POSTED ON NOVEMBER 21, 2012:
What Have We to be Grateful For?
Lousy Legislature, tax cuts drive pooreconomic outlook
As we prepare to dive into our Thanksgiving feast, let us pause momentarily to consider an inconvenient truth.
These are not prosperous economic times for the poor and middle-class, even in what is often proclaimed as recession-proof Oklahoma.
You wouldn't necessarily know it by reading most of the state's daily rags, reliable heralds of Chamber of Commerce-style, ain't-life-grand spin.
Or by listening to state leaders, trumpeting growth in general revenue collections as absolute proof of their fiscal wizardry.
Instead, consider the word of experts without dogs in the PR hunt: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute.
They just released a new report showing incomes for poor and middle-class Oklahoma families have stagnated since the late 1990s.
So ... where did nearly all the growth go?
To the state's wealthiest households.
Yup, despite all the crowing about how Oklahoma's economy -- with Republicans at the helm of state government -- is hitting on all cylinders and showing the rest of the nation how it's properly done, the truth is, well, considerably less convenient:
Oklahoma has the nation's eighth widest gap between top- and middle-incomers.
As the Oklahoma Policy Institute's Gene Perry put it, "Hard work should pay off for everyone. What we're seeing instead in Oklahoma is that when the economy grows, poor and middle-class families are being left out.
"That's bad for all of us."
In fairness, the income disparity isn't something that suddenly occurred once Republicans seized control of state government -- nor is it unique to Oklahoma.
Since the 1970s, the average household incomes of Oklahoma's wealthiest 20 percent jumped nearly 64 percent while the middle 20 percent's rose only 16 percent and the poorest 20 percent a meager 5.3 percent.
That's the third highest increase in income inequality in the nation, behind only Connecticut and California.
But Oklahoma's GOP majority is threatening to make matters much worse by working to phase out the state income tax -- the fairest tax of all -- and refusing to seriously deal with out-of-control corporate welfare.
There is, at least, some acknowledgement that storm clouds are the economic horizon. Gov. Mary Fallin and state Treasurer Ken Miller both hinted at potential problems because lawmakers over-relied on one-time federal funds to plug gaping holes in recent state budgets.
Of course, we wouldn't have those gaping holes if the GOP-controlled Legislature -- in concert with two governors, Republican Fallin and Democrat Brad Henry -- hadn't engineered nearly $1 billion in income tax cuts.
The fact is, our current and recent crop of elected leaders failed to learn the lessons of history. And We The People -- who cast the ballots that decided the elections -- are complicit: we failed to demand they not repeat those mistakes.
It was only three decades ago that Oklahoma was sitting pretty economically, awash in big money generated by an energy boom. Pandering Democratic lawmakers couldn't wait to slash taxes -- convinced the gravy train would never end. Democratic Gov. George Nigh agreed.
Booms, of course, always go bust. The economy is cyclical. So is the oil and gas business. Suddenly, Oklahoma's economy was in the tank -- and so was the state's ability to deliver vital core services.
So lawmakers -- Democrats dominated in those days, much like Republicans today -- and Nigh publicly feasted on crow. They ended up enacting a huge tax increase just to keep the lights on at the local school, the highways paved, and the prison doors locked.
Here we go again: As the state's treasury swelled on a wave of oil and gas taxes, lawmakers took a machete to the income tax -- and are threatening to whack some more.
Yes, the state budget has grown in recent years, but it's an illusion -- federal stimulus dollars offset some of the income tax cuts. And those federal dollars are drying up as concern increases over the federal debt.
Since we've made it all but impossible to raise taxes -- a super-legislative majority or statewide vote of the people is now required -- we have no wiggle room.
And it doesn't look like our ability to fund vital services will improve any time soon -- thanks to newly-imposed caps on property tax increases, a $50 million break gifted to big corporations on intangible property taxes and the growing income inequality that is leaving a vast majority of Oklahomans in little position to help boost the economy.
Let's get real: The rich aren't the job creators, despite what you might be hearing from Fox News. The job creators are the vast majority of us who earn enough money to buy washing machines and refrigerators, houses and automobiles -- and who can afford to fill those vehicles with gasoline. That's what drives the economy -- and creates healthy corporate bottom lines.
Which is what makes the new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economy Policy Institute particularly disheartening.
Moderate- and low-income Oklahomans failed to prosper during the nation's most recent economic boom that began under President Clinton in the late 1990s and continued into the mid-2000s -- until President George W. Bush secured more tax cuts for the wealthy and put two wars on the taxpayers' credit card.
Actually, it's worse than failed to prosper: During those halcyon days, the incomes of the upper fifth of Oklahoma households grew 7.7 percent. But incomes for those in the poorest fifth dropped 7.5 percent. And incomes for those in the middle fifth stagnated.
Happy days are here again?
"The drop in incomes among Oklahoma's poorest families is particularly troubling," Oklahoma Policy's Perry said in a written statement, citing the new report. "So many of our state's children growing up in poverty affects everything from their performance in school to their income as adults."
I've studied the list of registered lobbyists at the state Capitol. And I've seen them in their Sunday best hovering in the rotunda during legislative sessions, waiting to sell their special interest to lawmakers who leave the sanctity of the floor.
Sadly, I haven't seen very many lobbyists who are doing the Lord's work -- in other words, pressing lawmakers to enact policy that benefits all, as opposed to the elite few who can afford a hired gun.
It's always been that way, of course. The voiceless are referred to as the voiceless for a reason. But in a state where houses of worship are ubiquitous, wouldn't you think we'd care more about the least among us?
Especially at Thanksgiving?
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