‘Step Up’ Coalition adds to the conversation, but plenty of work left to do (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.

There were significant developments this past week regarding the budget crisis. A group of about 70 business leaders who voluntarily associated themselves together under the name, “Step Up Oklahoma,” has announced agreement on revenue increases amounting to $790.7 million from multiple sources.

The largest amounts would come from the $1.50 per pack cigarette tax ($243.9 million); individual income tax “reform” ($175 million); a 6-cent per gallon motor fuel tax increase ($170.4 million); and increasing the gross production tax from 2 percent to 4 percent during the first three years of production ($133.5 million.) Smaller amounts would be generated from increases on other forms of tobacco, a new wind generation tax, reducing transferable and refundable tax credits, and allowing new kinds of gambling with dice and cards in tribal casinos.

Whether this will produce results remains to be seen. In addition to the revenue package agreed upon, a list of 10 “reforms” was also announced. The list is just that, a list. It is long on sweeping ideas, none of which are new, and short on specifics. For example, 2 of the 10 reforms are requiring the Legislature to pass “line-item budgets with effective legislative oversight” and creating “an independent ‘budget office’ to root out waste, fraud and abuse across all government functions and identify synergies that can be gained throughout government.”

It’s unclear what either of those means. The Legislature already line-items parts of the budget. It used to line item much more, but when Republicans came into the majority they advocated giving agencies more flexibility. Concerning the independent budget office, the implication is that it would have power to “root out” waste, etc. How would that work? We already have a state auditor and an Office of Management and Enterprise Services. It’s the Legislature’s job to appropriate money. One person’s waste is another person’s core function of government.

The reforms also include increasing term limits to “a cumulative 16 years,” running “the governor and lieutenant governor together” and changing “the way Supreme Court vacancies are filled.” These have nothing to do with fixing the budget crisis. In a press conference last week one of the supporters, David Rainbolt, said there were trade-offs made within group, and the revenue and reforms must be passed as a package. Glenn Coffee, a former President Pro Tempore of the Senate, was more realistic. He characterized the entire package as a conversation that needed to be had.

The group has made a valuable contribution in their efforts to break the legislative impasse. No doubt other citizens will want input through their elected representatives. There’s plenty of work left for our elected leaders of the state to do.

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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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