BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
The numbers are worse than we thought: State lawmakers will have $309.6 million less to spend next year than they had last spring.
Government-haters will no doubt be cheering. But those who care about improving roads and education or caring for the mentally ill and poor – just to cite a few key areas – will be disheartened.
Next year’s shrinking pot comes on the heels of FY 2009’s standstill, no-growth budget – which translated into real budget cuts when inflation and other factors were included.
At a Capitol briefing today, state Treasurer Scott Meacham tried mightily to pump the darkening revenue picture full of sunshine, arguing things aren’t as bleak in Oklahoma as other states – and certainly not as bleak as when Gov. Henry’s administration took over in 2003.
He also asserted that a series of income tax cuts in recent years – promoted by Republicans, embraced by some Democrats and signed into law by Gov. Henry – really hadn’t made matters worse.
Really? He noted that the tax cuts now are having about a $580 million annual impact on state revenues. But he contended Oklahoma’s budget crisis wouldn’t have been appreciably different had there been no tax cuts.
His point: The money lost to tax cuts would have been spent by lawmakers, resulting in a larger overall budget – yet the revenue shortfall ratio would have been about the same.
He may be right, but he’s missing a larger, more important point: During a time of plenty – i.e. skyrocketing oil and gas production tax revenues – Oklahoma could have used the revenue to make impressive investments in its pitiful infrastructure.
How about replacing overcrowded, crumbling prisons – like the century-old state penitentiary in McAlester? How about increasing education spending to the regional average? How about bolstering CareerTech to ensure thousands on the waiting list can be trained [a highly-skilled workforce is a magnet to help attract the kind of industry and good-paying jobs – which produces even more tax revenue – the state so desperately needs]?
How about a campaign to more quickly replace Oklahoma’s worst-in-the-nation bridges? How about seriously investing in mass transit? And, yes, how about raising teacher salaries so we can attract, and retain, the best-and-brightest?
The darkening revenue clouds, of course, haven’t stopped lawmakers from proposing even more tax cuts.
The latest: Rep. Eric Proctor of Tulsa and Sen. Kenneth Corn of Poteau, both Democrats, want to eliminate the sales tax on guns and ammunition.
This is another in a long series of legislative pucker-ups – smooches firmly planted on the National Rifle Association’s derriere.
How about we have a serious discussion of this idea … after lawmakers have a serious discussion of eliminating the sales taxes on groceries?
Can anyone argue with a straight face that it’s OK to create a tax-free zone around guns and ammo, while mommas are forced to pay sales tax on milk for their babies?