Lawmakers Should Review Tax Exemptions

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The Oklahoma Policy Institute is urging state lawmakers to review tax breaks given to oil and gas producers as the economy continues to decline.

"As the state begins to wrestle with what looks to be enormous and prolonged budget shortfalls, this seems to be the right time for policymakers to carefully review the tax breaks being offered to oil and gas producers and to consider whether there should be some appropriate caps placed on the amount of tax rebates that can be claimed," said David Blatt, OK Policy's Director of Policy, in a press release issued last week.

According to OK Policy, producers have collected $339 million in exemptions over the last five years. A recent study cited by OK Policy showed the tax breaks had little effect on a company’s decision to drill a new well.

OK Policy would like to see more caps on the tax exemptions.

"Applying the cap that is currently in place for deep well drilling to other exempted production, or creating an overall cap on gross production tax rebates would create greater budget certainty over the coming years," said Blatt. "We know that schools, social services, public safety and other vital areas of the state budget are looking at deep cuts. In this environment, limiting the tax breaks offered to producers seems a reasonable way to minimize the impact of cuts to core services and ensure that sacrifices are shared."

OK Policy’s suggestion is prudent and responsible given the state’s current precarious financial situation.

OK Policy is a think tank that works on issues related to poverty and economic opportunity. It provides significant statistical information related to the state’s budget as well.


Oklahoma GOP Schism?

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(What's the difference between pro-life and pro-life intimidation? Read DocHoc's commentary this week in the state's finest alternative publication, the Oklahoma Gazette.)

Has the Oklahoma Republican corporate power structure finally hit the breaking point with GOP social conservatives?

It’s difficult not to ask this question in light of its vigilant and correct opposition to a bill that would have criminalized the practice of embryonic stem cell research in Oklahoma. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, passed the state House and Senate, but was met with a veto by Gov. Brad Henry. The Senate sustained Henry’s veto, but Republicans may attempt to override the veto again.

Both the Oklahoma City and Tulsa Chambers of Commerce, which primarily take ultra-conservative, pro-big business positions on political issues, urged Henry to veto the bill, arguing it could inhibit the growth of the state’s health care industry, which they say make up 13 percent of the state’s workforce. The Oklahoman editorial page opposed the bill as well.

They also argued the bill would send the wrong message to the nation about the state’s commitment to bioscience research. The mission of this research is often to help sustain and enhance life.

Researchers use a limited number of frozen embryos to seek cures for a number of diseases and medical conditions, including diabetes and Alzheimer’s. These embryos, created for pregnancies, aren’t from abortions and would have been discarded anyway.

The facts didn’t stop the right-wing, social conservatives from making it a “pro-life” issue, however. House Speaker Chris Benge, according to a local news report, said this about Henry’s veto: “Oklahoma is a pro-life state, and its citizens are overwhelmingly opposed to research that would result in the death of an unborn child.”

According to a press release, this is what Reynolds said about the bill after the Senate passed it: “For me personally, the single-most important issue we deal with as legislators is protecting the right to life. The idea that we should condone the harvesting of children for ‘well intentioned’ research runs counter to all morality. Human embryos are human beings and the state cannot condone their destruction for research purposes.” Again, these embryos would have been discarded.

Is all this a significant political schism in the Republican Party here? This isn’t the first time the corporate power structure has been in conflict with the social conservatives in the GOP in recent years. The two took opposite positions on the illegal immigration issue, for example. But this issue has the potential to alienate the two groups even further. This is good for Oklahoma.

It’s difficult for the business community to push for economic growth in Oklahoma without caring about its national image. By speaking up on this issue, they have indicated they will fight backwards and anti-science legislation sponsored by Republicans in the House and Senate. If the corporate power structure wants real change, it will start to target individual legislative elections.

But this will surely embolden the social conservatives who will feel frustrated that the GOP majority is not passing its full agenda. There are conservative Democrats who support this agenda as well. Will the Republicans take more issues to the ballot box like they have with Voter ID?

The other related issue lurking in the background is the 2010 election. If the Republicans are able to win the governor’s seat and retain their majorities in the House and Senate, then more ideological legislation will likely become law and Oklahoma will become even more isolated as a state enslaved to the dead neoconservative movement.

The potential GOP schism here is reflective of the problems faced by Republicans nationally. The party continues to struggle with identity problems. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter for example, announced recently he plans to change his party affiliation to Democratic from Republican. How much this will affect the Oklahoma political scene remains to be seen, but the GOP will have to move to the center nationally if it wants to win back the presidency and more Congressional seats.


State Dems Send Message

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Most Oklahoma House Democrats showed real political spunk Monday when they walked out on Republicans after the GOP leadership refused to consider legislation that would mandate insurance companies pay for medical costs associated with autism.

State Rep. Joe Dorman, pictured right, a Rush Springs Democrat, used the word “totalitarian,“ referring to the GOP’s use of parliamentary procedures to deny a vote on the autism issue, and 40 House Democrats walked out of the chamber in a show of solidarity and protest. While the move didn’t budge Republicans, it did send a clear, powerful message that should be repeated often.

This is the message: Democrats continue to work on common sense and important “people” issues such as health care reform as Republicans attempt to push through dead-end cultural wedge issues and ideological-driven legislation, such as criminalizing embryonic stem cell research in the state or establishing a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol. The GOP’s legislative agenda continues to give the state bad press on a national level.

The walkout also sheds light on how the GOP House majority is shutting down important debate on those critical issues facing Oklahomans that a majority of Democrats want to address and solve.

Democrats have been pushing Nick’s Law for two years now. The law would require health insurance companies in Oklahoma to cover the diagnosis and treatment for autism. The law carries the name of an 11-year-old Edmond by who has the condition.

The Republicans contends Nick’s Law could increase overall health insurance premiums, but Democrats argue there is no definitive proof this will happen and besides it’s an issue of medical urgency.

The GOP, instead, passed what some contend is a meaningless bill that would regulate behavioral analysts and increase training for autism therapists, which won’t matter much if the professionals can’t make money through basic health insurance coverage. The GOP bill was supported by a small number of Democrats who didn’t leave the chamber. This was after state Rep. Mike Brown, a Tahlequah Democrat, offered an amendment to the GOP bill that would have required insurance companies cover autism treatments.

Essentially, the Republicans make it a sick-versus-healthy issue based on the profits or what a recent editorial in The Oklahoman called “solvency” of health insurance companies. Their argument is that business profits/solvency for insurance companies trump personal health care needs. The Democrats make it a basic issue of human suffering and medical fairness. Under their argument, parents should be able to seek and find decent care for their autistic children without literally going bankrupt.

The GOP, or the so-called “family values” party, wanders in the philosophical darkness of denying children health care in Oklahoma, but outside the state a growing national majority long ago figured out the Republicans have a huge idea deficit. The state, as I’ve long contended, is now the junkyard or museum for dead GOP ideologies, which support corporate profits over people’s access to health care and religious intrusion in our lives.

Maybe more legislative Democratic walkouts can help bring about political change in Oklahoma. What can it hurt?