Author’s note: Twelve years ago, I wrote this article to make a point about the essential role taxes play in our everyday lives. Local, state, and federal revenue help provide robust public services to build stronger communities, support the future generations of Oklahomans, invest in our economy, and make our state a place where people want to live. The original piece was intended neither as a prediction nor as a challenge to lawmakers. Since then, however, the real Oklahoma has moved closer to the one I feared in my dream. Here’s an update shared on what is traditionally the due date for taxes, although the federal and state deadlines this year have been extended to June 15 due to the winter storms.
April 15. I’m not a fan of tax day. Who is? After several tortuous weeks of determining whether I have excess distributions from my 529 plan and deciding how much I owe to the two states I lived in last year, I’m in line at the post office to send all these forms and too many checks to too many different governments. I’ve had it. Why can’t we make society work without taxes? I’m willing to try, I think, as I doze off…
We’re getting there! In 2009, Oklahoma state and local taxes were 89 percent of the national average; in our region, only Missouri had lower taxes. In 2017, the most recent year for which we have data, we’re at just 81 percent of the average and the lowest in the nation except for Florida, Tennessee and Alaska.
In the morning, it slowly dawns on me that I’ve awakened in a tax-free America. So far, it’s great; I didn’t need to set the alarm! No real point in taking the kids to school, if it’s even open today. I’m not wealthy, so I can’t afford one of the schools that is open five days a week, requires the teachers to have a degree, uses textbooks, and has standards about what my kids should learn during the year.
My nightmare is coming true. Adjusting for inflation, per pupil state aid to schools has dropped 25 percent since this was written. We’re spending more than $4 million each year to subsidize donations to private schools and added $18 million federal funds intended for COVID-19 relief for just a few students to attend private schools. These programs don’t help the low-income students that advocates often use to justify them. And this year, we’ve doubled down on abandoning our public schools by helping charter schools and suburban schools at the expense of all the others.
When little Emma asks about whether she can go to college, I just laugh. We can’t pay the tens of thousands of tuition for a private college. There’s no grant or loan programs, and womens’ sports don’t make a profit, so there are no athletic scholarships awaiting her.
Since this article, Oklahoma has cut state funding for public higher education by 36 percent, the fourth biggest cut in the nation. Our colleges and universities subsequently have increasingly shifted the cost to students and families to operate; tuition is up 45 percent in a decade.
Child care is risky too, since nobody determines if day care operators are qualified, safe, and not just in it to find victims for something.
We’re still regulating child care, but it’s getting less affordable. Child care is considered affordable when a family pays no more than seven percent of their household income, but the majority of families will pay more. It costs each licensed child care center $10-16,000 per year to care for one child aged 0-11 months. That’s 17-19 percent of Oklahoma’s 2019 median household income of $59,397, more than double the benchmark of affordability.
Fortunately, Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services (DHS) increased the reimbursement rates to child care providers for those eligible for child care subsidy, and increased the maximum income to receive subsidy to the most that federal law allows. This was made possible by a significant increase in federal, not state, funds.
Being a product of the same education “system,” I don’t have a job today. There’s such a glut of unskilled workers like me that we are lucky to get occasional day labor in dangerous jobs where we may or may not actually get paid for our work at the end of the day.
As a discouraged worker, I’m not alone. In 2009, 64.9 percent of working-age Oklahomans were in the labor force, meaning they had or were looking for work. By 2019, it had fallen to 61 percent. Experts think that limited access to maternity leave, child care, and job training, along with high incarceration rates and poorer health may explain the continuing decline in workforce participation.
There’s hope for more job options, however, since Mexico, India, and China are outsourcing more simple jobs to the U.S. due to our lack of labor and environmental protections.
Eventually I jump in the car (without seat belts or exhaust controls) and head for the grocery store. What an adventure! I pay several tolls to drive on streets that aren’t even paved! Most road owners don’t make enough to maintain the roads and none cooperate to create common tolls, be sure the roads line up, or provide traffic signals where they intersect. Forget about public transit since it requires a tax subsidy even though it’s our most efficient means of transportation.
Some good news: The Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety (ROADS) Fund, created in 2005, is now adding nearly $600 million in funding for roads and streets each year. The bad news is that ROADS didn’t come from new money, it was taken from other services. As with education, the Oklahoma strategy is to re-cut the budgetary pie to help a few of us and hope the rest of us won’t notice our pieces shrunk.
I drive very carefully, avoiding any chance of an accident. Without taxes, there is no neutral party to enforce laws or find fault in a collision. Even if I’m not at fault, there is not much point in taking my case to court. Courts are financed through pay-per-verdict, so I’ll win only if I can outbid the jerk who hit me.
Instead of fully funding our courts and public safety agencies through the state budgets, we’ve created dozens of fees for each case filed in our courts and now expect defendants to pay for our justice system. We’ve clogged the courts and created debtors’ prisons by jailing those who can’t pay these fees, which represent the vast majority. This practice damages families, children, and whole neighborhoods. Happily, this year lawmakers are considering ending the practices of suspending driver’s licenses or jailing those who cannot afford to pay their fines and fees.
A lot of people don’t even try to go out. They stay home due to the threat of disease. Since nobody regulates what goes into food there are always people with salmonella, e coli, and complications from eating melamine. Without taxes to fund research, immunizations, and public health programs, there’s a lot more disease here than in more developed countries. It spreads like wildfire since so few people get adequate health care. If you come down with malaria or tuberculosis, you’d better have enough money to go to one of the few doctors who got into, if not through, one of the nation’s four medical schools. You wonder if it might be a good idea to have some authority who set standards for doctors, hospitals, and drug safety, but how would you pay for it?
Well, we cut state public health funding by 26 percent between 2010 and 2018, and in 2020 we paid for it when every level of government was woefully unprepared for a major public health outbreak. We should take this as a cautionary tale about what happens when we continuously cut most programs’ budgets, and, for a while, everything seems fine… until it’s not.
When I get home, the house is gone! Without funding for local planning efforts, there are no zoning or building codes. My neighbor’s tarpaper shack caught fire on a windy day, so my house burned down, too. You can’t work out community fire protection on a fee basis, so several houses were gone. No worries, though. The rumor is someone is buying up neighboring properties to store toxic waste; that will kill property values and maybe us, too. Too bad we can’t find some way to separate residences from more dangerous land uses!
We still have local controls over land use, but we’ve lost a lot of the tools of self-government. Oklahoma’s lawmakers have preempted cities and towns from regulating fracking, tobacco sales, ride-sharing and rent, addressing climate change, setting a local minimum wage, establishing fair workplace rules, and even protecting us from distracted drivers! Like many efforts to cut taxes and to privatize public education, these efforts are often driven by outside groups that may not have you and your community’s best interests at heart. These efforts also make racial inequity worse.
By the end of the day, I’m exhausted. I realize I’m in what a smart English guy called a few hundred years ago “war of all against all.” And I can’t stand it….
Happily, I wake up in line at the post office just in time to buy the stamps and send the taxes off. I’m still not smiling, but I’m okay with it.
Does this scenario dream have to come true? It’s up to us! If we want to end the nightmare and build the dream, we can register to vote and then cast your ballot, which is especially vital for state and local elections. We can join people in our own community and across the state to advocate for a better Oklahoma. We can join others in letting our lawmakers know it’s time to stop tax cuts and start investing in Oklahoma. And maybe we can stop putting people who don’t believe in government in charge of our government.