Legislature Needs to ‘Do the Right Thing’
By State Rep. David Perryman
There is a line in C.S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in which Susan, one of the children who discovered the Kingdom of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe, expressed fear when she learned that King Aslan, whom she would be meeting, was not a man but instead was a lion, the lion, the Great Lion…the King of the Beasts. When she inquired if he was safe, she was told, “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
Susan was one of the four Pevensie siblings who were evacuated from London to the safety of the English countryside during the aerial blitz by the German Luftwaffe. It is little wonder that Susan’s main concern when she was told of the Lion was whether she would be in danger.
Culturally, we are taught to avoid risks and potential danger by making safe choices that best protect and preserve ourselves and our self-interests. This instinct is so strong that from an early age we automatically weigh danger and safety and assess risk and reward.
When it comes to politics and the politicians whose lives are immersed in the political process, the instinct of self-preservation is paramount.
Most times, the right choice is not the safest choice and currently Oklahoma and Oklahomans are suffering the consequences of that fact.
For a dozen years Oklahoma politicians have pandered to wealthy campaign contributors and corporate interests that know how to use money to manipulate elected officials. As a result, the top income tax rates have been cut, costing Oklahoma’s state government more than $1 billion per year.
During that same period, energy companies that use their funds to “make legislators’ worlds go round” have been rewarded with tax credits and incentives and the lowest gross production tax rate in the country. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, these subsidies cost the state $427 million last year and are projected to top $500 million in 2018.
Every core service of state government is on life support. Oklahoma teacher pay is among the lowest in the country and again this year education in our state has suffered the deepest cuts in the nation. Like teachers, most other state employees have gone a decade without a raise.
Joe Allbaugh, Oklahoma’s director of the Corrections Department, says that more than one in three of his employees; families qualify for food stamps, and when he spoke in Lawton last week he reported that he is seeing a 40% turnover, primarily because DOC employees can earn more money working for 7-Eleven. He reports that his budget has been “cut to the bone” and inmates who serve their time are released without receiving programs to assist them to become productive citizens, increasing the chances that they will re-enter the correctional system.
Mental health, health care, child welfare, senior nutrition, roads and bridges are all in crisis mode, and the ability of the state to respond is virtually non-existent.
During the past week Oklahoma experienced another revenue failure, meaning that receipts were less than 95% of the budgeted amount. In response to that, our overall weak revenue collections and our reliance on one-time sources of revenue, S&P Global Ratings lowered the state’s general obligation bond rating and the state’s appropriation debt rating. The lowering of Oklahoma’s credit rating could lead to higher interest rates on the state’s bond debt.
Finally the State Finance Director and the State Treasurer have admitted that Oklahoma has a revenue problem and not a spending problem. Treasurer Ken Miller went so far as to write in the Oklahoma Economic Report that, “It’s The Revenue, Stupid” and “the long and short of it is Oklahoma needs more recurring revenue” and not “falsely propped up budgets that have exacerbated the problem.”
Disappointingly, the Speaker of the House announced this week that his focus was not on revenue but he was instead looking at ways to decrease expenses, sending a clear signal that Republicans in the House have no plan to solve the state’s budget problem.
The House Appropriations and Budget Chair lamented last week in The Oklahoman that most state agencies have already weathered 40% cuts in the past decade and she doesn’t want to take “Oklahoma down the path of Kansas, where draconian tax cuts have been devastating.” Unfortunately, she has already done just that by being the House author and/or lead debater on the House floor of two of Oklahoma’s last three “draconian tax cuts.”
There are cries of “do the right thing and raise the cigarette tax.” Oklahoma is not in a budget crisis because the cigarette tax is $1.03 rather than $2.53 per pack.
Doing the right thing is having the political courage to FIX THE BUDGET. The budget will not be fixed by an additional $1.50 in cigarette taxes that will generate less than 8% of the revenue that will be necessary to fix the budget problem.
Doing the right thing is having the political courage to reach a “Grand Bargain” to fix the budget problem so that teachers and other state employees will get raises and that mental health and DOC and child welfare and roads and bridges will be funded.
Doing the right thing is rolling back income tax cuts on the wealthy and raising gross production taxes to 5% and coupling that with a tax increase on all forms of tobacco.
Doing the right thing may not be the safe thing when it comes to being re-elected, but doing the right thing is ALWAYS the right thing.
(Representative Perryman is a Democrat from Chickasha.)