BY DAVID PERRYMAN
This summer will mark the 75th Anniversary of the original release of MGM’s Wizard of Oz. It’s amazing to think about my Mom and her friends standing in line in 1939 to buy a movie ticket for a showing at Carnegie’s Liberty Theater. That theater is Oklahoma’s longest continuously operating theater and will soon celebrate its centennial.
A couple of decades later, when I was born, the movie was shown annually on TV. Whether we were frightened by the Wicked Witch of the West, amused by the Munchkins, awed by the Technicolor cinematography or captivated by the award winning musical score, the pop culture of The Wizard of Oz impacted our lives. So important to American culture is the movie that the Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland now reside in the Smithsonian Institute.
However, nothing from the screenplay pervades our being more deeply than the quotes of the characters. Lines like, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” to “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” have been incorporated into the very being of generations of Americans. Because of this iconic movie, we all know that people who do good deeds are called “phila … er, phila … er, yes, er, Good Deed Doers.”
Upon being deposited in Munchkinland, courtesy of a tornado, Dorothy realizes that her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry will be missing her. Immediately, her desire to be with them and the safety of their turn-of-the-century Kansas farmstead becomes the enduring theme of the story.
Dorothy is advised that the all-powerful Wizard of Oz is surely her best hope to ever return home and that to get to Oz and, ultimately, to Kansas, she must “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” that conveniently started from right there in the middle of the village. Dorothy and Toto wasted no time in embarking on their journey.
Here in the heartland, Oklahoma shares much with Kansas. Geography, climate, rainfall, agricultural crops and tornado seasons make life similar, but Oklahoma’s current desire to emulate Kansas politics and Kansas fiscal policy may be the trait that is most onerous.
In 2013, Kansas faced a budgetary shortfall in excess of $700 million and that budgetary crisis placed core services such as education, roads, bridges and corrections at severe risk, resulting in core services being cut and deteriorated roads.
How did Kansas arrive at that crisis? By cutting income taxes and, therefore, cutting revenue without having the courage to eliminate tax credits, tax exemptions, tax moratoriums and government giveaways.
This condition did not arise overnight. As a result of this catastrophe, since 2011, 86 of Kansas’ 105 counties have been forced to increase property taxes to fill the gap left by reduced state funding and the income tax cuts.
To face the 2014 budget shortfalls, what was the response of the “conservative” Kansas governor and Legislature? Extend the 6.3% state sales tax; increase local real property taxes by as much as 5.7% in some counties; extend tax breaks and tax credits totaling millions of dollars to “small” businesses like Koch Industries; and eliminate wage earners’ income tax deductions like the home mortgage interest deduction and the real estate tax deduction.
Coupled with these “reforms” were attempts to destroy the independence of the Kansas judiciary by making appellate judges appointed by politicians.
Does all this sound familiar?
As a true fiscal conservative, I say that we should not go down that yellow brick road trying to get to Kansas. If Kansas wants a 6.3% state sales tax rate, I would rather stick with our statewide rate of 4%.
According to the latest OSF on the state of Oklahoma website, Oklahomans pay only 1.48% of their personal income on property taxes compared with 3.75% in Kansas and 3.96% in Texas. If Kansas wants to raise its property taxes, I say power to them.
If Kansas wants to destroy its educational system and its rural fire protection and its transportation system by eliminating its income tax and leaving tax credits and moratoriums in place, that is their business. Supporting the elimination of income tax would be an easy choice if elected officials would institute a fair and equitable tax policy to provide for the operation of government.
It is the people’s money; let’s stop giving it away as corporate tax credits, corporate tax exemptions and corporate tax moratoriums. When we have the courage to do that, then we can cure water problems, properly fund education, fix our roads and bridges, provide for fire protection and give it back to the people.
Likewise, we cannot afford to put all our eggs in one basket. As in Dorothy’s song – “the wind began to switch; the house, to pitch; and suddenly the hinges started to unhitch” – the oil and gas industry will not last forever. Those of us who saw it bust in the 1980’s during the Reagan years know that it is a matter of time until it happens again.
Cutting the income tax – our state’s primary revenue source – makes it impossible to meet our financial obligations unless we eliminate the $400 million that we annually give away in tax credits and eliminate the moratorium on $600 million more in taxes.
So the next time someone tries to take us down the yellow brick road to the “Kansas Model of Fiscal Irresponsibility,” remember Dorothy’s conversation with the Scarecrow when she asked him, “How do you talk if you don’t have a brain?” and his response, “Well, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking don’t they?”
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives