BY MIKE W. RAY
Wow. That was brave.
I can’t think of anyone who’s busting a gut to see his or her taxes raised.
I dislike having to pay taxes as much as the next person. But I also subscribe to the belief expressed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1927 case that taxes are “what we pay for civilized society … ”
Todd Lamb, one of six Republican candidates for governor, made his “courageous” declaration the day after SoonerPoll announced the results of its latest survey.
It showed that Lamb, who’s been running for governor for at least two years and has raised more than $2 million to finance his campaign, is trailing Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who declared his candidacy about eight months ago. Cornett currently leads Lamb by six points – 23.9% for the mayor to 17.6% for the lieutenant governor.
Regardless of the campaign contributions he’s raked in from his GOP supporters, Lamb has dropped nearly 15 points in the polls since last August.
Perhaps that’s because while Todd Lamb has told us what he’s against, we have no idea what he’s for.
OTC RECORDS SHOW ENERGY INDUSTRY GETS SEVERAL TAX BREAKS
We will start with Mr. Lamb’s statement in Stillwater of his opposition to any increase in gross production taxes on oil and gas wells. OK. Apparently he thinks the energy industry is already paying its fair share.
But then he claimed that, “Every incentive the oil and gas industry has had in Oklahoma over the years is gone. There’s no incentive.”
Hogwash! [Actually, bovine excrement would be a more accurate epithet.] The Oklahoma Policy Institute has calculated that tax breaks save the oil and gas industry in this state nearly $400 million.
Besides the lowering of the gross production tax, producers can claim an oil/gas depletion allowance; a state income-tax deduction is authorized as an allowance for depletion based upon the cost of oil and gas deposits. The tax break was claimed on 95,498 tax returns in 2015-16, saving those taxpayers $19.1 million, Oklahoma Tax Commission records reflect.
Another energy industry tax exclusion is the sales tax exemption for electricity consumed in oilfield enhanced recovery operations – like “fracking,” the process employed on almost all wells drilled in Oklahoma today. The energy industry saves nearly $2 million a year on that one.
But that’s just pocket change. If you want more proof, here it is: the Oklahoma Tax Commission’s 2015-16 biennial report on tax credits, deductions, rebates and exemptions. In particular, scroll down to pages 81-83: “IX: Gross Production and Petroleum Excise Tax.” Collectively the tax breaks for the energy industry added up to nearly half a billion dollars.
GOVERNOR SUGGESTS MODIFICATION OF TAX BREAKS
In Stillwater, Mr. Lamb said he wants to increase teacher pay, and said state tax revenue could be boosted by eliminating some of the state sales-tax exemptions and modifying some income tax deductions and credits. However, he didn’t specify which tax breaks he would modify or eliminate altogether.
Well, Mr. Lamb, here’s the list of state sales tax exemptions to accompany the more extensive list of tax breaks previously mentioned.
There are 76 separate categories. Stop being vague and evasive. Tell us which one[s], specifically, that you’d repeal.
Would it be the ones for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? The Campfire Girls? The Boys and Girls Clubs of America? The YMCA, YWCA and/or youth camps? Youth athletic teams? Various charitable health organizations?
Disabled American military veterans, perhaps? Or an authorized household member of a totally disabled veteran? Oklahoma chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars? The National Guard Association or the Marine Corps League of Oklahoma?
School foundations? Parent-teacher associations? Public schools? Private elementary/secondary schools? According to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, public/private schools saved $7.6 million in sales taxes on their fundraisers in 2015-16.
How about churches? Or children’s homes supported by churches? Shelters for abused, neglected or abandoned children? Museums?
The National Rifle Association or other organizations that “defend 2nd Amendment rights”? Or preservation and conservation of wild turkeys, or preservation of wetlands and habitat for wild ducks? Trying to eliminate those tax exemptions would win you about as many votes as going after churches in this state.
Meals on Wheels? Agricultural production or production of agricultural products?
Volunteer fire departments? According to the state Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry, there are more than 900 volunteer fire departments in this state. Besides the departments’ sales-tax exemption, volunteer firefighters who complete annual continuing education, training and certification requirements qualify for an income tax credit; that tax break was claimed on 2,239 income-tax returns in 2015-16, saving those firefighters $723,000.
Maybe Mr. Lamb opposes the sales-tax exemption for non-profit rural water districts? Or the one for rural electric co-operatives, which had $7.36 million in tax-exempt purchases in 2015-16 and which also are exempt from state income taxes? Cable TV providers? Computer services?
How about Oklahoma coal mining? That industry receives a sales-tax exemption, plus a coal production income-tax credit that saved mine operators almost $4 million in 2015-16. Would we see Republican Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb taking a public stance in opposition to an industry that’s strongly supported by Republican President Donald Trump, who carried Oklahoma overwhelmingly in the 2016 general election?
Each and every sales tax exemption the Legislature has approved has a constituency; I know, because in the 19 years I worked on the staff of the Oklahoma House of Representatives I watched as many of those tax exemptions were adopted. Does Todd Lamb have the courage to publicly oppose any of them?
WHAT, SPECIFICALLY, WOULD YOU DO, MR. LAMB?
Tell us, Mr. Lieutenant Governor, what you as governor, the chief executive officer of the state of Oklahoma, would do to resolve this state’s fiscal crisis. Oklahoma’s state government revenue shortfall over the past five consecutive years has totaled more than $3.3 billion; the deficit was $1.3 billion in one year alone.
Teachers have been fleeing Oklahoma for Texas, Arkansas and other states that pay thousands of dollars more in salaries. Emergency teaching certificates have reached record levels. Approximately 100 school districts have scaled back to four-day weeks to save money. Several schools are using outdated, tattered textbooks because the Legislature hasn’t appropriated enough money to buy replacements.
School teachers haven’t received a pay raise from the state in about nine years. For that matter, neither have state employees [although Gov. Mary Fallin has authorized big fat raises for several agency chiefs in recent years].
The Department of Human Services budget has been reduced by 29% over the last eight years; hundreds of employees have been let go or furloughed. Several nutrition sites where senior citizens received at least one hot meal a day have closed.
For a time the Oklahoma Highway Patrol limited its troopers to a maximum 100 miles of travel per day.
The state Health Department budget has been cut by at least 25% in recent years. Oklahoma nursing homes have endured $93 million in state and federal budget cuts since 2010. The funding for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services was reduced by $14 million between FY ‘15 and FY ‘17.
Because of inadequate funding, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority has repeatedly pared health-care provider rates. More than 807,000 Oklahomans – two-thirds of them children – were enrolled in SoonerCare, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program for low-income families, in November.
Oklahoma’s poverty rate has been higher than the national average for the last nine years. More than 620,000 Oklahomans – 16% of the state’s population – had incomes that fell below the federal poverty level in 2016.
The Legislature has repeatedly raided the savings account that county commissioners across the state rely on to finance big-ticket projects; consequently, dozens of county road and bridge improvement projects have been stalled or scrapped entirely.
The state’s swollen prison population continues to grow at an unsustainable rate, while prison facilities continue to suffer from neglect.
Appropriations by the Legislature to the Department of Corrections are less today than they were a decade ago: $482.6 million in FY ‘08 vs. $480 million in FY ‘17. For the second consecutive year the Department of Corrections has proposed a budget of $1.5 billion, largely to finance two new prisons; to maintain existing facilities, two of which are more than a century old; and to provide pay raises to woefully underpaid correctional officers.
The list goes on and on, but you get the drift.
The lieutenant governor who wants to be governor should tell us, plainly and clearly, how he would handle this issue.
And while you’re at it, Mr. Lamb, tell us what – if anything – you did during the six years you were in the state Senate, and the last seven years you’ve been lieutenant governor, to solve any of the crises with which this state has been coping for several years.
– Mike W. Ray retired in 2017 after a 45-year career as a journalist on newspapers in Oklahoma and Texas, two years in public relations with Southwestern Bell Telephone, plus 19 years as a media director at the Oklahoma House of Representatives