Oklahoma politicians from both parties have made a mess of state finances for the past decade. Republican and Democrat lawmakers have cut taxes, protected special interests and wound up in jail for criminal behavior. All the while, donkeys and elephants have taken hot, steaming dumps in the State Capitol’s press conference room for the public to … enjoy.
Arguing over which animal’s shit pile stands larger is irrelevant, particularly in its obvious answer. But poop is poop, and with one week left in the 2017 Oklahoma legislative session, both offending parties need to own their defecations and clean up the resultant messes, inside and out.
Nearly four months of posturing, duplicitous blame-gaming and personal-political-gain calculation has left Oklahoma’s already lean budget on the brink of disaster. Each day the parties cannot compromise, regular Oklahomans lose.
To that end, leadership and character have been largely absent at 23rd and Lincoln this session, even from people who are already campaigning for a 2018 gubernatorial election.
Take a look at what we’re dealing with here
Our publication caught House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) in a blatant lie Saturday. (He said three members of his caucus were at the Capitol on Friday when they said 20 minutes later by phone that they had flown to California around 6 a.m. Friday.)
Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb has refused to do an interview with this publication, and he spent Saturday tweeting about a fish fry, smack in the middle of Saturday’s pitiful inertia. He resigned from Gov. Mary Fallin’s cabinet in February for fear of having to be part of a revenue-raising budget solution. That’s a fine quality in a governor, to be sure.
Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz (R-Altus) has stopped taking questions from media, even when he calls press conferences to announce his chamber’s budget intentions.
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) hardly hides his cozy relationship to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and he seems genuinely uncomfortable trying to explain his own narrative at press conferences.
Senate Minority Leader John Sparks (D-Norman) might be a more honest politician than all those mentioned above, but his six-member caucus hardly holds any leverage and has thus far voted almost exclusively “no” on anything proposed.
Fallin peaks her head out of her office for press conferences every once in awhile, but for some confusing reason she has been neutralized as a voice of persuasion — even within the Republican Party she helped build for three decades.
Where does that leave Oklahomans? Hurting, fearful, angry and somewhat focused on a partisan blame game that provides cover for the petulant
children adults who can’t figure out how to tie the state’s financial shoes.
This is not a game
Hospitals are struggling. Medicaid provider rates are threatened. Mothers are worried their sick children may lose access to medication.
Schools have laid off staff, cut class time, lost teachers to other states and trimmed arts and athletics budgets. Colleges and universities have been slashed at a time when more Oklahomans need access to higher-education degrees just to keep up with workforce demands.
Road projects are at risk of delay, and transportation bonding capacity has been jeopardized. Child welfare programs are shrinking when they need to be growing. Hundreds of other state agencies have been cut deeply and face further attrition.
And why are Oklahoma legislators unable to close an $878 million budget gap (just to avoid further cuts, not to restore previously eliminated state services)?
Because, like the oblivious kids and the angry baboon in the video above, they lack the kind of leadership that prevents a very real threat from actually happening.
GOP leaders want to increase initial gross production taxes on oil and gas from 2 percent to 3 percent. Democrats are dug into the sand on a 5 percent demand. If only there were a number between three and five!
But that trade — GPT hike for cigarette tax increase — would only fill roughly one third of the budget hole. Are there other proposals out there to help? Indeed there are, but the parties remain unable to compromise on them, too.
A long-overdue raise to Oklahoma’s nation-low fuel tax could bring in about $185 million. Individuals and businesses passing through the Crossroads of America would likely pay more than one third of those taxes. (Inman disputes that number, for the record.)
A small raise to the state’s income tax on top earners could also bring in big bucks, although income taxes are the least popular taxes among the voting public.
But while Democrats demand income tax increases to pair with any fuel tax, surely some other offers — such as restoring the refundability of the Earned Income Tax Credit or modifying the itemized deductions that benefit higher-income Oklahomans — could bring them to the table.
Or at least those offers could if Democrats really want to see Republicans craft a solid budget. And, of course, Republicans themselves would really have to want to put the state’s interests first.
With the past three weeks of political shenanigans as our guide, neither condition seems patently true. Instead, lawmakers are playing legislative chicken, and the only people guaranteed to lose are average Oklahomans and their families.
In the end, the public likely finds the exact details surrounding a budget agreement irrelevant. They want their lawmakers to fund core services and stop flinging turds in the press room for all the state to see.
It’s starting to stink something fierce.