Despite all the complaining about SQ 640, legislators avoid votes to reform it (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

This past week was important in determining what legislators will be able to accomplish this session. It was the deadline for getting bills past their first committee hearing. There are plenty of ways for ideas to be resurrected during the legislative process, but if bills were intentionally not heard or defeated in their first committee assignment, it’s unlikely the idea will survive this session.

When session started I thought legislators would surely submit to a vote of the people a change in the 75 percent requirement for raising taxes by the Legislature. SQ 640, imposing this requirement, is a relic of the 1980s and 1990s when Oklahoma’s economic conditions were similar, but worse than today.

On July 5, 1982, the Penn Square Bank failure started a chain reaction that, by the time it was over, resulted in 139 Oklahoma bank failures! Banks had lent money based on high oil prices for drilling, farm, real estate and various business ventures artificially inflating their values. When the banks failed, the farms and businesses failed, and bankruptcies skyrocketed. From the economic elite down, many Oklahomans were in danger of losing everything, and some did.

The reaction by legislators then, to what was literally an existential crisis for state government, including public schools, was a series of four large tax increases over about a five- or six-year period in the mid-eighties, along with painful cuts in both agency and school budgets. Multiple tax increases happened because no matter the size of the tax rate increase, the hundreds of million in projected revenue failed to materialize as oil prices kept plummeting and business failures and bankruptcies kept increasing. By the end of the 1980s the Legislature was about as popular as it is now.

A group of avid anti-taxers seized the opportunity and spent the money to circulate and promote what became SQ 640, which passed by a relatively narrow margin of 56 percent. Legislators of that era would argue because of the depth of the downturn they did not enjoy the option of a “cuts only” approach to solving the problem. Today a large majority of the Legislature has finally reached the same conclusion, but they are hobbled by the limitations of SQ 640.

When session started I noticed that Speaker Pro Tempore Harold Wright had introduced a measure to change the super majority from 75 percent to 60 percent. Speaker Pro Tempore is the second highest elective leadership post in the House. There are other more powerful positions, but usually a Speaker Pro Tempore can get something he wants to do done, at least in the House. It’s apparent the proposal had very little support despite all the complaining about SQ 640. Legislators simply didn’t want to vote on it. There is only one bill left in the House by Republican freshman Scott Fetgatter, and the required majority has been amended to 67 percent.

I don’t know what the people would do with a chance to repeal or amend SQ 640. But it’s disappointing that a simple majority of a Legislature who clearly understands the depth of the crisis for schools and state services cannot seem to find a way to submit it to them.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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