POSTED ON DECEMBER 19, 2012:
In Praise of Smart Conservatives
State treasurer defies ideologues, makes good moves
This is what happens when fringe ideologues begin wielding out-size influence in politics and governance: Card-carrying, unapologetic conservatives suddenly are no longer conservative enough.
They're tarred with the "M" word -- moderate. They're lambasted as "traitors" to the cause. They're bullied and threatened with defeat in the next election.
Case in point: state Treasurer Ken Miller.
It's a measure of how far, far, far, far right the uber-conservatives have pushed the Oklahoma Republican Party that anyone would even attempt to depict Miller as a moderate.
Yet, Miller is evidently suspect among the reality-challenged fringe because -- among other perceived misdeeds -- he refuses to blithely peddle the discredited Arthur Laffer fairy tale that cutting taxes yields more tax revenue.
And he's firing back at his critics -- publicly and by name.
And for that, he deserves heartfelt applause from thinking Oklahomans, whether Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, or -- yes -- even moderate.
Make no mistake: Miller and I are Grand Canyons apart when it comes to political philosophy.
But in the spirit of the holiday season, it's high time we're reminded of something: Just because we may disagree with someone on how best to govern our nation and our state does not mean they are evil or un-American.
Most want the same things we all do: A stronger, fairer, and more prosperous America and Oklahoma for our kids and grandkids. It's just that we disagree about how to get there.
It doesn't mean we should withdraw into our political cocoons and treat the other side like mortal enemies who must be vanquished.
The latest evidence that Miller is a rarity among Republicans is an opinion column that attracted some attention in blogosphere (and was reprinted in the newspaper I edit, The Oklahoma Observer), but was largely ignored by the state's mainstream media.
Entitled "In Defense of Conservatism," Miller praised two fellow Oklahoma Republicans -- U.S. Rep. Tom Cole and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn -- for prudent conservatism in the wake of the federal government's "fiscal cliff" crisis despite criticism from tax hawk Grover Norquist.
"Grover Norquist claims both positions defy the anti-tax pledge, the revenue-neutral standard for tax policy changes made famous by his Americans for Tax Reform advocacy group," Miller wrote.
"Until now, ideology-based conservatives like Norquist have defined conservatism by their own terms. Absurdly, yet expectedly, the conservative credentials of both Coburn and Cole are under fire."
Then, Miller took dead aim at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the Sooner state think tank that shamelessly promotes Laffer's theories and leads an around-the-clock assault on the state income tax. (More on that insanity -- and inanity -- in a moment.)
"Oklahoma also has ideologically-driven interest groups that seek their own definition of conservatism," Miller correctly noted.
"One such group, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, has upped the ante on the Norquist gold standard where anything short of complete elimination of the state's largest source of revenue is deemed not conservative.
"Is it not conservative to be cautious in our approach to needed income tax reduction, to protect the state credit rating, to pay our debts, and to ensure sufficient funding for core services with a diversified and dependable revenue structure?" Miller added.
He's correct: Groups like OCPA -- spawn of the Coors-bankrolled Heritage Foundation -- are stirring the same sort of scorched earth, zero-sum politics here that Oklahomans loathe about Washington.
What they refuse to acknowledge -- but that those in the reality-based community like Miller know -- is that Oklahoma's facing a fiscal cliff of its own.
It's not because of profligate government spending. It's because lawmakers (and governors) pander to taxpayers with ill-conceived income tax cuts and to their top campaign contributors with shamefully generous corporate welfare.
First: tax cuts.
In recent years, the GOP-dominated Legislature -- with support of some misguided Democratic lawmakers and former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry -- enacted nearly $1 billion in income tax cuts.
Our state budget crafters were able to hide some of the worst effects of the dubious practice by using one-time federal dollars to plug massive holes in the state budget -- all the while complaining about Uncle Sugar's spendthrift ways.
The jig is up on this shell game. In the first five months of the fiscal year, Oklahoma collected a mere $6.7 million in gross production taxes -- about three percent of what it normally collects (on average $194 million) in the fiscal year's first five months, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
We've already been laying off teachers. Our prisons are again at capacity. Many of our roads and bridges are suspect. There are waiting lists for mental health care.
Now gross production taxes are in the crapper -- and nitwit ideologues are urging more income tax cuts. Even Gov. Mary Fallin is beating this dead horse. Somewhere P.T. Barnum is grinning.
Second: tax credits.
The Legislature -- whether under Democratic or Republican control -- has long been the personal playground of the state's wealthy elites, especially oil and gas barons.
While claiming devotion to free enterprise capitalism, lawmakers repeatedly have taken your tax dollars and handed them to corporate interests -- incentives, we're told, to encourage bidness and bolster the economy.
Let's call it what it is: corporate welfare. And it belies any notion of free enterprise capitalism.
So cut the B.S. and look at the actual figures, courtesy of a recent New York Times investigation: state lawmakers slipped $584 from every man, woman, and child in Oklahoma into the pockets of private interests in the form of so-called tax credits.
The total -- $2.19 billion -- represents about one-third of the entire state budget or 37 cents of every tax dollar spent.
This is a legalized looting of the state treasury.
So far as I recall, Miller never publicly led the charge to revamp this despicable system. But Miller used a phrase in his column: Broadening the base. That's code for looking at corporate welfare -- much of it indefensible.
Giving Miller an attaboy isn't enough. We now look to him -- and other clear-eyed elected officials -- to reel Oklahoma back from the fiscal cliff and to fund core state services fully and fairly.
And to shove the ideologues back into their caves where they belong. Oklahoma's future depends on it.
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