Step Up proposal offers way forward
OKLAHOMANS could find out as soon as Monday whether lawmakers are willing to provide teachers a pay raise and increase revenue streams for state government. Approving bills by the Step Up Oklahoma coalition would do that.
The coalition, formed in December by business and civic leaders, has grown to include dozens of organizations across Oklahoma that are frustrated by yearslong budget shortfalls that have hampered the state’s efforts to climb out of the lower end of so many national rankings.
If all were approved — they received committee approval last week— the Step Up measures would inject hundreds of millions into the treasury, and provide important reforms. Among the latter is a bill to create an Office of Accountability, and one to let the governor appoint the heads of seven state agencies while making their current governing boards advisory.
On the revenue side, one bill would increase the tobacco tax by $1.50 per pack, which would help to further drive down Oklahoma’s smoking rate and keep many young people from taking up smoking in the first place. Presently 19.6 percent of adults in Oklahoma smoke, but that still lags the national average of 17.1 percent.
The same bill would increase the price of diesel fuel and gasoline by 6 cents per gallon and bring Oklahoma’s fuel tax rate more in line with surrounding states; it would increase the gross production tax on all wells from 2 percent to 4 percent, something Democrats have wanted for a long time; and would place a $1-permegawatt hour tax on wind production.
Step Up Oklahoma also is seeking to increase income tax payments by reducing the standard deduction and capping itemized deductions.
Revenue-raising bills must originate in the House and receive 75 percent approval from lawmakers. That means 76 votes are needed in the 101-member House to send most of these proposals to the Senate. Republicans hold 72 seats, Democrats 28 (there is one vacancy). Bipartisanship is necessary for this effort to succeed, but it has been sorely lacking. That cannot continue.
Members might be interested in the results of a recent SoonerPoll, commissioned by the Step Up Oklahoma coalition. The survey of likely voters, taken Jan. 30 through Feb. 5, showed 69 percent support the goals and some elements of the Step Up Plan.
The poll’s founder, Bill Shapard, said similar questioning six months ago likely would not have produced such broad-based support. Now, “I think the voters are hungry for a solution to this budget impasse … and they see this as a solution that will get us there,” Shapard said.
Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz said recently his colleagues didn’t run by saying they wanted to raise taxes, but “we’re here and we understand the problem in recurring revenue and we’re here to solve the problem.” House Speaker Charles McCall has said the Step Up plan “is very important to the state of Oklahoma” because of the potential funding certainty it provides. Gov. Mary Fallin said in her State of the State speech that Oklahoma is “at a crossroads.”
A pathway forward has been presented, and should be taken.