The state we’re in
Part V: the end of an error
Before we get to the State of the State, let’s look at the State of the World.
The Tulsa World.
From the paper’s Feb. 4 front-page editorial:
For months, many of the most important issues for the state’s future have been building to a climax, which all Oklahomans should pray will be resolved quickly … But our purpose today—in this very unusual setting—is not to argue about how you should think about any particular issue. Our purpose is to urge you to think about these issues and express your will to your legislators directly and forcefully.1
Not your purpose?
Considering there was one party that cut funding to education more than in any other state in the nation, one party that cut the gross production tax to laughable levels, one party that turned down free money from the Affordable Care Act that could have made health care accessible to hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans,2 and one party, ultimately, that made Oklahoma a financial and cultural punchline and a repository for wing-nuts and hypocrites—that should have been precisely your purpose.
For the love of Bobby Lorton, moral equivalence, and that prayer you mentioned earlier, conflating the damage done by both political parties and holding the likes of Republican John Bennett and Democrat Jeannie McDaniel equally responsible is irresponsible and lazy, especially when there were barely enough Democrats in Oklahoma City the past 8 years for a minyan.
I bring this up now not to take shots at a Tulsa World editorial—though that’s always a pleasure—but to remind us how and why
we got here and who was driving the bus.
It wasn’t the economic downturn; it wasn’t dropping energy prices; it wasn’t Obama that caused deficits and special sessions.
It was the state GOP. Full-stop.
In the governor’s State of the State, she, too, glossed over history and embraced pablum:
The basic truth is this: When the hardest challenges come, when a crisis threatens, that’s when Oklahomans, as one, rise up to show our state, our nation, and the world what we have always loved and called the Oklahoma Standard.3
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another:
So, on the whole, while Republicans in Washington won’t be able to turn the entire country into Oklahoma overnight, they’re going to give it their best shot. And they’ll keep saying that if we just cut taxes for the wealthy and slash social spending, everything will work out great. No matter how many times they’re proved wrong.4
The floor became the ceiling. During the governor’s State of the State address last year, she got an applause break when she urged representatives to fund schools so they could all return to five-day-per-week instruction.
How bad was 2017?
Something resembling a catastrophe. Revenues plummeted, requiring brutal cutbacks in social services. The state’s bond rating was downgraded. The promised growth didn’t materialize—in fact, the state grew at a rate lower than the rest of the country through the recovery of the Obama years. Job growth in Oklahoma between the time the tax cuts were enacted and when they were scaled back in 2017—after saner Republicans in the state revolted against the governor—was at less than half of what it was in the rest of the country and lower than every one of Kansas’s other neighbors.
There was another way to run a state.
With a stiff cocktail of budget cuts and hard-won new taxes, Brown has not only zeroed out the deficit, he’s also begun paying down the debt. “Jerry Brown’s leadership is a rebuttal to the failed policies of Republicans in Washington,” says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. “California is proving you can have sane tax systems, raise revenues, eliminate structural deficits, and have economic growth.”5
California’s deficit went from $27 billion to a surplus of $6.1 billion in eight years.
Between 2011 and 2015, Gov. Dayton added 172,000 new jobs to Minnesota’s economy—that’s 165,800 more jobs in Dayton’s first term than Pawlenty added in both of his terms combined. Even though Minnesota’s top income tax rate is the fourth highest in the country, it has the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the country (3.6 percent). According to 2012–2013 U.S. Census figures, Minnesotans had a median income that was $10,000 higher than the U.S. average, and their median income is still $8,000 more than the U.S. average today.6
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Brown and Dayton are both Democrats. And what was our Republican governor doing during this time?
Gov. Mary Fallin says her long-term goal is to do away with the state income tax and alter Oklahoma’s tax structure to pay for essential government services.7
This wasn’t just mismanagement. This was a planned economic pogrom.
In California and Minnesota, they used math. In Oklahoma, we used ideology.
We starved the beast and then blamed it for being lethargic.
Since the middle of last decade, the tax rate has been cut from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, resulting in $1 billion fewer dollars to fund a fully-functioning government, meaning less money for schools, prisons, mental health, the future.
The budget shortfall for 2018 is expected to be in the area of $600 million.8
Had we never started cutting taxes, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
There was something in 2017 called The Step-Up Plan, legislation supported by a coalition of public and private concerns, which proposed to lower the supermajority threshold required in the legislature to pass revenue-enhancing measures from 75 percent to 60 percent.9 It also would have generated $700 million in recurring revenues, but it failed because—wait for it—representatives couldn’t overcome the 75 percent threshold. Under the plan, teachers would have received an additional $5,000 per year over a certain period of time, and the gross production tax would have risen to 4 percent.
What comes next? Financial Dunkirk is most likely.
The energy industry supported the 4 percent raise—and will support whatever comes next—not because it finally found a soul, but because if it doesn’t, there will soon be a measure on November’s ballot for returning the rate to 7 percent.
Regardless of the disappointment regarding Step-Up, David Blatt, executive director of Oklahoma Policy Institute and someone who knows more about this than is probably healthy, is still somewhat gobsmacked by the recent turn of events.
“Things have gotten so desperate for Republicans that they are willing to increase taxes by over $700 million so they can get teachers a pay raise and be seen doing something to fix the budget, while Democrats are just savoring the Republicans’ disarray,” he said. “It’s like that old joke where the masochist says, ‘hit me,’ and the sadist says, ‘no.’”
If there is any optimism out there—a big if, as the fringe of the fringe on both sides hates compromise more than it loves a functioning state10—it is because, to paraphrase Richard Fariña, we’ve been down so long, everything looks like up. The failure of this GOP can be seen in every fifth-grader in Newcastle who’s not in school on Fridays, in stacked inmates in state prisons, in closed nursing homes and hospitals, in teachers and young professionals who leave the state, and seen, most surprising of all, in the rash of recently elected Democratic candidates to the state House and Senate (though some of this may be because GOP reps keep finding better gigs or getting caught in sex scandals).
Towards the end of Fallin’s remarks, women in the gallery unfurled a giant banner that read “Oklahoma State of Despair,” which, to my mind, wasn’t as much a protest as it was a review. There was some hand-wringing about, as the Tulsa World’s Wayne Greene put it, the “incivility” of it all.11 But considering we have a president of the United States who questions the loyalty and integrity of law enforcement officials, criticizes the independence of the judiciary, attacks private citizens on Twitter, and dismisses a foreign power’s interference in our very own democracy—and a state GOP apparatus that largely (and blindly) supports the president in these endeavors—maybe incivility in the face of tyranny is a welcome thing.
Governor Fallin took a victory lap, as is her right, with this, her last speech. But for all the talk of unity and the Oklahoma Standard, she, too, never mentioned the political party responsible for the state we’re in—nor did she include the one thing she and state Republicans most owe it and us: an apology.