Call 911! Call 911! Call 911!

Considering it was designed to be slow and messy and that it depends on elected officials who must keep us happy, the legislative process works amazingly well much of the time. At other times, though, it encourages bad habits that work against our ultimate goals. Sometimes legislators are overly responsive to the news of the day or to a loud but small constituency. Sometimes they appear to solve problems by forcing someone else to take care of it. This is the story of what happens when two bad habits merge.

On April 16th, the Oklahoma House of Representatives amended SB 1166 to cut county taxes on cellular phones by 70 percent. This action came in the wake of a large anti-tax rally the previous day. Amendment sponsor Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) said:

I think this shows that yesterday’s ‘Tea Party’ protests are already having an effect. By voting to dramatically reduce a cell phone tax, I think members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives have shown they got the message and are working to rein in taxes in Oklahoma. Hopefully, Washington will get the message too.

This was what might be called a “free vote.” Representatives were free to take quick action, knowing they could be for a 35-cent tax cut and not have to take the blame for the impact on public safety. In reality, they jeopardized an already precarious pillar of our public safety structure and gave a swift kick to the most beaten-up governments in Oklahoma, the counties.

Current law allows counties to levy a 50-cent monthly tax on cell phone users, only if voters approve. The money must be used to improve 911 service for cell phone users. The House action effectively negated our right to vote to tax ourselves for this vital service. Ironically, on the same day as the tax cut, legislative leaders were so sufficiently concerned about problems with 911 service that they announced a joint task force to figure out how to make an antiquated 911 system work better in the face of rapidly evolving technology. These leaders acknowledged that the funding base for 911 service–land phone lines–is drying up. At the same time, technology to spot cell phone users for emergency responders is much more expensive. A recent article in The Oklahoman describes how limited revenue and increasing costs combine to jeopardize public safety response in rural areas. I am more than happy to chip in 50 cents a month–and might vote for more, if the state left me that right–to help get an ambulance right to the spot of my–or any other–car wreck. Is this essential public service only worth 15 cents a month?

As it stands today, the House claims credit for solving a problem, but leaves someone else–counties, in this case–to clean up. Counties are the state’s favorite government punching bag. They live with a state-mandated governing structure with around ten elected officials who are given every incentive to work at cross-purposes. Counties are dependent on property tax funding with no option to ask voters for increases and they’re limited (unlike cities) in the sales tax they can levy, with voter approval. Worst of all, they are tasked with operating and supporting a criminal justice system that is overloaded and largely outside their control. When the Legislature creates a new crime, counties have to carry out the investigation, prosecution, and adjudication. When the Legislature lengthens sentences, county jails overflow. When courts step in to protect rights of the accused and those convicted, county budgets take a hit.

Counties have a lot on their plate and little control over it. We are right to expect them to play a key role in improving 911 service — they cover every square inch of Oklahoma and can work effectively with the phone providers and Oklahoma’s 500+ city governments. It is wrong to ask them to do it for 70 percent less when we know the problem is getting bigger, not smaller. It is even more wrong to take credit for saving taxpayer money and then passing along the public safety mandate–with lower funding–to the county courthouse.

Fortunately, our legislative system not only encourages some bad habits, but it’s also set up to cool passions. Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond), author of SB 1166, refused to accept the House amendment and is defending funding for 911 systems statewide.

Oklahoma’s 911 system does need to be upgraded to current standards to ensure the continued safety of all Oklahomans. Cutting the funding to this program is not prudent and will not help in moving our state forward.

The bill now goes to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate. This is all part of a legislative process that encourages careful deliberation for times when leaders know that what’s best for Oklahoma is not necessarily what feels best to legislators–times like this.


Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn served as Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy from May 2019 until December 2021. Before joining OK Policy, Shinn held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

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