This week the Oklahoma Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether several revenue raising measures, including a cigarette fee, will be deemed constitutional or not. If the court upholds the constitutionality of these measures, state agencies will regain some semblance of stability through the remainder of the fiscal year (although most are still struggling from years of cuts and under-funding). If the court instead strikes down these measures, agencies could see debilitating double digit reductions to their budgets.
Needless to say, should the latter happen, major services will be reduced or eliminated, especially preventative measures helping families and individual Oklahomans better their lives. Even the best-case scenarios would see many programs benefiting Oklahoma’s children suffer greatly.
That we find ourselves in this situation is unacceptable. Due to an inability to find compromise or consensus during the legislative session, Oklahoma lawmakers have put the state on the brink of a crisis.
In fairness, the Constitutional bar for passing new taxes is very high; fully 75 percent of legislators must vote “yes” for a true revenue-raising measure to pass. That three-quarters coalition did not come together this session. Some legislators did not want to raise revenue from specific areas; others felt different types of increases would be better; some simply refused to raise any new revenue at all.
To circumvent the 75 percent requirement, lawmakers settled on passing “fees” that many believe are just taxes in disguise. The court will tell us soon if they share that view.
Regardless, I hope this moment of potential crisis serves as a wake-up call to our lawmakers that Oklahoma’s finances are dangerously unstable and inadequate to fund core services.
Having served as a state representative myself, I understand that our policy makers want to appease their constituents in their home districts. This moment, however, is a test of their leadership. It is a moment that requires more than working to placate voters or seek out popularity. We need them to make tough decisions which will avert a funding disaster this year and restore the health of our state agencies in the long term.
The financial problems we face in Oklahoma are not unpredictable. The challenges facing Oklahoma should and need to be addressed through long-term strategies which will sometimes be unpopular but are vital to providing stability for our state.
Folks often complain about rhetoric and ask why solutions are not presented when complaints are lodged. We have seen several groups and individuals present ideas, but until we have a thorough review with a non-partisan approach and lawmakers who will “bite the bullet” to do what is needed to fix our states financial instability, the citizens will be the ones who suffer, especially vulnerable children, the elderly, those unable to be fully independent due to poor health.
OICA will continue to work with our policymakers and to advocate for a responsible budget that adequately cares for our state’s children. To be successful, however, we need you – Oklahomans from all across the state with different perspectives – to join in that call and fight for a better future.
By OICA CEO Joe Dorman