Lawmakers should follow
voters’ recent referendum
Legislators’ attempts to undo the work of Oklahoma voters from only three months ago is arrogant, undemocratic and should be rejected outright by other lawmakers.
In November, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved State Question 780, a smart-on-crime proposal that shortens potential prison terms for people convicted of petty drug and property crimes. Voters also strongly endorsed State Question 781, which would dedicate money saved from SQ 780 to substance abuse and mental health treatment programs designed to turn small-time criminals back into productive members of society.
The idea — which was clear to voters — was that it makes more sense to try to treat low-risk criminals and return them to the working world than it does to warehouse them in overcrowded and overly expensive prisons.
The first alternative creates taxpayers. The second creates career criminals. The first alternative reduces crime. The second robs schools, roads and other core government services of the money they need.
The ink was barely dry on that November vote before legislators were seeking to undo it.
State Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, has proposed a particularly brazen idea, reversing all of the voter-approved changes.
Other legislators have proposed less ultimate but equally wrong-headed revisions.
We’ll remind those legislators that the Oklahoma Constitution, which they have sworn to uphold and protect, provides for citizens legislation through initiative petitions such as those that led to SQ 780 and 781.
The same Constitution also says, “All political power is inherent in the people; and government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and to promote their general welfare; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it….”
If legislators don’t think their local voters understood what they were voting on, shame on the legislators. As local political leaders, they should have been making sure the word was out.
We, on the other hand, believe the voters knew what they were doing and were wise in doing it. We also think that legislators would be wise to act like the people aren’t stupid and their opinions matter, even if those lawmakers don’t believe it.
The Journal Record
Enhance transparency by
keeping businesses public
State Sen. David Holt is at it again. And thank goodness for that.
Holt, R-Oklahoma City, has been a champion of keeping the public’s business public. Last year, he filed Senate Bill 1299, a short, simple, bill — just a single page that says, “The Office of the Attorney General shall establish and implement an ombudsman program to assist the citizens of this state in the operation and enforcement of the requirements of the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act . and the Oklahoma Open Records Act ..”
It never got out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, refused to hear it.
That was poorly considered. Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he wasn’t opposed to the idea; he went so far as to direct his staff to look into the Texas system that served as the model.
Holt’s proposal, back this year as SB 356, would not require the attorney general to establish a new office, hire anyone, or spend any more money. Quite the opposite: Holt’s bill would save taxpayers the cost of litigating many of the open government concerns raised by the public. In Texas, the attorney general maintains a hotline for open-records and open-meetings questions. When there’s a disagreement about whether a particular document is subject to the act, either party may contact the ombudsman who quickly — usually within an hour or two — responds with previous AG opinions or applicable statutes that provide guidance. It’s non-binding, but it avoids a lot of drawn-out, costly legal battles.
When a member of the public, often a member of the press, asks for a document the record-keeper believes must remain confidential, there’s a quick, painless way to settle the dispute that doesn’t require a lawsuit or criminal complaint. If the record-keeper disagrees with the guidance, she may still decline to produce the document and let a judge decide. Similar disputes over executive session agendas, or what constitutes a meeting can also be resolved quickly.
In Oklahoma, the attorney general cannot provide legal opinions to the public. But as the general counsel to state agencies, boards and commissions, the AG would be doing his clients a great service by helping resolve questions quickly and inexpensively and avoiding litigation. Further, he would be providing a great service to Oklahomans.
This is an opportunity to enhance government transparency. Sen. Sykes should welcome it with enthusiasm.
Lawmakers don’t have
to agree, just negotiate
Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address and proposed budget make one thing clear: She’s not being timid or ducking issues because they might be controversial.
Fallin has called for dramatic changes in Oklahoma’s tax system. The top-line figures are eye-catching. Roughly $1 billion in tax increases of various stripes are included in her budget, partially offset by repeal of the sales tax on groceries and corporate income tax.
The short-term goal is to address an $868 million shortfall without cutting state spending further. Fallin argues the longer-term goal is to adjust Oklahoma’s tax system to better reflect the modern economy. This is especially true of her call to begin taxing many services that are now untaxed. Oklahoma’s economy is more service-driven than ever. Therefore, the governor argues, the tax system should be broader to reflect those changes.
This is the fourth year in a row Oklahoma has faced a budget shortfall (ranging from $188 million to $1.3 billion). Fallin suggests that trend will continue unless Oklahoma’s tax system is restructured.
Of course, a plan that broadens the tax base without increasing the overall tax burden would be an easier sell than one retaining much of the current system while adding taxes into the mix. Thus, Fallin’s plan is likely to draw strong resistance from some quarters. And to become law, any tax increase must receive the support of three-fourths of the members of both legislative chambers.
That last requirement means Democrats have a role to play in this process. Although Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, no one expects 100 percent of the Republican caucus to embrace every tax change proposed by Fallin. Therefore, Democratic support may be required to pass any of these proposals, particularly in the House.
Despite their often-loud objections to cutting government, Democrats have proven unwilling to support even sensible tax measures in the past. Just last year, unified Democratic opposition to increasing the tobacco tax killed that idea in the House. Fallin notes that ultimately left Oklahoma facing a larger budget shortfall this year.
Fallin is again calling for raising the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack, and she wants to raise the fuel tax. We’ll soon know if Democrats’ actions match their rhetoric.
In terms of growing the economy, there could be more benefit to Fallin’s plan if it reduced the income tax rate as the sales tax rate was broadened. Repeal of the sales tax on groceries, while no doubt welcomed by consumers, isn’t likely to make Oklahoma a more attractive place to invest and create jobs. But Fallin admits the grocery tax repeal was included, in part, to give her plan greater appeal to Democrats whose support will be required. While grocery tax repeal doesn’t provide much fuel to the state economy, it does reduce the tax burden of the poor.
Critics will resort to class-warfare rhetoric regarding the governor’s call to repeal Oklahoma’s corporate income tax. Yet that tax source swings wildly from year to year, creating constant budget challenges. The instability created often exceeds any benefit derived, and its repeal could make Oklahoma more attractive to new businesses.
To her credit, Fallin also has endorsed cost-savings measures such as administrative consolidation in small schools, and she’s supported education savings accounts that can increase education options for parents while also allowing limited tax dollars to go further. Lawmakers should embrace those ideas, and offer similar measures to generate further savings in this tough budget climate, particularly if they choose not to support Fallin’s tax measures.
The governor’s bold plan is only the opening bid in the budget process. Legislators don’t have to agree with her plan, but they should offer counterproposals that reflect similar vision and focus.