POSTED ON JUNE 27, 2012:
Digging Into the Books
"Free" enterprise system challenged by a government official doing his job
Finally, some good news for Oklahoma taxpayers.
Republican state Auditor Gary Jones is donning his green eyeshade, rolling up his sleeves and diving into the murky world of corporate tax credits.
The state has billions of dollars of these goodies on the books -- many hailed as economy-boosting incentives vital to job creation.
The reality is often less benign. In fact, there's mounting evidence the candy-store approach to economic development all-too-often squanders the taxpayers' dollars and doesn't create many, if any, jobs.
A task force headed by Republican Rep. David Dank of Oklahoma City and Sen. Mike Mazzei of Tulsa turned up enough evidence to suggest a legalized looting of state tax coffers that must be stopped.
The Legislature, unfortunately, succumbed to the wiles of special interests that weren't about to give up their taxpayer-financed gravy train without a fight.
So complete was the special interest stranglehold at NE 23rd and Lincoln Blvd. that lawmakers were loath to approve even the task force's most modest proposals, including one that would have provided modest additional resources to Jones' office to enable a systematic auditing of the tax breaks.
It was as if legislators said: Don't confuse us with the facts. We don't care whether the incentives are actually working. All we care about is that our corporatist campaign underwriters are happy and able to continue feasting at the taxpayers' trough.
The heads-planted-in-sand (or someplace else) approach generated one of the session's more comical, preposterous arguments: whether funneling a pittance more to the auditor's office to expand its capabilities was, in fact, "growin' gummint."
Hot damn -- we can't have that, declared the Republican majority! We don't grow gummint, we shrink it! Somewhere Grover Norquist is smiling.
Dank is himself, of course, no slouch when it comes to conservative, smaller government credentials. He tried mightily to explain to the sloped skulls that honest, systematic auditing of these programs not only could help save the state money, but also ensure the taxpayers' hard-earned dollars are spent wisely and legally.
No matter. The specter of "growin' gummint" was impossible to overcome, bogus though it might be. The task force's hard work appeared to be for naught.
Except that Gary Jones wouldn't be denied. By stretching every dollar he could, Jones came up with enough money to begin auditing some of the tax credit programs within 30 to 60 days.
"The main thing we're looking for here is the truth," Jones told me, "and to make sure we understand truly what's happening -- not just the perception of what's happening."
Jones, a Lawton CPA, never played by the Republican establishment's rules. It's true that he served as state GOP chair, but he always was an outsider. He never was welcomed into the corporate chamber that dominates the Republican legislative majority.
Why? He's a straight-shooter who actually cares about truth and justice, right and wrong. His every move is not calculated for maximum political affect.
Yes, he's an elected official and, thus, a politician, but he shows little sign of using his auditing power to reward friends and punish enemies.
The state auditor auditing tax credits might seem like a "no-brainer." It would be more accurate to describe the idea as a "non-starter" -- at least in the Legislature.
The only systematic review currently in place is at the Oklahoma Tax Commission. OTC isn't charged, however, with assessing whether the programs actually do what their proponents claim. It merely considers whether applications meet the technical requirements for the programs, as detailed in statute.
"How in world do you make determinations (about effectiveness) if you're not auditing the programs?" Jones asked.
There is ample evidence to believe some of the tax credits are nothing more than corporate welfare -- a way for savvy corporate execs (who also happen to be significant campaign contributors) to use taxpayer dollars to enhance profitability and socialize losses.
Indeed, it appears that as much as $2 billion in credits never created a single job.
You might recall that Gov. Mary Fallin, in her State of the State address this year, pledged to eliminate tax credits that were not working as intended.
As the old political saying goes, "Money talks and bulls--- walks." Money talked this session. Not many of the corporate powers-that-be that take advantage of these tax credits were interested in the Legislature opening up this can of worms. The fear: What lies beneath could create such public outrage that all business tax credits would be endangered.
Too bad. The taxpayers' money isn't Monopoly money. It's real money. And everyone, whether a card-carrying lefty like me or the wingiest wingnut on the right, wants the taxpayers' money spent judiciously on what really matters. Not as a means to game the "free" enterprise system.
The Legislature's refusal to systematically review the tax credits -- and eliminate the boondoggles -- was particularly ironic given leadership was hell-bent to cut the personal income tax again.
That didn't happen, either, but Jones is right to ask this question: "If you have a budget here that has no extra money, how are you going to do a tax cut without reducing appropriations?"
One way clearly would be to eliminate the give-aways. How many hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars could have been -- and diverted to vital core services such as public schools, roads and bridges -- if lawmakers had taken seriously the task force's recommendations?
As Jones' office completes the audits, it will forward the results to Fallin and state lawmakers -- and, most importantly, make them available to the public.
Like it or not, folks, you're going to have to start paying closer attention to how your tax dollars are being spent. Otherwise, the special interest greedheads that dominate legislative sausage-making will continue to bleed core services, propelling us ever closer to Third World status.
Or at least Mississippi.
Jones has stuck his neck out on this one. There are going to be more than a few Capitol insiders working around-the-clock to minimize whatever his office turns up. Plus, don't be surprised if he has a Republican primary challenger or two in 2014.
Oklahomans expect Jones to deliver on his promise to review -- fairly and fully, without political calculation -- as many of these programs as his office can afford and make the results public, no matter whose you-know-what ends up in the ringer.
The least rank-and-file Oklahoma taxpayers can do is to have his back.
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