Facts Matter: Lessons from the Great Tax and Budget Debate of 2012

Earlier this year, OK Policy was hosting a briefing in Oklahoma City about the ongoing battle over taxes and the state budget. During the question period, a woman in the audience rose with a question that went something like this:

Your arguments are all well and good. But how can you even try to persuade these legislators who are dead set on destroying government? These people won’t be happy until they’ve wrecked our tax system, wiped out public education, dismantled Medicaid and the safety net, and achieved Grover Norquist’s goal of shrinking government to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub.

My response was that there are unquestionably some elected officials in Oklahoma on a mission to dismantle government.  They make a lot of noise and have some rather well-funded forces behind them crafting and amplifying their message. Yet this faction of hard-core ideologues that sees government as the enemy is largely a minority making life miserable for the larger group of moderates who hold power.

As an organization working to have an impact on public debate and policy outcomes in Oklahoma, our goal is not to persuade the ideologues. Rather, our goal is to engage and persuade the persuadable.  We operate from the premise that, by and large, policymakers are in fact persuadable, open to good data and well-developed arguments, and want to do the right thing for their constituents and the people of Oklahoma.

Sometimes those on our side of the issues confuse the loudest or more strident voices on the other side with the majority. That can lead to some real strategic errors, since it can blind people to the genuine opportunities to shape policy and lead to resignation and cynicism rather than advocacy and activism.

This legislative session there was a strong sense early on, even among opponents, that tax cuts were a done deal and that no amount of data and evidence could overcome the political forces intent on cutting the top income tax rate. In reality, the outcome was never predetermined.

Responsible Republican leaders in the Senate, House and executive branch were guided by exactly the right concerns: the need to make tax cuts ‘revenue-neutral’ to ensure that they didn’t do even more damage to schools, health care and other services battered by years of budget cuts; caution in the face of an uncertain economy and teetering natural gas prices; an understanding that tax cuts were essentially irreversible,  and concern that many tax cut proposals had not been properly reviewed or vetted.

OK Policy’s steady stream of blog posts, fact sheets, opinion pieces and issue briefs dissecting tax cut proposals, in conjunction with analysis from other respected Oklahoma experts and steady push-back from advocates and constituents, reinforced these concerns among tax cut skeptics and created doubts and second-thoughts among some who were initial proponents.

In a recent Tulsa World column, we stated our core operating conviction: “If you present elected officials with good information and strong arguments, you have a good chance to persuade them to do the right thing.” This conviction will not always be affirmed – there are certainly many times when the strongest arguments will be trumped by political calculations or the power of lobbying groups. But the Great Tax and Budget Debate of 2012 shows that facts do matter, as long as you’re willing to do the hard work of persuading the persuadable.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.