At least for state progressives, when the Oklahoma Legislature adjourned Friday it made the most news for things it didn’t do, including not passing a tax cut and not passing the personhood and creationism bills.
Obviously, the failure of the legislature to pass a tax cut, which was a centerpiece of Gov. Mary Fallin’s agenda for the session, was its most significant non-action. At the beginning of the session, it seemed like an income tax cut, perhaps a large one with future triggers, was a certainty.
As I wrote in my last post, the GOP perhaps lacked what I called an “intellectual apparatus” to truly vet and sell a major tax cut. Another conjecture is that, in the end, Republican leaders just didn’t have the heart for a tax cut after years of state budget cuts.
I won’t rehash it again, but one other factor in the tax-cut debate was the editorial page of The Oklahoman, which slowly withdrew its support for a major tax cut as different plans moved forward. Various editorials announced that the income tax rate was too high at 5.25 percent, but in the end, The Oklahoman published an editorial with this title, “Republican base takes a hit with GOP-backed tax cut,” and the tax-cut game was over.
The editorial cited the analysis of the Oklahoma Policy Institute on the final GOP plan to cut the top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 4.8 percent, which included the loss of the personal exemption for some taxpayers. Here’s what it concluded:
Republicans wanted a tax cut to tout on the campaign trail, but flinched when it came time to reduce spending or eliminate business breaks to balance the budget. So what we have now is a shell game masquerading as a tax reduction.
The Oklahoman had it exactly right this time around, and any hope for an income tax cut, especially in an election year, was probably over at that point.
Another non-action for progressives to celebrate was when House Speaker Kris Steele and other Republican leaders refused to hear the so-called personhood bill, which would have granted civil rights to a fertilized egg in a woman’s womb. The anti-abortion bill had passed out of the Senate, but it was apparent that strong opposition to the bill had worried some legislators.
After the bill died, things got ugly in the political realm as I pointed out here, but for progressives it was a major victory. When the Oklahoma State Supreme Court later invalidated an initiative petition drive to place the issue on the ballot, the victory become even sweeter.
Finally, one of the state’s unsung heroes, Victor Hutchison, an OU professor emeritus in zoology and a founding member of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, led the successful charge against the effort to bring creationism ideas into the state’s public science classrooms. The House eventually passed a bill that argued certain topics, such as biological evolution, can cause controversy and required school districts “to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies,” but the Senate Education Committee refused to hear it. This was clearly a backdoor attempt to challenge evolution theory and the scientific method.
When Republicans made a last-ditch effort to bring the bill to the Senate floor, which I wrote about here, Hutchison rallied the academic community and its supporters once again. The bill never received a Senate vote.
After the legislature adjourned, Hutchison congratulated those who helped defeat the bill in an OESE email:
. . . these organizations also sent messages and urged their members to respond [against the bill] as well: Oklahoma Academy of Science, Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, Interfaith Alliances of OKC and Tulsa, several special interest groups on Yahoo, National Association of Human Genetics, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Other organizations that wish to remain anonymous lobbied directly against the bills. The Tulsa World had a staff editorial against the bills and others wrote op-eds, letters to editors and posted on state political blogs. This was the most response we have had in the past decade!
The bottom line is that it could have been much worse for progressives here this session. The lack of a tax cut is especially significant (the other two issues, if passed, probably would have been tied up in court), and the Oklahoma Policy Institute, one of the state’s two main think tanks, should be congratulated for leading the opposition to it. I remember when the state didn’t have a think tank that supported progressive issues.
The session also shows Republicans, the party in power here, are in disarray as different factions try to seize control of the GOP agenda. What that means for next year, unless more Democrats get elected, is more Republican infighting over all three of the issues mentioned in this post. It’s only a reprieve.
An unnecessary and perhaps unconstitutional bill that would require some welfare recipients to be drug tested has passed an Oklahoma House subcommittee.
If eventually passed and signed into law, the bill will almost certainly be met with a lawsuit that will probably cost the state in mounting legal fees just like the proposed so-called personhood bill now making its way through the legislature.
House Bill 2388, sponsored by state Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-Oklahoma City), would require any adult receiving money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal program, to be drug tested in Oklahoma. Under the bill, if applicants for assistance tested positive for drugs, they would be denied benefits. They could apply again in one year. The bill is modeled after Florida legislation that has been challenged in a federal court. The Oklahoma bill passed a budget subcommittee for human services on a 6 to 2 vote.
The idea behind both the Florida and Oklahoma bills is a typical, mean-spirited and untrue Republican political trope criticizing welfare recipients. The trope argues, among other things, that welfare recipients are mostly lazy drug users ripping off the government. Statistics show this to be absolutely wrong, but the trope has persisted since former President Ronald Reagan’s infamous statement in 1976 citing the case of a “welfare queen.”
Let’s be clear: The bill is more about perpetuating a conservative political myth than actually accomplishing anything.
A media report cited information from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services that shows some TANF recipients here are already tested for drugs. The numbers are hardly astonishing: 5,000 adults receive money from TANF, 3,000 are tested for drugs and about 5 percent test positive and are referred to treatment. So, in essence, welfare recipients ARE already getting drug tested in Oklahoma and a small number are found to be using drugs. How does that make for a crisis that demands legislation?
But when Florida first started drug testing welfare recipients, it found only 2 percent tested positive, according to a media report. Again, both the Oklahoma and Florida numbers don’t add up to a crisis.
One of the problems with Oklahoma’s proposed law is that those requesting TANF assistance would have to pay from $30 to $45 for the drug tests. That’s a lot of money for someone who needs financial assistance.
The money would be refunded later if the test is negative, but that only means taxpayers will be footing the bill for an unnecessary program. It’s a waste of money to promote a political ideology. Will the federal government and courts even allow it?
The fact remains that drug use transcends social class and that it’s a wider cultural issue that needs to be addressed through treatment programs and other means. By singling out one small group of people, the bill unfairly casts aspersions and this probably makes it unconstitutional. Welfare recipients already face challenges that many people can only imagine. The bill would just make their lives more difficult. Why would anyone want to demean someone in dire need of help?
As I've written before, bills like this one are merely side shows in the ongoing legislative carnival operated primarily by the Republicans this year. Another Oklahoma bill granting personhood to a fertilized egg in a woman’s body has passed the Oklahoma Senate. This anti-abortion bill, too, would face an obvious legal challenge if eventually signed into law.
The question needs to be asked: If the Republicans do pass an income tax cut this year, how will the state pay for all the legal fees it will incur because of overreaching and ideological legislation and ballot amendments?
For years now, social conservatives have proposed a litany of extremist legislation and ballot amendments that rile progressives, who spend energy fighting what they deem as ideology-driven and unnecessary initiatives.
The approved amendment banning the use of Sharia law in Oklahoma courts, now blocked by a federal court, is one such example. The amendment, based on a false premise, was passed by voters in a 2010 landslide vote in what can be viewed as collective, fear-inspired hysteria cultivated by a mixture of xenophobia and religious intolerance.
Meanwhile, some legislators, such as state Rep. Sally Kern, add to the conservative argument by equating gay people with terrorism or by making insensitive remarks about African Americans and women. What will Kern say or do this session? Who knows? One thing is sure. Progressives will be there to respond and call for her resignation, which is never forthcoming.
So have progressives here made overall gains in the yearly slog opposing legislative extremism or are they just spinning their wheels? Some extremist bills and initiatives get tabled, for sure, but the reality is progressives don’t connect with the wider Oklahoma electorate the way in which conservatives do right now and any victories are fleeting. The disparity in this “connectedness” seems to grow each year.
Here’s another reality: Social conservatives keep some progressives busy with legislative side shows as the so-called fiscal conservatives whittle away at the tax base and funding for state government and education. As I mentioned in my last post, progressives here have been reduced to constant oppositional agitation.
Let’s look at two ideological bills introduced this upcoming session, both of which will keep progressives busy:
- State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R-Oklahoma City) has introduced Senate Bill 1418, which argues: “No person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.” Shortey has explained he offered the bill after he supposedly found out about a company that has used “human embryonic stem cells in the testing of artificial flavors,” but the use of the word “fetus” in his bill is obviously ideological and meant to frighten people into believing the horrific.
- State Rep. Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma) has introduced House Joint Resolution 1067,which would put a measure on the ballot asking voters to grant personhood status and rights to human fertilized eggs. The bill is part of a national personhood movement, which is trying to make abortion illegal. Mississippi voters have already defeated a similar measure in their state.
Both these bills deserve to be opposed and defeated because they represent a threat to science and women’s reproductive rights, but Shortey’s bill seems ultimately meaningless in terms of any real legal impact, and federal case law would usurp a state vote granting human cells the rights of a person. The question is this: Is there doubt that if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, abortion would become illegal here? Some states already have trigger laws that would outlaw abortion based on that possible ruling.
So the point I’ve tried to make in my last three posts about the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 6, is that progressives need to step back from the ideological and perpetual tax-cut wars occasionally and find issues they can support in the affirmative. What about a same-sex marriage initiative or a green initiative or some type of proposal to reinvest in education? Although these initiatives have little chance of success here right now, they remain historically accurate, and even some thoughtful conservatives will concede the point. Gay marriage will someday be a reality in all the states. It’s only going to become more inevitable that a cleaner environment and a clean energy supply are necessary for human survival. States that don’t invest adequately in education will become irrelevant.
It’s also likely conservatives will extend their solid majorities in the Oklahoma House and Senate this election year. Consequently, progressives here might look locally for political-involvement opportunities by becoming candidates or supporting like-minded candidates in county, city and school district elections.
As the legislature convenes this year, I urge progressives to consider a larger frame. The point is to stand FOR something, not just AGAINST something.