By Daniel Holland, ODP Summer Intern, University of Oklahoma
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” As he delivered his first inaugural address, it’s easy to imagine that Ronald Reagan was channeling vintage Thoreau – “that government is best which governs least.” After all, the Republican Party is the champion of small government, the All-American bulwark against governmental tyranny and universal healthcare. The Democrats, so the narrative goes, want to steal your hard earned money because they’re either sinister or dumb, but the Grand Ol’ Party is here to protect you from the feds.
It’s a great narrative, delivered so consistently over the years that the GOP has managed to brand itself as the party of small government through sheer persistence, even though the facts don’t always justify the nomenclature. Do you buy their facade? You certainly shouldn’t, not if you’re an Oklahoman who has seen firsthand exactly what Republican “governance” means for the municipalities under their control. You know; the municipalities that should be benefitting from all that devolved power Republicans never stop going on about.
The reality is that “small government” has become just another way of saying “the feds can’t tell us to do things that we don’t want to do”. You don’t like gay marriage? No problem, just steep your argument in the small-government-teakettle for a few minutes, throw in a pinch of states-rights spice, and you’ll be good to go! Sniff around a little more, however, and you’ll find that this small-government methodology gets thrown out with the bathwater as soon as any smaller governments fail to pass the muster of conservative orthodoxy. Nationally, we’ve had more than a few of these little glitches recently- the North Carolina legislature’s decision to disallow Charlotte, NC’s progressive bathroom legislation stands out as one example. This kind of stuff is already old hat in Oklahoma though, where it has become fairly commonplace for our Republican legislators to run roughshod over the needs and wants of Oklahoma municipalities.
Take SB 809, signed into law by Governor Fallin a little more than a year ago. Prior to 2009, Oklahoma had an annual average of two earthquakes magnitude 3 or greater. In 2015, there were 907, part of a rash of earthquakes in the Central US that was enough for Oklahoma to top California as the most earthquake-prone state in the US. The US Geological Survey refers to these earthquakes as “injection induced seismicity”, which refers to the way the hydraulic fracking produces wastewater that causes earthquakes when it is injected back into the earth after the fracking process is done. Last year several Oklahoma municipalities felt strongly enough over these earthquakes that they attempted to issue drilling ordinances to regulate the fracking that was going on in their jurisdictions. The will of those municipalities was quickly disregarded, however, when Republican legislators started hearing from their oil and gas patrons, leading to SB 809, which states that municipalities “may not effectively prohibit or ban any oil and gas operations.” Our Oklahoma Republicans love small government, until angry donors start calling.
Realistically, it’s not going to surprise anyone that oil and gas lobbyists wield outsized influence in Oklahoma- at this point, that’s pretty much par for the course. One thing that a Republican legislature definitely would not do, though, is raise taxes on municipalities. After all, that’s basically what the small government mentality is- don’t take our money, and we’ll take care of ourselves. Oklahoma Republicans are really good at cutting taxes. Really, really good, so good that a state with a current budget deficit of $1.3 billion is estimated to lose over $1 billion annually because of income tax cuts. That deficit is why State Question 779 has been proposed as a way of funding education, since Republicans aren’t offering any other ways to get public education the funds that it needs.
Proposed by OU President and former Oklahoma Senator David Boren, SQ 779 is projected to generate $615 million a year via a one percent increase in the state sales tax. That’s a regressive policy that hurts those in lower income brackets more, because a higher portion of their income is dedicated to consumption, and in normal years it probably wouldn’t stand a chance of passing. In 2016 though, it needs to pass, because otherwise we’ll have hundreds of teacher vacancies and dozens of school districts on four-day weeks. It needs to pass, even though the sales tax is one of the primary and only sources of revenue for municipalities, and even though raising the state sales tax means that municipalities will now be working with less revenue and less ways to bring in revenue. The only other option our Republican legislators have left us with is to watch Oklahoma education drive off the same cliff that Kansas Republicans just steered their own education system over. Remember, we’re in this position because our Republican-controlled legislature failed to find a legislative solution to the budget crisis, with the Senate refusing to even consider a bill that would avert a scheduled income tax cut projected to lose the state around $150 million in FY2017.
There are plenty of other examples to point to, sadly. While Oklahoma Republicans steadfastly refuse a Medicaid expansion that would save the Oklahoma healthcare system an estimated $464 million over the next ten years, 56% of rural Oklahoma hospitals operated at a financial loss between 2009 and 2013. Instead of finding new revenue sources this past session, Oklahoma Republicans wasted all of our time with doomed-from-the-start HB 1552, which would have criminalized doctors who performed legal abortions and cost Oklahoma taxpayers millions in court fees, if Governor Fallin had not had the good sense to veto a clearly unconstitutional bill. There’s a well-established precedent in Oklahoma that puts the conservative orthodoxy of Republican legislators over the well-being of their Oklahoman constituents. How can you fight that? Vote Democrat.
 “North Carolina Bans Local Anti-Discrimination Policies,” last modified March 23rd, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/us/north-carolina-to-limit-bathroom-use-by-birth-gender.html
 “Injection-Induced Seismicity,” last modified December 2nd, 2013, http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/nca/seminars/2013-12-02/
 “Oklahoma’s Rise in Quakes Linked to Man-Made Causes,” last modified May 8th, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-oklahoma-rise-in-quakes-linked-to-man-made-causes/
 “Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote To Outlaw Fracking Bans,” last modified April 23rd, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/04/23/3650316/oklahoma-local-drilling-bans/
 “Bill Information for SB 809,” last modified May 25th, 2016, http://www.oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=sb809&Session=1600
 “The Cost of Tac Cuts in Oklahoma,” last modified January 12th, 2016, http://okpolicy.org/the-cost-of-tax-cuts-in-oklahoma/
 “Oklahoma One Percent Sales Tax,” last modified Spring 2016, https://ballotpedia.org/Oklahoma_One_Percent_Sales_Tax,_State_Question_779_(2016)
 “Revenue from Taxes,” last modified 2013, http://www.nlc.org/build-skills-and-networks/resources/cities-101/city-finances/local-revenue-structures/revenue-from-taxes
 “Kansas Supreme Court Rejects Lawmakers’ Bid To Fix Education Funding,” last modified May 27th, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/27/479792843/kansas-supreme-court-rejects-lawmakers-bid-to-fix-education-funding
 “Oklahoma Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Charge Abortion Doctors,” last modified May 20th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/21/us/oklahoma-governor-mary-fallin-vetoes-abortion-bill.html?_r=0