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.
This is the first year that SQ 640 has come into play. In 1992, SQ 640 put the requirement in the state constitution that compels a three-fourths majority vote in the House and Senate to enact revenue bills. For most of the years since 1992 the measure served to kill any talk of revenue raising by the Legislature. Legislators were content to avoid the bitter pill of voting on tax increases by adhering to the consensus that a three-fourths majority is just too high a hurdle. The prevailing view held that the Legislature “can’t” raise taxes.
The problem is that legislators can cut taxes, usually a popular vote, with a simple majority. And in good times they take the opportunity to do that. You can think of quite a few political careers that have been built on cutting taxes, few if any that were built on raising taxes. But now, in the face of repeated budget shortfalls and revenue failures, the need for more revenue in Oklahoma has been acknowledged by all but a small faction in the Legislature.
In the past few years, with the lack of funding for important state services, legislators have continually cobbled together a budget that consisted of cutbacks, bookkeeping gimmicks, tax amnesty programs, and every reserve of cash they could lay their hands on. When that wasn’t enough to balance the budget, they got “creative” in defining a revenue-raising measure with a few small measures that produced revenue and avoided the three-fourths majority requirement of SQ 640. When those weren’t challenged in court, legislators took it as a cue to base large parts of the budget on such measures.
As the 2017 session approached, the frustration of pent up needs and past budget reductions was enough to finally make meeting the three-quarter majority vote possible. This appears to be what the framers of SQ 640 wanted. They wanted no tax increases unless the state’s financial situation is so dire the negative effect of failing to raise revenue is obvious to nearly everyone. That happened in the 2017 session. With a large majority of Republicans and Democrats working together, there was a three-quarter vote available for raising revenue. SQ 640 could have worked.
I think what the voters who supported SQ 640 in 1992 didn’t foresee was the growth of ideology, partisanship, and the influence of money and modern campaigning in Oklahoma politics. They thought when the need was evident to most everyone, that the people and the Legislature could come together and agree on a way to tax themselves. Ideology, partisanship, and money have always found their way into American politics, including in Oklahoma. But I’m not sure the framers of SQ 640 a generation ago realized that in the polarized politics of the future, people who needed to step up would refuse to just because they could. To be clear, most legislators on both sides of the aisle tried. They didn’t get much help. Maybe they will if the courts send the budget back to the drawing board.