Clergy group asks Oklahoma lawmakers to consider impact of budget cuts on the poor (The Oklahoman)

By Clara Hinton 

More than 140 Oklahoma religious leaders are appealing to government representatives’ sense of morality and justice — as massive state budget cuts loom on the horizon.

Wednesday, several religious and nonprofit leaders held a news conference at the state Capitol to urge Gov. Mary Fallin and the state Legislature to reject proposals that call for cutting or ending tax credit programs that support thousands of older adults, the disabled and working poor.

The news conference came as clergy, along with several nonprofit leaders, delivered a “pastoral letter” to Fallin and other elected officials, asking them to preserve the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Sales Tax Relief Credit and the Child Tax Credit/Child Care Tax Credit.

The group also asked lawmakers to consider all options for protecting health care for the most vulnerable residents.

“Specifically, we ask you not to make decisions that increase poverty or further burden the poor,” the letter stated.

The letter included signatures of pastors and religious leaders from various Christian denominations, as well as spiritual leaders from other faith traditions such as Judaism and Islam. 

The Rev. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said it was important that the faith groups unite to speak up for the state’s most defenseless citizens.

“Almost since time began, religious leaders have held civic leaders accountable,” Tabbernee said. “Today is another such day when the clergy of Oklahoma are asking the legislators to do the right thing — to be morally responsible and not immorally responsible, to be compassionate and not indifferent to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.” 

Fallin, in a prepared statement responding to the group, Fallin said she is looking for ways to preserve programs affecting the vulnerable in Oklahoma communities.

“It is my desire to protect core services as much as possible for our most vulnerable citizens. My proposed budgets reflect that along with the past tax cuts, which let families keep more of their hard-earned money,” Fallin said. “I also am working hard to hold cuts to a minimum to core services such as health care, specifically rural hospitals and nursing homes that provide services to our most vulnerable citizens who depend on them to stay healthy. Budget talks continue, and I am hopeful a resolution on a budget can be reached soon to give our agencies and our citizens certainty that dire scenarios they are all worrying about are not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. Chris Moore, senior pastor of Fellowship Congregational Church UCC in Tulsa, helped coordinate the spiritual leaders’ appeal, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. 

“The pastors here represent a very diverse collection of pastors, and we don’t agree in all things, but this is really clear. There’s not a way to sort of work around this,” Moore said. “The mark of our faith is how we treat the poor. So if we’re going to fix the budget hole, and I hope we are, it cannot be on the backs of the poor.”

The Rev. Ray Douglas, senior pastor of Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church, shared similar thoughts.    

“It is not a political issue. It’s a moral issue,” he said.  

A separate portion of the letter to lawmakers included a list of nonprofits and foundations which are also asking elected leaders to sustain the tax credit programs at current levels.

That list included organizations like the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, Oklahoma Alliance on Aging, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, among others.

DeVon Douglass, coordinator of the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Oklahoma Assets Network, said her organization thought that a unified appeal to lawmakers would be important.

“We thought if we all work together to call on them to do the right thing, then they will do the right thing,” Douglass said. “Oklahoma Policy Institute believes in a better Oklahoma for all Oklahomans.”

Daniel Billingsley, vice president of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, and Danielle Ezell, executive director of the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, said their organizations were extremely concerned about proposals to cut tax credit and health care programs.

“We are opposed to cutting these tax credits because it will disproportionately impact women in our state who already have so many hurdles to economic security,” Ezell said.

Billingsley said the bulk of the nearly 19,000 nonprofits in Oklahoma work with people in poverty. He said cutting or ending tax credit programs that aid the indigent might seem like a small amount of money “but really could mean the world to someone living in poverty.” 

Billingsley also said nonprofits are already stretched thin trying to help the less fortunate and they cannot make up the difference in massive cuts to core services.

Lawmaker’s response

In addition to Fallin, House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, offered a response to the clergy and nonprofit leaders’ appeal.

He said he wasn’t able to attend the news conference because the Legislature was in session. However, he said he could speak to the opposition group’s concerns.

Hickman said the Legislature is considering cutting some tax credit programs that will affect high-income Oklahomans, specifically what he called a “double deduction” credit that the will save the state an estimated $80 million.

Hickman said it’s critical that reforms are made in some of the tax credit programs mentioned by the clergy and nonprofit leaders. For example, he said there is a proposal to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit program so that it becomes a “refundable credit,” meaning an individual may only get credit for what they pay in rather than getting more than what they pay in.

The lawmaker said by reforming some of these programs, the Legislature won’t have to make deeper cuts to programs administered by core state agencies.

“It allows us to put that money in the budget and not make deeper cuts into DHS, Medicaid, mental health, corrections, schools, all of those programs,” Hickman said.

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