BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
What’s gotten in to House Republicans?
And whatever became of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment? You know, Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.
Today’s war of words between state Rep. David Dank of OKC and House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa over Dank’s property tax proposal is more evidence that the era of a lock-step GOP is over – at least in Oklahoma.
There already was considerable drama over how the GOP’s legislative majorities would deal with current budget cuts and a $1.3 billion budget hole next year. Now, less than two weeks before the session opens Feb. 1, House Republicans are battling in ways that would make a Democrat blush.
As I noted in a recent Observer column [1.10.10]:
These days, Dank often casts his lot with a growing, ultra-conservative Republican faction in the House that includes the likes of Reps. Sue Tibbs and Mike Ritze from the Tulsa area Reps. Mike Reynolds and Sally Kern from OKC.
These lawmakers, and a dozen or more like them, are increasingly creating headaches for the corporate conservatives whose primary role is to do the State Chamber’s bidding. With increasing frequency, they demonstrate an unwillingness to remain mum and play nice, as Republicans past were expected to do.
And they demand their pet issues be heard – which is why the House, wrestling last spring with the fallout from a collapsing economy, spent so much time on wacky non-essentials including whether to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds, condemn the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or demand the federal government not transfer any Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Oklahoma.
Dank’s statement today came only about a month after someone leaked a two-page, supposedly confidential memo he wrote to members of the GOP House caucus, complaining Benge “misrepresented” his property tax proposal.
He also urged his colleagues not to roll over for the House powers-that-be.
“We should be making independent decisions,” he wrote, “rather than being dictated to by a chosen few.”
Here are Dank’s and Benge’s dueling news releases today, neither of which – interestingly – was posted on the House web site:
Dank to Benge: Step Up or Step Down on Property Tax Reform
The state representative who has been most active in pushing for property tax reform today urged House Speaker Chris Benge to “step up on this vital issue or step down and let someone else lead the House” in enacting it.
“I was frankly astonished by the Speaker’s recent statements in opposition to these simple and fair reforms,” said state Rep. David Dank (R-Oklahoma City), who has authored measures that would cap annual property tax increases at 3 percent, and freeze those taxes for seniors over 65.
“Not only are his statements out of touch with the core Republican principle of limited government we were sent here to espouse, they are factually incorrect,” Dank said.
He said his property tax reforms would result in no revenue reductions to schools or counties, and would have no impact on the state budget. Benge was quoted as claiming they would “reduce revenue.”
“How is a 3-percent annual increase a reduction?” Dank said. “The simple truth is that we have a built-in annual tax increase for literally thousands of Oklahoma homeowners during a severe recession. At the current 5-percent rate of increase, when you compound it, that amounts to doubling everyone’s property taxes every 13 years. That’s just wrong and I am baffled that a Republican Speaker is opposed to alleviating it.
“Speaker Benge needs to step up on this vital issue by allowing the House to vote on it or step down and let someone else lead the House to make it happen,” Dank said. “It is especially troubling that he continues to oppose sensible property tax reform when the Senate Republican Caucus has made it a centerpiece of their 2010 legislative agenda. Honestly, either he just doesn’t get it or he is carrying water for those special interests who think the higher the taxes–the better. I know I am not the only one in the House who is terribly disappointed with Speaker Benge.”
Dank said many of his fellow GOP House members have told him they are eager to support the two property tax reforms. He said several Democrats have also voiced their support.
“I am convinced the votes are there in the House and Senate to send these reforms to a vote of the people,” he said. “Right now, one man is standing in the way.
“When I discussed this initially with Speaker Benge he told me that if we put these two measures on the ballot to let the people decide–they would pass,” Dank said. “I told him that was the whole idea. We’re here to represent the taxpayers—not the special interests.”
Dank’s twin measures “are not tax cuts, but tax restraints,” he said. “All we are asking is that we slow the annual growth in property taxes and freeze these increases for seniors, who are often on fixed incomes. These measures would not reduce ad valorem revenues by one thin dime. They would have zero impact on the state budget. The Speaker is simply wrong on that.”
Dank said he would be happy to work with Benge on repealing a number of questionable tax credits which are costing state coffers millions in annual revenue.
“Unfortunately Speaker Benge was the House author of a bill that authorized some of these costly transferable tax credits that drain millions from the state budget without any transparency, accountability, and without creating a single job,” Dank said.
Dank said if the Legislature fails to act on his twin property tax reforms, a much more drastic limitation similar to California’s Proposition 13 is likely to be introduced by initiative petition.
“People see school districts giving large raises to superintendents and counties trying to raise executive salaries at the same time they are pleading poverty and threatening to lay off front line workers. Taxpayers have simply had enough,” he said. “These sensible reforms would allow reasonable revenue growth and curtail those abuses. I call on Speaker Benge to bring them to the floor early in the 2010 session or return to the ranks and allow us to choose a Speaker more in tune with the people’s will.”
Benge fired back this afternoon:
“Rep. Dank’s efforts to question my commitment to limited government and low taxes for Oklahoma families is nothing more than political grandstanding at its worst. I have personally discussed this issue at length with Rep. Dank, and have offered him a compromise on the senior tax freeze legislation that he flat rejected,” said House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa.
“I have been actively involved in lowering our state’s income tax rate, raising the standard deduction, eliminating the estate tax, eliminating the franchise tax on small businesses and was a co-author on legislation in 2004 to raise the income cap allowing more senior citizens to freeze their property taxes.
“In Oklahoma County, seniors with income up to $58,500 can freeze their property taxes. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, our state has the 2nd lowest property taxes in the country, and such a distinction has helped make Oklahoma an attractive place to live and do business.
“But, I have always believed a fiscally responsible approach to both government spending and tax relief is needed to strike a balance between allowing Oklahomans to keep more of their hard-earned dollars and attracting businesses to our state while also funding the vital government services like education upon which Oklahomans rely.
“There is no doubt that Rep. Dank’s measures will directly affect local school budgets, at a time when schools are already struggling. A large part of our school funding system is based on local control, which is a core conservative principle.Yes, there are areas of waste in all of government, and we are actively working to streamline government services and most efficiently use taxpayer dollars.
“Rep. Dank and I have a fundamental disagreement on how to handle tax relief in the coming years. It disappoints me that Rep. Dank has taken the position that if you disagree with him, your position no longer matters. I am personally offended by his questioning of my motives in the position I have taken. If House members were to follow his suggested course of action and remove the leader every time a policy disagreement arises, the House would have a new Speaker every day.
“I have made my position on this issue very clear, and am willing to work with other legislators to determine the best course of action as we handle this issue constructively. I have had many constituents over the years tell me to go to the Capitol and do what is right, and that is what I am trying to do here,” Benge concluded.
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer