The Legislature returns to work today. Here’s what should be top on the agenda.

Oklahoma_State_CapitolPolitical debates often divide us between Republicans and Democrats, between conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. Winner-take-all political campaigns tend to emphasize those divides.

But when we envision what a good future looks like for our state, Oklahomans aren’t that far apart. Nearly all of us want a state with healthy and well-educated citizens, good-paying jobs, safe streets, and strong communities. We want everyone to have the freedom and economic opportunity to raise a family without constantly worrying about having enough to get by.

We still fall short of that ideal. But with lawmakers returning to work today, they have some big opportunities to bring it closer.

The first priority should be taking a more responsible approach to our tax system — one that increases transparency of the tax code, ensures long-term stability for important services, and protects the essential revenues that allow us to invest in ourselves.

The Great Recession beginning in 2008 opened a huge hole in the state budget that was never fully repaired. Yet politicians have continued to push tax cuts while ignoring the growing problems caused by underfunded core services—such as growing class sizes, rising tuition and fees, too few foster families for neglected and abused kids, overcrowded and unsafe prisons, and more.

Contributing to these problems are ill-advised and unaffordable tax breaks. In particular, a tax exemption for horizontal drilling has become dramatically more expensive, because this once risky technology is now commonplace. We are now giving away over $250 million a year to subsidize highly profitable wells even as we cut services for Oklahoma families.

So it’s time to halt the march of tax cuts and reign in unnecessary tax breaks. When that’s done, the next priority should be reinvesting in education. Since 2008, Oklahoma’s per pupil school funding fell more than twenty percent. This was the largest percentage drop in the nation. Oklahoma is losing teachers, students are being crammed into overcrowded classrooms, and the advanced classes that prepare our kids for college are being slashed.

During last year’s tax cut debate, a scientific poll of Oklahomans showed a large majority (68 percent) believe an educated and well-trained workforce is more important for attracting business than low income tax rates. If we want good jobs and a prosperous future for our children, we need to invest in education.

Finally, we need to take advantage of a huge opportunity to improve the health and financial security of Oklahomans. If we expand health coverage to Oklahomans making up to slightly more than the poverty level, we can access billions in federal funds to cover the cost. While many states are using these funds to expand Medicaid, the federal government has shown flexibility with states to develop a private option similar to Insure Oklahoma.

When it comes to our state’s health, we can’t accept the status quo. Oklahomans get sicker, die sooner, and go without much needed medical care more than almost everyone else in the nation.

Accepting the funds would also be a huge boost to Oklahoma’s economy. The infusion of billions in federal health care dollars would create thousands of good-paying jobs. It would also dramatically improve the health and financial security of the state’s workforce. Expanding health coverage is especially important for hard-working Oklahomans who we interact with on a daily basis — restaurant, fast food and retail workers, construction workers, and those who work with our children and assist our aging loved ones.

In the coming year, OK Policy will work on these priorities as part of the Together Oklahoma coalition. To be a part of this grassroots movement, you can sign up here.

A version of this article previously appeared in The Lawton Constitution.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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