CITIZENS often complain that state lawmakers focus too much on minor issues appealing only to a minority while ignoring Oklahomas budget challenges. Those criticisms are not entirely fair, but lawmakers have done themselves no favors by conducting most budget work behind closed doors. The lack of transparency means many citizens and businesses are now being blindsided by apparently last-minute tax and spending plans.
We make this point every year, but greater transparency would aid informed debate, produce a better final legislative product and increase public confidence. When bills are hastily unveiled and rushed through during the sessions final days, mistakes are inevitably made. In a year of a $1.3 billion shortfall, some mistakes may have significant impact.
Few things highlight this problem better than last weeks abrupt release of a plan to provide teacher pay raises of up to $10,000. That plan called for raising the sales tax from 4.5 percent to 4.9 percent and applying it to a wide range of currently exempt services, including automotive repair, cable TV and e-book purchases.
The associated bills were apparently released by
mistake, which doesnt take away from the shock for many consumers and businesses. The estimated cost of that proposal is around $480 million.
Other tax increases have been unveiled in seemingly willy-nilly fashion. One proposal would have raised Oklahomas gas taxes 3 cents a gallon so long as fuel prices remained below $3 a gallon --an $84 million tax increase.
The Tulsa World reported, "Several members, particularly Democrats, complained that they didnt know the bill even existed" until it was receiving a committee vote. (The measure was defeated.)
Another bill, rejected by Senate lawmakers, would have quadrupled the excise tax rate on low-point beer. That was a potential $5 million tax increase.
One bill sought to change tax policy retroactively. Initially, Senate Bill 1577 would have eliminated a tax rebate for economically at-risk oil wells, including wells kept in production last year. That would increase taxes on energy producers by $132.9 million. (It has since been revised.)
Although there is strong resistance, lawmakers also are considering a $180 million cigarette tax increase, one of the few tax measures publicly discussed throughout the session.
Legislators want to eliminate a commonly used deduction, which would increase income taxes by a collective $97.3 million on more than 300,000
Oklahomans. They hope to cap credits for manufacturers, which would increase taxes for those businesses by $14 million. Theyve voted to restrict a tax credit for low-income workers; those affected will lose a collective $28.9 million annually.
House Bill 3217 would raise the current documentary stamp tax by 25 cents for every $500 of value. To avoid constitutional restrictions on tax increases, that bill changes the word "tax" to "fee." That seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The above list is hardly exhaustive, yet it still totals around $1 billion in tax increase proposals in a single year. And more are being considered.
Lawmakers say theyve been working diligently on budget issues for months. "I could not be more proud of the work that our members of the House have done on the budget this year," House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, recently told The Oklahomans editorial board. "Its incredibly serious, time-consuming work."
We believe him. But the lack of transparency in that process, combined with the apparent haste and slapdash manner now on display, can give Oklahomans
reason to think otherwise.