BY DAVID PERRYMAN
This week’s article is not a study on Chapter 6, Verse 24 of the Gospel of Matthew. It isn’t even an analysis of Aesop’s Fable of the Battle between the Beasts and Birds. It is, however, an illustration that is based simply on the type of common sense that is sorely missing at the state Capitol.
The Oklahoma Legislature has just concluded week four of the 2017 special session. Having been tasked by the governor to fix the budget shortfall caused by the illegal cigarette tax fee, find a long-term solution to repeated budget shortfalls and a way to fund teacher salaries, lawmakers continue to come up short.
A midweek proposal consisted of 1] a $1.50 cigarette tax increase; 2] a 6-cent per gallon, at the pump, increase in gasoline and diesel fuel; and 3] a miniscule income tax increase on high income earners. The proposal left no new money for roads and bridges and leaves Oklahoma with a $400 million budget hole to begin the next year. However, the most frustrating aspect of the plan is that it eliminates the possibility of an increase in the gross production tax.
The fact that the Legislature continues, at all costs, to block an increase in GPT underscores the most egregious aspect of Oklahoma politics over the past 10 years. Oklahoma has too many legislators who have forgotten that their master should be the people of the state of Oklahoma. Serving two masters has never worked in any situation.
Imagine one day you have just met with your attorney and as you are leaving his office, the opposing party enters for an appointment with your lawyer. Suddenly, you realize that the same lawyer intends to represent you both. Doesn’t work, does it?
It doesn’t work in state government, either. Legislators who are more concerned about winning their next election tend to bend to the will of lobbyists and thereby place what is right for Oklahoma constituents on the back burner.
Any elected official who has been purchased lock, stock and barrel by the oil and gas industry to the extent that they will not even consider or negotiate an increase in the gross production tax has chosen his master to the detriment of the best interest of the people of his district.
Likewise, any elected official who has signed a pledge to never, under any circumstances vote for a tax increase has opted to either ignore the needs of the people of Oklahoma or become a liar. The group that promotes that pledge vows that government should be so small and ineffective that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Unfortunately, because Oklahomans bought into that rhetoric, those who signed the pledge have succeeded and they are drowning our children, our elderly and those who have mental illnesses in that same bathtub.
The two master syndrome also occurs when a lobbyist representing an industry or organization allows his or her personal political beliefs to take precedence over the well-being of the industry or the members of the organization. A recent example occurred when an organization made up of rural Oklahomans had retained a lobbyist and instead of supporting policies that would enhance Oklahoma, the lobbyist supported partisan candidates and partisan policies that actually undermined rural schools, fire protection, health care and other programs that were essential to life in the rural parts of Oklahoma.
Likewise, associations purporting to represent the best interest of member organizations can undermine the stability of the member organizations themselves. This past week, an association that had nothing to do with the oil and gas industry ran to the aid of the oil and gas industry with TV and social media blitzes calculated to pressure legislators into passing a cigarette tax and thereby foregoing a gross production tax increase that is the only path toward funding core services like mental health, roads and teacher salaries.
The association claimed that the cigarette tax would bring health benefits to our state. However, if the association were honestly pursuing the better health for Oklahomans, it should have used its influence to pressure the governor and those legislators who continue to block the $3.6 billion in federal funds over seven years that would have had a real impact on the long term health of Oklahomans and the financial stability of Oklahoma’s rural hospitals whose current red ink puts them at risk of shutting down
Legislators need to be reminded that the master they were elected to serve is the best interest of the people of Oklahoma, not corporate campaign contributors or the lobbyists who shuttle money.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House
Editor’s Note: The agreement announced today by Gov. Mary Fallin and Republican legislative leaders did not include any changes in the gross production tax – the nation’s lowest – or in income taxes for the state’s highest earners. If today’s proposal were to become law, the lion’s share of new taxes would be borne by Oklahoma’s working class. The GOP leadership hailed proposed pay increases for teachers and state workers, as well as a restoration of the earned income tax credit, but it’s a bad deal. Lawmakers should demand all Oklahomans – including the wealthy elite – pay their fair share to underwrite vital state services.