BY DAVID PERRYMAN
In case you haven’t heard, the state’s budget is in a lurch. In what may be the most predictable decision of the century, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last week that the leadership in the Oklahoma Legislature violated the Oklahoma Constitution when they passed SB 845 to increase cigarette taxes.
It isn’t that Oklahoma doesn’t need the revenue. Over the past decade, state income tax rates for high income earners have been cut from 7% to 5% and the 7% gross production tax rate traditionally paid by oil and gas companies has been lowered to 1% and 2% during the periods when the wells are most productive.
As a result, decreased revenues cause most Oklahoma agencies to employ far fewer people than they did in 2006, even though the population has grown and the state struggles to provide services.
For instance, the Department of Public Safety has curtailed operations to the point that today only a limited number of counties have driver examination testing centers and residents must drive up to an hour or more to stand in long pre-dawn lines at a first come, first served testing center.
The story is the same in other agencies. The number of full time Department of Human Services workers has decreased by approximately 8% over the past decade while caseloads have skyrocketed.
Also, budget cuts have resulted in the closure of state parks and other recreational areas. Not only are citizens prevented from enjoying some of our most beautiful natural resources, small businesses all across the state that once benefitted from our once thriving tourism industry have been negatively impacted.
So what do we do about revenue?
Democrats say that our current tax system disproportionately burdens the working class and poor and that any increase in sales, tobacco or fuel taxes would simply further shift the tax burden to those who right now are just getting by.
Republicans refuse to consider a reversal of the state income tax cuts or a restoration of the gross production tax rates on oil and gas companies.
In 1992, Oklahoma voters adopted SQ 640, requiring the vote of at least 75% of both houses of the Legislature to increase taxes. That equates to 76 votes in the House and 36 votes in the Senate. Even though Republicans outnumber the Democrats in the state House by 74-27 and in the state Senate by 39-9, the Republicans cannot increase sales taxes or tobacco taxes or fuel taxes without at least three or four Democratic votes.
Democrats have been resolute that they are not willing to vote in favor of a sales tax increase on any items, including cigarettes or vehicles, if the Republicans don’t make high-income earners and oil and gas companies pay their fair share of taxes.
Rather than reverse any of the income tax cuts or restore the oil and gas tax rate, the Republicans chose to enact tax increases on the sale of tobacco and automobiles and ended up with the decision issued by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The current impasse brings to mind a story about five Chinese brothers from one of my grade school readers. It was written by Claire Hutchet Bishop in 1938 but was based on a legendary Chinese folk tale. The story involved a family whose five sons looked exactly alike and each possessed a special talent. One could swallow the sea, one had an iron neck, one could stretch his legs for miles, one could not be burned and one could hold his breath forever.
The story begins when the brother who could swallow the sea was gathering fish from the bottom of the sea. When that brother agreed to allow a young boy to accompany him, the youngster ignores the brother’s repeated warning to go to higher ground. When the brother can no longer hold the sea, the young boy is drowned. The village charges the brother with murder and sentences him to death.
One by one, unbeknownst to the villagers, the four remaining brothers each assume the condemned brother’s place and each use their own superhuman ability to survive (one cannot be beheaded, one cannot be drowned, one cannot be burned, and one cannot be suffocated). At the end of the story, a judge decrees that the accused must have been innocent, since he could not be executed.
The legend originates from the Ming Dynasty and is over 600 years old. Each adaption varies slightly with some accounts having as many as 10 brothers. The lesson however, is always the same. The brothers are only able to survive by working in unity. That is a lesson that lawmakers should heed.
The current impasse is detrimental to the citizens of our state. Voters want lawmakers to work together for a bi-partisan solution. SQ 640 forces that cooperation. Negotiation is the only path to resolution. It is past time to negotiate and all things must be on the table.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House