The budget bills approved today by lawmakers — and now forwarded to the governor for consideration — reflect some good investments in Oklahoma, especially for youth and their families involved in the justice system and the hundreds of Oklahomans with intellectual and developmental disabilities who currently face a 13-year wait for services.
Furthermore, given more than $1 billion in tax cuts were proposed during this session, we were heartened to see lawmakers demonstrate restraint. Oklahomans have learned the hard way that once lawmakers cut taxes, those funds are unlikely to return due to the supermajority requirements of Oklahoma’s State Question 640.
However, lawmakers again have missed the chance to make strategic and targeted investments to help more Oklahomans live healthy lives, raise thriving families, and create safer communities.
The most significant miss by lawmakers this session was the opportunity for strategic investments that benefit everyday Oklahomans and families, especially those who continue to feel economic pains from the COVID-19 pandemic. One such measure that lawmakers could have advanced was strengthening the state’s Sales Tax Relief Credit, a targeted and fiscally responsible way to provide tax relief to working Oklahomans. We hope they will revisit this measure again next year along with other possible policy solutions to better support working Oklahomans.
While lawmakers didn’t implement sweeping tax breaks, they did advance a number of revenue-reducing measures. One such measure was the elimination of the vehicle sales tax, which is expected to cost the state $188 million annually. Advocates may remember that an increase in the vehicle sales tax was part of a 2017 funding package to mitigate a revenue shortfall. We applaud legislators for resisting larger cuts, but nonetheless caution that cutting hard-won, revenue-raising measures erodes our ability to pay for the core services that all Oklahomans rely on.
In that same spirit, while we appreciated seeing the Senate hold budget hearings for most state agencies, the overall budget process still lacks transparency and opportunities for public engagement. Most lawmakers – and all members of the public – had less than 24 hours to review the budget bills before the first votes were taken. In addition to allowing more time for legislators and the public to review the budget before any votes, good steps to improve transparency would include holding public hearings, accepting comments and testimony, and subjecting the Legislature to the state’s open meeting laws.
If there was one overarching takeaway this session: when there is political will, our executive and legislative branches can move mountains. We saw that political muscle flexed when the governor and top lawmakers moved at breathtaking speed to carve out $700 million in economic development incentives for an unnamed manufacturer. Now, just imagine what our elected officials could accomplish if they channeled that same energy to constructively address the struggles facing everyday Oklahomans. It’s staggering to imagine what we might be able to accomplish.