Revenue, reform plan well worth pursuing
WEARY of watching Oklahoma slide toward the bottom of so many national rankings, and frustrated with inaction driven by political expediency, a coalition of citizens has given the Legislature a revenue and reform package to consider when the special session resumes this month. The Oklahoman supports the plan and urges citizens and lawmakers to as well.
Approving such sweeping changes, including tax increases, will require difficult votes by legislators. Yet tough decisions are needed, as teachers leave for other states or quit the profession altogether due to pay concerns, and the state faces myriad other concerns.
The makeup of this coalition is notable. These are men and women, from urban and rural areas alike, who are Democrats and Republicans and independents, with business and civic and community ties, who have spent the past six weeks formulating their proposal. They share the goal of wanting to see state government work better.
Among the revenue recommendations is approval of a $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax and an increase in the fuel tax. We have supported these in the past — boosting the cigarette tax will drive down the smoking rate, which is among the highest in the country. The fuel tax, the lowest in the region, hasn’t been increased in more than 30 years.
The coalition recommends an increase in the gross production tax on all wells to 4 percent from 2 percent, an idea that was defeated in special session last fall but which has the backing of a number of those in the oil and gas industry. Also recommended is elimination of certain income tax deductions and tax loopholes while modernizing the tax code. The new tax burden would increase with the more a person makes, but wouldn’t be onerous on any one group.
These changes, and a few others proposed by the coalition, would generate roughly $790 million, which among other things would fund long-overdue teacher and principal pay raises of $5,000.
Many of the reform ideas would require a vote of the people. They include lowering to 60 percent from 75 percent the vote threshold needed to pass a tax increase in the Legislature. The speaker pro tem in the Oklahoma House, Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, has filed a bill do this very thing. The change would make the threshold equal to the percentage needed to approve a school bond issue — still a difficult proposition, but not as prohibitive as the level voters set in 1992 has proven to be.
The coalition also wants to see the creation of a budget stabilization fund, structured similar to an endowment. It recommends forming an office similar to the federal Congressional Budget Office to ferret out fraud, waste, and abuse in state government spending. It wants transparency about all the money the state spends each year, which includes federal funds— that total can be three times greater, or more, than the “state budget” figure bandied about each year.
It also suggests letting the governor appoint the directors of some agencies now led by elected officials. Coalition members also believe the governor and lieutenant governor should run as a team, which would foster more collaboration.
No member of the coalition loves every piece of this plan, nor do we, but we all love this state. Approval of the plan would help move Oklahoma forward. We’ve seen far too much of the opposite, for too long.