices. Lawmakers certainly can eliminate the state income. Why they would eliminate the fairest tax of all -- based on one's ability to pay -- is beyond me. But they could do.
The problem is, the alternatives are even less appealing politically.
If they decide fairness doesn't matter, they could fund essential state services eliminating about $2 billion in state tax credits, breaks and exemptions (most benefitting business) and significantly increasing property and sales taxes (the most regressive).
We've already seen what happens when lawmakers discuss eliminating tax credits. The special interests who benefit from them are swarming the Capitol. What seemed like a no-brainer -- eliminating those that aren't working and aren't creating jobs -- is suddenly a non-starter.
So what's likely to happen?
As Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, put it, "I don't think they (legislative leaders) really want to cut taxes anymore, but they wrote the (tax cut) check, so they have to cash it."
Most plausible is the Legislature will order another half-percentage-point cut in the top state income tax rate -- another $200 million or so in lost state revenue. It also may enact some automatic triggers for future tax cuts -- perhaps a quarter-percentage-point at a time.
By the time it all kicks in -- and the serious damage to public education and other state services becomes obvious to enough voters -- our current crop of elected state leaders will be term-limited out of office.
In other words, it won't matter to them.
Their successors -- and people of Oklahoma, particularly the middle-incomers and below who disproportionately rely on state services -- will be left to clean up the mess.
And the rich? They will laugh all the way to the bank. They can afford to be patient. Just keep nibbling away at the income tax. Eventually it'll be mine, all mine.
Fallin's legacy will be as a modern-day Marie Antoinette. And the 2012 Legislature will be remembered as her court jesters.
It's not a legacy etched in concrete. More than half the session remains. The governor and lawmakers could change course and do the right thing.
And pigs may fly.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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