Oklahoma lawmakers could consider tax approval-related issue
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As lawmakers continue to struggle to find enough consensus to raise new revenue, a growing number of legislators say it might be time to ask voters to consider overhauling a law passed a quarter century ago.
CNHI Oklahoma reports state Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, is among the lawmakers who believes it’s time for Oklahomans to consider modernizing the 25-year-old law requiring the approval of three-quarters of lawmakers to raise new taxes. The measure also prohibits lawmakers from raising taxes in the final week of session.
Voters passed the 1992 measure, better known as State Question 640, after a small majority of lawmakers approved a big tax hike, David said during a budget debate this month.
“I understand why 640 was passed, and I appreciate why it was passed,” said David, who serves as chair of Senate appropriations. “I would like to see the threshold lowered a little. Something a little more reasonable because obviously not another tax increase has ever been passed by this body since then.”
Observers say the current law leaves Oklahoma with one of the toughest taxation laws in the country.
Lawmakers discovered they’d run afoul of it earlier this year when the state Supreme Court ruled that they’d passed a $215 million cigarette tax with too few votes. The measure, which was supposed to pay for health care, mental health and social service programs, left a gaping budget hole and the programs on life support.
The Republican-controlled Legislature then spent eight weeks unsuccessfully trying to pass a series of taxes on things like cigarettes, oil and gas producers, beer and gasoline to try to bring recurring revenue into beleaguered state coffers and give public school teachers raises. They have yet to reach a budget agreement and likely will have to return for a second special session after the Thanksgiving holiday.
The measure was “a real reason for the chaos” during the special session, said Mark Davies, administrator of the Facebook group Oklahomans for the Repeal of State Question 640.
“I think overall it takes away the flexibility that’s needed for the state government to get revenue,” said Davies, who also is professor of social and ecological ethics at Oklahoma City University.
Davies became interested in the issue while tracking legislation for the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.
“Raising taxes is hard enough in Oklahoma because we have a certain proclivity against raising taxes here,” he said. “Having it be 75 percent makes bipartisan work very difficult.”
Voters wanted raising taxes to be difficult, said Jonathan Small, president of Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank.
“I think what is clear is voters wanted the Legislature to be very deliberative about its efforts to raise taxes,” he said.
Small, who opposes repealing it, said lawmakers have been able to increase revenue on multiple occasions, including by passing a tax on Medicaid providers that generates $170 million.
“The notion that revenue has not been raised, or it’s really difficult to be raised, since 640 just doesn’t fit the picture,” Small said. He’s urging lawmakers to focus on other solutions like ending tax incentive programs or ensuring state agencies are spending their funding wisely.
State Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said the state’s tax code is badly outdated, and lawmakers are struggling to update it because of the current taxation constraints.
However, he said the measure does prevent a small majority of lawmakers from passing a massive tax increase on the public.
“Do I think it should change?” McBride asked. “Possibly. It limits us to not being able to do anything.”
He said he doubts voters will approve a change if it ends up on the November 2018 ballot.
But state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said the public deserves the opportunity to re-examine the 25-year-old measure.
At the start of the 2017 regular session, Monroe proposed a measure that would have asked voters to overhaul State Question 640 by allowing lawmakers to raise revenue with only a simple majority. He watched his legislation die without gaining any traction.
He plans to try again in 2018 with a measure that would lower the vote requirement to two-thirds of lawmakers. His measure also will likely include an additional benchmark that requires two-thirds of lawmakers to agree before they can cut taxes.
“My guess is there will be a lot more interest,” Nichols said. “Everybody sees what happens now, how difficult it is to make progress without making a change there. Nobody saw it as a major issue until we got to the end of session and saw how hard it was to meet the three-fourths vote threshold. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t been able to get our work done, or the work of the state done.”
If lawmakers do decide to put a change on the ballot, all it would take is a simple majority of voters to approve it.
Information from: The Ada News, http://www.adaeveningnews.com