For a brief moment, it looked as though there might be one silver lining to the ongoing state budget crisis. Over the past two years, a majority of legislators have voted repeatedly for tax increases needed to avert budget cuts and make investments in teacher raises, health care, and other urgent priorities. In every case, the votes fell short of the three-quarters support in both chambers required to raise revenue, a provision of the state Constitution since voter passage of State Question 640 in 1992.
As we entered the 2018 session, it looked like voters might get the chance to revisit SQ 640, which had been passed by a narrow majority (56 percent) in a low-turnout election a generation ago. A rising swell of voices from both inside and outside the Legislature acknowledged that the state’s supermajority requirement, the most stringent in the nation, has made the state ungovernable by giving a small fraction of lawmakers veto power over the will of the majority.
In a January press release, House Speaker Pro Tem Harold Wright expressed his frustration that due to SQ 640, “it has been impossible to pass necessary revenue measures to provide for adequate core services in Oklahoma: roads and bridges, public safety, education, public health and corrections.” Speaker Pro Tem Wright was one of four lawmakers who introduced joint resolutions calling for a vote of the people to lower the requirement for revenue bills from 75 percent to 60 percent, the same threshold as for school bond issues. The same proposal was part of the Step Up coalition’s package of governance reforms that was endorsed by a broad coalition of business and community leaders.
Yet while the failure of the Step Up revenue package to cross the 75 percent hurdle might have pumped up legislators’ resolve to loosen the binds of SQ 640, it seems to have let the air out of the bag instead. The first bill to lower the threshold to 60 percent to get heard in committee – SJR 52 by Sen. Lonnie Paxton – was defeated on a tied 5-5 vote in the Senate Rules committee. Both committee Democrats – Kay Floyd and Michael Brooks – joined with three Republicans – Nathan Dahm, Rob Standridge and Gary Stanislawksi – to kill the measure. While the Republicans’ rationale was opposition to making it easier to raise taxes, the Democrats’ main concern was losing their leverage to stop tax increases that disproportionately fall on low- and moderate-income Oklahomans and do not include more progressive components. Some Democrats have also insisted that any supermajority requirement apply to tax cuts as well as tax increases.
Following the defeat of SJR 52, Speaker Pro Tem Wright opted not to have his bill, HJR 1032, heard in committee. However, two weaker measures amending State Question 640 remain alive, and one of these could end up on the ballot in November:
- HJR 1050 by Rep. Scott Fetgatter was originally intended to lower the threshold to three-fifths but instead now lowers it to two-thirds (67 percent), which would still be among the strictest requirements in the nation. Following two hours of contentious debate and the defeat of a floor amendment proposed by Speaker Pro Tem Wright to set the threshold at 60 percent, HJR 1050 narrowly passed the House on a 51-41 vote and is now eligible to be heard in the House. [Update: HJR 50 was defeated in the Senate Rules committee]
- SJR 61 by Sen. Kim David would lower the threshold to 60 percent but only for sales and use tax increases. Oklahoma already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation, and municipalities, which are heavily dependent on sales tax revenues, will certainly fight any new state sales tax increase, as they did State Question 779 in 2016. Sales tax increases also have a disproportionate impact on low-income households, who already pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes. SJR 61 would also allow for tax increases to be voted on at the time of the next statewide election, which could be at the same time as party primaries, rather than only during November general elections. SJR 61 has passed the Senate and can now be heard in the House
Meanwhile, the House voted down HJR 1057 by Rep. Ryan Martinez that would have lowered the threshold for a tax increase to two-thirds, but only in years when a revenue failure has been declared and only for a two-year period before the tax increase would expire.
Lowering the threshold for tax increases from 3/4 to 2/3rds would make it slightly easier for legislators to do the job they’re elected to do of responding to fiscal conditions in the best interests of the state. However, a real fix to SQ 640 should lower the threshold to a simple majority or at least 60 percent, and if more than 50 percent support is required for tax increases, the same threshold should be required for measures that reduce taxes. It looks, however, that the best that legislators may offer voters this November is a chance between bad and worse.