- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Muskogee Phoenix. June 10, 2017.

State lawmakers not only failed to deal with the state’s budget crisis, they exacerbated the problem by playing politics with criminal justice reform.

A task force formed last year by Gov. Mary Fallin recommended 12 measures this year, three of which made it through both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature before lawmakers adjourned in May. Others languished in committee despite knowing their failure to act will cost taxpayers an extra $200 million a year to prop up the Oklahoma Department of Corrections during the next decade.

When lawmakers gather next February, they will start crafting next year’s budget with a $400 million revenue shortfall. And because they failed to address sustainable revenue properly - measures passed already face legal challenges - and criminal justice reform - some believe taxpayers will be paying almost as much to operate prisons as they do for public education.

Fortunately, there are some within our community who have demonstrated leadership at the local level that could delay that outcome. A partnership between the Gospel Rescue Mission and the city of Muskogee, dubbed Getting Ahead While Getting Out, along with the work of Bridges Out of Poverty here and in Tahlequah could curb recidivism rates by helping felons transition from prison to the workplace.

Studies, however, show recidivism rates in Oklahoma are third lowest in the nation. The driver of the state’s prison population, those studies show, is a sentencing structure that is more punitive than other states.

Sentencing reform is an issue state lawmakers must address and something for which a majority of voters have shown support. We appreciate the leadership shown by local organizations and hope legislators will follow their lead.

___

Tulsa World. June 11, 2017.

The Kansas Legislature overrode Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of an income tax hike … repudiating his failed supply-side economics belief that a state could find prosperity by eliminating its ability to fund core public services.

Oklahoma politicians should pay attention.

The Kansas measure will raise $1.2 billion in state revenue over two years. The money is expected to be dedicated to public schools, which the Kansas Supreme Court ruled were unconstitutionally underfunded earlier this year.

The state’s top income tax rate will go from 4.6 percent to 5.7 percent.

If Oklahoma were to raise its top income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.7 percent, it would raise about $400 million in new revenue, according to Gene Perry of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

When Brownback came to office, the state’s top tax rate was 6.45 percent. He immediately pushed the Republican Legislature to sharply reduce that rate, and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin used that move to push for income tax cuts here, too.

In Kansas and Oklahoma, the argument that cutting state income taxes would produce prosperity was politically successful, if an economic failure.

In fact, both states have proven that income tax rates can devastate a state’s ability to fund its schools without any positive effect on economic growth, especially if the states are struggling against stronger currents in the national economy.

Brownback’s tax-cutting philosophy was rejected by Kansas voters last year. Many of his legislative supporters were replaced by moderate, pro-education Republicans in the primaries and Democrats in the general election.

And now his signature policy has been rejected over his objection.

Oklahoma lawmakers also considered reversing course on tax policy this year, but, sadly, fell short of taking needed action.

We hope Fallin is giving as much consideration to the need to keep up with the neighbors today as she was back when she was determined to match Brownback’s tax-cutting strategy.

Oklahoma’s ill-considered state income tax cuts have devastated the state’s ability to fund public schools, higher education, health, mental health and public safety. The promise of short-term economic growth never appeared, and the state’s long-term prospects are being cut short by these self-inflicted wounds.

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The Oklahoman. June 12, 2017.

Well, that didn’t take long. Not two weeks after the Legislature adjourned, having passed a $6.8 billion budget balanced in part with a series of new fees, a legal challenge says the largest of those fees is really a tax that was approved improperly.

This is just what we and many others feared would happen when the budget was completed in the last week of May.

According to the state constitution as amended by voter approval of State Question 640 in 1992, “any revenue bill” must receive the support of 75 percent of the members in the House and the Senate, or be placed before voters for them to decide. The initiative petition placing SQ 640 on the ballot said the restriction applied to “any bill passed by the Legislature intended to raise revenue for support of state government.”

Facing a large shortfall, lawmakers wrestled during much of the session with the idea of increasing the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack to benefit health-related agencies. As the clock ticked down and it became evident the votes weren’t there to pass the tax, legislators instead approved a “smoking cessation fee” of $1.50 per pack, contained in Senate Bill 845. Fees can be approved by a simple majority vote, and this one was.

As we wrote at the time, Oklahoma courts have generally held that the provisions in SQ 640 don’t apply to fees, but it’s also hard to argue this fee (and others) isn’t really a tax.

This is one of the arguments made by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Phillip Morris USA, the nation’s two largest tobacco companies, in a lawsuit filed this month. They are joined in the lawsuit by two Oklahoma retailers, a wholesaler and three residents.

The fee is scheduled to take effect in August, and would be levied on wholesalers. But the lawsuit says the fee is in fact a tax, and that it’s unconstitutional because the measure originated in the Senate and because it was sent to the governor so late in the session.

The state constitution requires revenue bills to originate in the House, and says they cannot be enacted in the final five days of a session.

The lawsuit also notes that most of the revenues to be generated aren’t designated for smoking-related purposes. Instead, they are set to go primarily to the state’s mental health agency, the Department of Human Services and the agency that runs Oklahoma’s Medicaid program.

A successful challenge to SB 845 would create big problems - the tobacco fee is expected to generate more than $200 million (the official estimate is $257 million) and that amount was built into those agencies’ budgets.

“If a cigarette tax can be a ‘smoking cessation fee,’” the lawsuit argues, “nothing stops an alcohol tax from becoming an ‘inebriation cessation fee’ to stop drunk driving, or an excise tax on restaurant meals from masquerading as a ‘corpulence cessation fee’ to cover the rising state health care costs of obesity-related diseases.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court will have the final say in this debate, and predicting how it will rule would be folly. However, lawmakers who voted for this bill may wish they had appreciated the simple concept that words matter.

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