Hamilton: Self-inflicted wounds and a leadership failure (Journal Record)

By Arnold Hamilton 

The state’s elected Powers That Be are calling it a “revenue failure,” but that’s a misnomer. It’s actually a “leadership” failure.

Sorry, elected Republicans, you own this one.

As the GOP for decades scratched and clawed from a marginalized minority to a lopsided majority in state government, its leaders harped incessantly about the evils of “tax-and-spend” Democrats who dominated Oklahoma’s first century of politics.

Republicans begged voters for control of state power, promising to enact “conservative” principles that would unleash Oklahoma’s full potential. They also vowed to run government like a business, right-sizing a state payroll they depicted as burdened with lazy, shiftless, free-spending bureaucrats.

Five years after voters gave the GOP its wish, this is Oklahoma’s reward: a “revenue failure” that portends more agency cuts this fiscal year and a $900.8 million shortfall in 2016-17 – on top of years of draconian budgets already crippling public education, mental health services and corrections, just to name a few vital services.

Remarkably, some in power seem absolutely baffled that it’s come to this.

“Since June of 2014, the price of a barrel of oil has dropped 70 percent – that’s unbelievable,” said Preston Doerflinger, Gov. Mary Fallin’s secretary of finance. “Even when it comes out of my mouth, I’m still somewhat shocked.”

Unbelievable? Shocked?


This crisis was absolutely predictable. As Republicans capitalized on the state’s latest energy boom to cut income taxes and expand corporate tax incentives, they were warned repeatedly that bad things could happen if they didn’t factor in an inevitable, cyclical decline in oil and gas tax revenues.

It wasn’t just liberals like me sounding the alarm. So did the Oklahoma Policy Institute, home of the state’s pre-eminent budget analysts. Even state Treasurer Ken Miller and state Auditor Gary Jones – Republicans, both – warned their GOP colleagues of the potential for catastrophic, self-inflicted wounds.

As House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, put it, “Republicans campaigned on a platform of fiscal responsibility, but instead they have presided over fiscal insanity. … It’s disingenuous to wring one’s hands in despair when the house is on fire, if you helped light the match.”

Modest knowledge of state history explains why the Republican strategy amounts to buffoonery writ large.

It was only three decades ago that a Democratic governor and Legislature made similar tax policy mistakes – and paid a heavy political price when oil and gas prices nose-dived. Things got so bad that Gov. George Nigh and the Democratic majority were forced to hike taxes – an Oklahoma elected official’s worst nightmare. The misplay undoubtedly helped accelerate the GOP’s rise to power.

Will Republicans now pay a similar price? Not only did they ignore history’s obvious lessons, they did so in ways that amounted to pure cronyism, enacting tax policies that disproportionately benefited their political donors – the state’s wealthy and corporate elite.

Since when is it a “conservative” principle to keep digging when you find yourself in a hole? Oil and gas prices didn’t drop 70 percent overnight. Yet lawmakers refused to delay or repeal another quarter-percent income tax cut that kicks in Jan. 1, costing the state treasury another $147 million.

How is the self-inflicted budget crisis helping unleash Oklahoma’s potential? Great teachers are fleeing to other states for higher pay and better benefits, leaving schools scrambling to fill 1,000 positions. Oklahoma’s health languishes in the nation’s bottom tier – $446 million in cuts to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority budget in the last five years.

Is this the Republican way of running state government like a business? Hello, bankruptcy.

Oklahoma’s Christmas stockings won’t be stuffed this year with GOP-promised plenty, but with lumps of coal representing an avoidable state budget calamity that could take generations to fix.


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