POSTED ON MAY 30, 2012:
Kick the Can
2012 State Legislature leaves costly messes for next year
Remember when Republicans implored state voters to give them the levers of power, vowing to run state government like a business?
It was a catchy, appealing mantra -- a big winner at the ballot box.
And now, in practice? Not so much.
Any notion that Year II of overwhelming legislative majorities and control of all 11 statewide offices would yield a more finely tuned machine turned out to be just that ... a notion.
A fantastical one, at that.
The GOP quickly splintered into factions that made life miserable for its leadership, especially Gov. Mary Fallin and House Speaker Kris Steele.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman had a slightly easier time only because he didn't have nearly as many uber-conservative, feral cats to herd as Steele.
In the end, the Republican bosses whiffed on nearly every significant issue that confronted the Legislature -- from reining in corporate welfare to resolving critical water disputes, overhauling the tax code to investing in core state services.
It was so bad that Fallin -- desperate to make good on her income tax cut pledge -- was left imploring lawmakers to one-up Kansas on the issue in order to improve Oklahoma's competitiveness.
Seems only yesterday that we set our sights on behemoths like Texas. We not only wanted to kick ass in football, but also clobber them economically.
Kansas, for gawd's sake?
The schisms in the Republican legislative caucus were well known before the session opened last February. The only question was which issues would prove irreconcilable.
Ironically, taxes were the flashpoint. Both sides -- corporate conservatives and social/religious conservatives -- wanted them. But they couldn't strike a deal on who should benefit most.
The irony doesn't end there: Oklahoma is much better off that the session ended without an agreement -- the state simply cannot afford to further slash tax revenues without irreparably harming core services, including education, highways and child protection.
The connection between taxes and services finally broke through and resonated with some lawmakers.
Rural and urban legislators began to see clearly that their public schools -- and thus, their students -- were about to be left behind. After all, not all schools are like Jenks, able to raise $1.1 million in private donations to keep their class sizes manageable.
As Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, put it the day before session's end: "The budget agreement reached by both chambers called for using growth revenue to offset some of the revenues that would be returned to our citizens through a state income tax cut. At this point, with the (session) deadline approaching, it seems doubtful we'll see a tax cut. ... I understand that would leave about $25 million on the table.
" ... If no agreement is going to be reached, then let's put those dollars into the classroom to benefit Oklahoma's children."
Some legislators also came to loath the notion that Republicans themselves might be guilty of -- gasp! -- redistributing wealth via tax proposals that disproportionately benefited the state's wealthiest.
"We don't want to pick winners and losers," noted state Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle.
What also resonated with an increasing number of lawmakers was the ridiculousness of simultaneously cutting taxes and borrowing money.
The state already owes billions of dollars. And thanks to nearly $1 billion in previous income tax cuts, it doesn't have enough money to adequately fund many core services -- much less address hundreds of millions of dollars in critical maintenance and repairs to the state Capitol and other infrastructure.
Why cut revenues further when you can't afford routine maintenance? Everyone knows that as buildings age, they need repair and upkeep. Pay-as-you-go trumps borrowing -- with interest.
Thankfully, logic prevailed -- bond issue after bond issue went down in flames.
The Legislature's biggest failure was its unwillingness to tackle the legalized looting of the state treasury -- a stinky practice known as "tax expenditures."
What this means is that billions of your tax dollars are being spent to enhance private-sector profits and socialize private-sector losses -- rather than bolstering your under-funded local schools or rebuilding your cratering local bridges.
Whatever happened to free enterprise capitalism?
State Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, worked his heart out identifying specious tax credits that didn't create a single job. But when it came time for the Legislature to put a stop to the theft, special interests -- led by the State Chamber -- prevailed. Not a damn thing happened.
Another major disappointment was the much-ballyhooed criminal justice reform package that was supposed to stop the lock-'em-up and throw-away-the-key madness and save Oklahoma taxpayers $249 million a year in incarceration costs.
It was to be Steele's signature achievement as speaker, but -- sadly -- his ambitious agenda slammed head-on into the demagoguery that drives the Oklahoma Legislature's criminal justice policy, a punitive streak fueled by officeholder's fears they could be tarred as "soft on crime."
Charitably, Steele's reform package exited the legislative sausage-making as a decent first step toward addressing Oklahoma's fiscally unsustainable approach to crime and punishment.
But more accurately, it wasn't nearly the real, comprehensive reform the speaker and other "smart on crime" supporters envisioned. Even worse, the new laws could end up costing the state even more short-term, if some experts are correct in their assessments.
Oklahoma simply can no longer afford a prison population of 26,000 -- more women per capita than any state and No. 3 nationally in overall incarceration rate. A punitive approach is costing the state nearly a half-billion-dollars annually on corrections -- up 30 percent over the last decade.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised the 2012 session was mind-boggling pitiful. After all, it is an election year. Historically, the elected class works overtime to avoid gut-wrenching decisions whenever balloting nears.
But all the run-government-like-a-business crowd did is kick the can down the road, leaving even bigger, more costly messes for the next Legislature to resolve.
It's too bad this year's candidate filing period ended long before the legislative session did. Nearly two-thirds of the 86 state representatives and a third of 17 senators seeking re-election won another term without drawing an opponent.
If the filing period had been delayed until after session, things surely would have been different.
In my view, the same Legislature that slapped a capricious grading system on public schools better be damned glad there is no equivalent ranking for its performance.
The 2012 session wasn't just "below average" or "needs improvement" or "unsatisfactory" -- it was an abject failure.
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