Debates or Predictions?

Image of Oklahoma state Capitol

A recent editorial in The Oklahoman asks an important question in its headline: “How much should we expect from state government, and at what cost?

The editorial goes on to quote the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which consistently addresses this issue in detail. OK Policy, which has pointed out the problems with a standstill budget for education, argues: “This makes the need all the more critical for an honest, well-informed debate about what we expect from state government, how much our obligations will cost, and how we will pay for them.”

The editorial also mentions state Treasurer Ken Miller as a moderate voice that could help determine just how much education should be funded.

I adamantly agree with the idea that the state needs “an honest, well-informed debate” about funding for state government and an honest assessment of what that funding actually purchases. I also agree that both OK Policy, led by David Blatt, and Miller, a Republican, can bring much-needed substance and honesty to the debate.

I framed the issue in a more partisan, perhaps blunter manner as the Oklahoma Legislature considered an income tax cut this year. In a May 24th post, I wrote:

If Republicans want to cut taxes, then they should cut taxes and specifically cite how much state government spending will be cut in the process. I’m adamantly opposed to any tax cuts right now, but at least this would be an honest and transparent approach. It would allow people to plan their lives. For example, if teachers know they’re going to lose their jobs, then at least they can take action.

I think most reasonable people, people not completely blinded by ideology, can agree that it’s vital to have a transparent approach to funding for state government and taxation issues. I also think most reasonable people would also conclude that revenue predictions should be based on accurate, specific information, not wishful thinking.

In an ideal world, there would be a consensus on these points, and we could tackle problems here and improve the quality of life.

But there’s never an ideal world. This is how Gov. Mary Fallin was quoted recently in a posted story about how she plans to push again for a tax cut next year:

What got lost in the debate this session and didn’t come out as clear as it should ... is that as you lower your income tax rate it makes your state more attractive to businesses that might not consider your state for expansion or relocate here in the first place.

When you lower that rate and you experience the strong growth that comes with lower income tax rates, then you grow the pie of revenue that you see coming into your state and that does help you provide more money for education, for roads and bridges, for public safety. It raises the salaries of our families and our employees.

I’m unsure Fallin’s argument “got lost” in the last legislative session, but my point here is not to overly criticize the governor. Many of her fellow Republicans here share her views. They control state government because the people elected them.

So I’m going to take Fallin at her word and accept that she really believes in her taxation philosophy and truly thinks cutting the income tax will lead to prosperity here.
But if we cut the income tax and reduce government spending, cutting education and core services even more, how soon will the “strong growth . . . grow the pie of revenue”? Will it be one year? Two years? Five years? What specific businesses will relocate or expand here after an income tax cut? Fallin’s prediction, well intentioned as it might be, is numberless.

Even if we concede Fallin’s overall argument is correct—and I absolutely do not—it still lacks the certainty and stability that has to go into creating a state budget.

The overall question becomes, then, if it’s even possible to have an honest debate about government funding, including funding for public education, given the views of the state’s top political leader. If a future income-tax cut is argued next year once again on a prediction without known variables, how does the debate about school funding even proceed?

How can Miller and OK Policy crunch the numbers when there are no numbers to crunch?