Last week I participated in a StateImpact Oklahoma forum on the state budget with Rep. Earl Sears, the Chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee (R-Bartlesville), and Sen. Tom Adelson (D-Tulsa). An audience member asked the legislators what they would do to ensure that more individuals with mental illness were provided treatment in the community rather than in jails and penitentiaries.
Rep. Sears responded by saying that he is very supportive of the work being done by Commissioner Terri White and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to raise awareness about the prevalence and cost of mental illness. In particular, Rep. Sears praised the Department’s ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative‘ that uses evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism and decrease demand for correctional beds. By diverting non-violent offenders into programs such as drug court, mental health court, or other similar programs, Smart on Crime can reduce incarceration and ultimately save substantial tax dollars. The initiative, however, requires an upfront investment estimated at close to $100 million. And, Rep. Sears stated ruefully, we just don’t have $100 million to invest in Smart on Crime.
Rep. Sears is a thoughtful and caring legislator who has done solid work chairing the House appropriations committee. But to say we don’t have money to fund the Smart on Crime initiative is misleading. Yes, we’ve had three straight years of budget cuts and are looking at continued shortfalls or flat funding for next year. But our budget shortfalls are due in part to the policy decisions of our elected officials. In the mid-2000s, the legislature and governor approved the largest tax cuts in Oklahoma history, with a fiscal impact estimated at some $770 million annually in lost revenue. Just this month, Oklahoma’s top personal income tax rate fell from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. This tax cut has a revenue impact of $120 million, with most of the benefit going to upper-income households. Last year the legislature could have decided to repeal or suspend the tax cut based on the ongoing fiscal crisis and the continued cuts to vital public services. They chose not to.
As Senator Adelson noted at the forum, the legislature also chose not curtail tax credits to oil and gas producers that exempt most horizontal and deep well drilling from the gross production tax. These are paid out regardless of the price of oil and gas, so in many cases they are subsidizing production that would already be profitable. They cost the state from $80 million to $120 million annually. The legislature did vote to defer payment on these credits for two years – but the bill is now coming due, adding to the state’s obligations over the next three budget years. Many other narrow tax exemptions, such as the one that makes NBA basketball ticket exempt from the sales tax, have also been left intact.
Now, at a time when the state has some 6,400 persons with developmental disabilities on a waiting list for services, when some 600-900 people each day are on a waiting list for mental health treatment beds, when the legislature has eliminated funding for programs promoting quality teaching and schools, what is at the top of this year’s legislative agenda? Further cuts to the state income tax– or perhaps its complete elimination.
Legislators may choose to prioritize further tax cuts over securing funds for initiatives like Smart on Crime that would help address our most troubling social problems and save money over the long run. But if they make that choice, they cannot pretend to be blameless when the funds aren’t available. Oklahomans deserve honesty from our elected representatives, not buck-passing.