(Will Oklahoma progressives get shut out of the political debate this legislative session? What type of progressive political agenda, if any, could be successful? In posts this week, Okie Funk is giving its preview of the 2012 Oklahoma Legislature.)
Let me start with the caveat that the record is clear that I do NOT support any cut to the state income tax right now because such a cut, even if it’s relatively small, could lower education and social-program funding.
With recent state budget cuts, that’s the last thing that needs to happen in Oklahoma right now.
Having written that, I do think progressives here should take a close look at whether to make opposing proposed income tax cut proposals their top priority this upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 6. This is not, of course, to imply progressives or other stakeholders should surrender on the issue; it merely means there should be an extended discussion about legislative priorities among progressives, though I sense that is unlikely to happen.
First, let’s look at the overview of recent tax policy. Conservatives here have talked about eliminating the state income tax in Oklahoma for years. Gov. Frank Keating, who served from 1995 to 2003, started the modern debate over the issue, and worked to reduce the income tax rate here during his term. Since then the top income tax rate has been lowered from 6.65 percent to 5.25 percent. The tax cuts have overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest Oklahomans.
Emboldened by massive majorities in the Oklahoma House and Senate, Republicans have recently increased their calls for reducing and/or eliminating the income tax. Recently, a task force created by Gov. Mary Fallin recommended lowering the income tax rate from 5.25 to 4.75 percent over two years, and a bill has been introduced in the legislature that would immediately lower the rate to 2.25 percent and then eliminate it altogether over several more years. The measure is co-sponsored by 23 members in the House. Fallin, of course, is clearly on record favoring an income tax cut. She says she will release her tax-cut plan on Monday when the legislature convenes.
All the proposed tax cuts so far at least implicitly argue that future revenue growth supposedly created by an income tax cut—under GOP mythology all tax cuts create huge economic windfalls—would prevent a major decline in government revenue. Given Oklahoma’s up-and-down economic cycles and basic taxation history, this seems highly unlikely. The income tax produces about a third of Oklahoma’s revenues. Even the smallest proposed cut with supposed offsets, coupled with even a small economic downturn, would likely reduce funding for essential government services, including education. What’s more, given strict Oklahoma laws inhibiting tax increases, any tax cut has to be considered permanent.
That’s the basic outline. The Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy), a think tank based in Tulsa, presents a thorough and compelling case against an income tax cut here, and exposes the myths in the conservative tax-cut rhetoric, which specifically points to Texas, a non-income tax state, as a model for Oklahoma. Again, for the record, in November, I argued:
The so-called “Texas Miracle” has been debunked by noted economist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, who pointed out Texas’ relatively high unemployment rate, which was reported at 8.5 percent in August. By contrast, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate stood at 5.6 percent in August. Who should be modeling whom?
OK Policy has led the effort in opposition to any further income tax cuts right now, and a coalition is apparently emerging that by de facto makes the issue the number one priority for progressives in the state. The House Democrats’ 2012 agenda even “first and foremost” opposes “radical efforts to again further reduce the income tax for the wealthiest among us.”
But the word “progressive” hardly refers to all of Oklahoma’s dwindling number of elected Democrats, some of whom are quite conservative and could actually support a tax cut this year. As you may recall, former Gov. Brad Henry signed a large tax cut bill in 2006.
But here are a couple of questions progressives should ask themselves about this upcoming legislative session: Should they make opposing state income tax cuts their main issue? Are there initiatives or programs progressives could support in the affirmative that might make better use of what little progressive energy there remains in the state?
It’s important to ponder these questions after considering some of the possible outcomes for progressives in the perpetual tax cut war this year:
- Total victory. No income tax cuts this year. This seems unlikely given the fact that tax revenues are in an upswing, Republicans control state government, the governor says she supports tax cuts and the corporate power structure in Oklahoma, beyond some chamber of commerce opposition, has so far remained fairly silent about the issue. Even if progressives can claim total victory on the issue this year, what about next session and other future sessions? Will the GOP, in the foreseeable future, give up on its efforts to cut taxes and shrink government? That’s not going to happen. A one-year respite is essentially what progressives will get if they win the battle this year. If revenues continue to increase, the battle will only get tougher. The elections in 2012 will probably increase Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Thus, progressives will have to fight the tax war almost immediately against larger odds.
- Limited victory. A small tax cut. This could happen. For example, the proposal to reduce the top income tax rate to 2.25 percent immediately might get tabled while a smaller cut, say the reduction from 5.25 to 4.75 percent over two years, gets implemented. But, again, this doesn’t mean that more tax cuts will not be proposed and passed in the future. Will the fight for even more tax cuts resume in 2013? How will it affect morale if progressives spend most of their energy on opposing tax cuts year-after-year, suffering defeat year-after-year? Does it even matter at this point?
- Limited loss. A medium size tax cut. This is a possibility, too. The legislature could hypothetically cut the top income tax rate to 3 percent over two or three years or so, with an eye toward eliminating it altogether in the future. Fallin, for example, is on record as saying she would like to reduce the income tax rate to 3 percent over several years. Again, this would not preclude an immediate GOP effort to accelerate the tax cut if revenues continue to rise exponentially in coming years. This would be a demoralizing loss for progressives after placing so much effort into opposing the tax cut, and it would be difficult for them to continue an organized fight.
- Total loss. An immediate major tax cut followed by a swift, complete elimination of the state income tax. This is unlikely. The issue would be whether Fallin would sign such a bill and whether the legislature would override her veto if she did. If this doomsday scenario becomes a reality, progressives could only hope that the ensuing cuts to government and education might convince Oklahoma voters to stop their overwhelming support for conservative political candidates, but even that outcome seems ambiguous at best. There’s always been the somewhat sarcastic argument among progressives here and elsewhere to just allow conservatives to supposedly doom themselves with radical political actions, but does that argument even apply anymore in Oklahoma? That makes this scenario unpredictable, but it would essentially end for the time being—perhaps an entire generation—the progressive fight here to prevent or limit tax cuts. Are progressives then going to spin their wheels fighting to raise taxes here?
Another important factor to consider is that Henry, once the state’s leading elected Democrat, and OK Policy were strongly opposed to State Question 744, the recent ballot measure that would have increased educational funding here to a regional average. The measure failed in a landslide vote. I could be wrong, but this probably created at least some animosity between natural allies on some progressive causes, especially because the state’s educational system has faced severe state budget cuts in recent years. If SQ 744 would have passed or even failed by a slimmer margin, the current tax-cut debate here would have a different frame, and I would argue—note the “I”—progressives would hold a much stronger position in the current tax-cut debate. Will teachers, especially members of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), which supported SQ 744, now flood the state Capitol en masse to oppose a cut in the income tax and possible future cuts in their salaries and/or benefits? Maybe so. What choice do they have now? (That’s politically inspiring, isn’t it?)
More importantly, will we see a massive amount of corporate-funded television advertisements this session, night-after-night, featuring Henry, his wife, Kim, and other prominent Oklahomans, who argue something like: “When it comes to income tax cuts this year, the answer is always no”? If so, I will immediately and gladly concede my misreading of the current political milieu in the state.
I do think that progressives at this point should at least consider placing more energy on supporting affirmative initiatives. By all means, stakeholders, whether progressive or not, should vocally oppose the tax cut, and they will, but what about expending just as much progressive energy and money, if not more, on initiatives that do more than just react to specific items on the conservative agenda, a process which is draining and, in most cases here, unproductive. Where are the wide-sweeping proposals from those progressives controlling what amounts to the official agenda right now? Where are the popular, resonating proposals that might demand conservatives rethink their tax cut strategies? Do progressives here only stand for or organize under the rubric of opposing standard conservative initiatives? If so, that’s simply not an effective long-term strategy, and it creates a sense of a dismal, bleak future for progressives here, which only compounds the error. I guess young progressives can always just move out of the state like former Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice.
If, as expected, Fallin and Oklahoma GOP House and Senate leaders support another income tax cut proposal this legislative session, it’s difficult to see how it can be stopped. Even if it CAN be stopped this year, the tax-cut issue is not going away anytime soon.
Progressives here need to stand for something rather than just debating the negative position in Oklahoma’s perpetual tax cut war.
(NEXT: Really? The side shows rile the progressive base.)
(Will Oklahoma progressives get shut out of the political debate this upcoming legislative session? What type of progressive political agenda, if any, could be successful? In posts this week, Okie Funk is giving its preview of the 2012 Oklahoma Legislature.)
A few years ago, one of my politically active conservative friends and I were having a heated political discussion that ended with him assuring me that the state would retain a large extremely conservative majority of voters for at least our lifetimes.
Given our ages and life expectancy tables, this would mean at least a generation, or about 30 years or so.
I’ve thought about his prediction many times since then with varying levels of acceptance and non-acceptance, and as we approach the beginning of the 2012 session of the Oklahoma Legislature, which begins Monday, I’m reminded of it again.
If he’s right, how should that shape how I or any progressive here approaches the conservative political reality in Oklahoma? Perhaps we should focus on long-term strategies and stop the knee-jerk reaction to the seemingly more and more preposterous conservative bills that are introduced each session.
And if we think he’s wrong, then why is he wrong, and what should be the progressive approach in Oklahoma?
We know this for sure in the present day: There have already been a slew of bills (some of which I will write about in my next two posts) introduced that will promote gun carrying rights, attack reproductive rights as part of the anti-abortion movement, cut taxes to benefit the wealthy, attack the teaching of evolution in schools, eliminate college tenure and drug test welfare recipients. The philosophy that emerges from this legislation is one that continues cuts to government and education as it relentlessly imposes a social conservatism—sometimes religiously based—on its citizens. It’s both less and more government. What should progressives do?
We also know that this is election year and that a vast majority of Oklahoma voters will be driven to the polls to vote against President Barack Obama, who lost here in a landslide in his first election. The Republican base will be motivated, and it’s almost certain the GOP will at least retain, if not increase, its majorities in the Oklahoma House and Senate. What should progressives do?
Before answering the question of progressive action, I think we should first look at this with a longer view. Barring a financial catastrophe worse than our recent Great Recession that could push people to progressive positions, it’s almost certain conservatives will hold sway in Oklahoma and most other current red states for the conceivable future. It’s also conceivable that the conservatives in Oklahoma, which include at least some Democrats, will hold political power during the remaining lifetimes of many people reading this.
So let’s set aside, for the moment, this year’s specific, conservative legislation that is sure to rile what remains of the progressive base here, and look at what we might do in the face the enormous odds against us.
(1) Perhaps progressives should approach the current political milieu with a long-term strategy. Rather than expending all our energy and resources fighting legislation that, even if defeated, is sure to be presented again and again until it passes, we should develop and promote progressive organizations for young adults and cultivate younger candidates for political office throughout the state. That might be our main focus as we anticipate continuing conservative control.
(2) Progressives might also focus less on state government and more on local government, especially in Oklahoma City and Tulsa (but this should include other cities as well) to press issues. Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid has shown how someone with progressive ideas can be extremely effective in the state. Sure, we should fight against the legislation of the Sally Kerns in this state, but it might be better to focus on creating and expanding progressive oases, or maybe refuges, in the state’s largest cities. This effort could, of course, include progressives from smaller cities.
(3) Another idea that might make progressives more effective is carefully selecting issues of widespread importance and expending MORE energy on FEWER issues. Proposed cuts to the state’s income tax might be such an issue this session. Let’s face it. The onslaught of conservative legislation each year is daunting, and there’s no end in sight. If progressives can get a major victory on an occasional basis that could help define the progressive message here. When a bad conservative bill quietly dies in committee that doesn’t do so much to promote progressive politics on a wider scale.
None of this is meant as surrender, but what politically active progressives are doing right now isn’t working on a larger scale.
(NEXT: More state income tax cuts have been proposed this year by conservatives, including Gov. Mary Fallin. Is opposition to the cuts the main issue for progressives?)
Let’s hope a legislative Oklahoma task force studying the issue of allowing the sale of cold strong beer and wine in grocery stores puts the interests of consumers above liquor retailers.
The liquor retailers—basically liquor store owners—have made it clear in past years they don’t want to change Oklahoma’s archaic and ridiculous liquor laws that make our state seem backwards and make it a hassle for customers.
But with the grocery store Whole Foods Market on its way to Oklahoma City and with the Thunder putting the city consistently in the national spotlight, maybe common sense can prevail on the issue and we can get real reform next legislative session.
The two main arguments against allowing strong beer and wine in grocery stores remain extremely weak: (1) It would lower sales in liquor stores, and (2) it would increase the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors.
The first argument is really not an argument. So what if liquor stores do less business if grocery stores can sell wine? That’s called the “free market. “ Why should the government protect a relatively small group of retailers in order to inconvenience consumers? And it’s not even a given that sales will decline in liquor stores. (More on that below.)
The second argument lacks basic common sense. Why would grocery stores do a worse job asking for age identification than liquor stores? Grocery stores already id people buying 3.2 beer. It’s really just a nonsensical argument created to protect liquor store owners here. You can buy wine in Texas grocery stores. You can buy wine—and liquor—in Missouri grocery stores. What makes Oklahoma so different?
In any event, even if you absolutely must accept the premise of these arguments, there are solutions.
First, the state could also allow liquor stores to sell cold beer, mixers, ice and food. Many Oklahomans are probably familiar with the Spec’s liquor store chain in Texas. These are large stores that often have a full deli and offer specialty foods—a wide selection of olives, for example—and snacks, along with booze. These stores don’t replace grocery stores, but they do make it convenient for customers.
Second, the state, if its leaders were really worried about the issue, could simply require stringent identification procedures at grocery stores for those people buying wine or beer. Make sure everyone buying beer or wine is identified. Require two forms of identification. Whatever. Once the state determined that the stringent rules are unnecessary—and I do think this would happen—they could change the rules.
Here are some other suggestions:
(1) If the issue goes to the polls, limit it initially to metropolitan counties in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City area.
(2) Add enough taxes to the new beer and wine sales in order to fund any increase in the government monitoring of liquor sales.
(3) Clean up any regulations that make if difficult for liquor stores to stock certain types of products.
(4) Allow wine tasting in grocery stores. If grocery stores have a restaurant-like food counter—Whole Foods in downtown Austin has a few—then allow beer and wine to be sold by the glass at those spots.
The bottom line is that liquor store owners are probably not going to get behind any proposal that allows increased alcoholic beverage sales at grocery stores unless they can sell more items and cold beer. Even then, some owners will balk at the idea. What needs to happen is for Oklahoma leaders—Republicans and Democrats—to stand up against the liquor lobby once and for all. It only needs to happen one time.