Marcus McEntire is a freshman Republican legislator representing HD 50 (Duncan). A small business owner, he attended and graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in communication studies, earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and earned a Master of Arts in Sociology from the University of Virginia.
When I was elected to the House, I knew the job would be challenging and there would be many obstacles. But at the end of my first legislative session, I realized there is a certain well-intentioned constitutional provision in place that proves to be an extraordinary hurdle to effective legislating.
This hurdle is State Question 640, which voters approved in 1992. SQ 640 changed Oklahoma’s constitution to require either a majority vote of the people or a three-fourths majority vote in the Legislature to raise any tax.
Taxation is not a comfortable topic for a Republican legislator, but taxes are crucial to funding roads and bridges, education, public safety, prisons, and much more. I’m not fond of paying taxes both personally and for my business; however, I am very fond of having an adequately-funded, effective, and efficient state government that works for its people.
Since SQ 640 passed 25 years ago, the Legislature has not once cleared the three-quarter hurdle to pass a tax increase — even as the state has been hit by several rounds of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts that have reduced us to the bottom ranks in funding for our schools and other critically needed services. Voters have opted to raise taxes only once, in 2004, when Oklahomans approved a tobacco tax increase. The two other tax-raising ballot measures, even one that promised a teacher pay raise, were voted down.
The public continues to demand that legislators do their job, fix the problems, and represent their constituents. Oklahomans are sick and tired of gridlock and underwhelming governance. Yet SQ 640’s three-fourths requirement gives one-quarter of legislators effective veto power over efforts to come together in search of solutions. In other words, in the current House of Representatives, a minority can easily stop the majority from moving forward and representing the majority of constituents’ wishes. Rather than encourage compromise, the three-fourths hurdle fosters polarization, gridlock, and severely reduces the ability to govern in the way Oklahomans expect and deserve.
Only about one-third of states require a supermajority to raise taxes and Oklahoma’s 75 percent requirement is, along with Arkansas, the most stringent in the nation. Requiring 75 percent approval means noble bills — ones that are necessary for good government — die. To correct this and get us back on track as a state, we should look to common sense solutions to this problem. Here are some possible solutions.
- Repeal SQ 640. Tax increases would be passed with a simple majority. This option allows the Legislature to do its job, reach real compromise, and be able to react to crisis better.
- Amend SQ 640 to a lesser, but still high, vote threshold. This option lowers the three-fourths super-majority vote requirement to an ordinary two-thirds super-majority vote. Another option would be requiring a 60 percent super-majority (This is the standard for school bonds). Both vote margins are high standards offering taxpayer protection, decreasing the odds of gridlock, and giving the Legislature a better shot at doing its job.
- Amend SQ 640 to allow exceptions: The idea is that the parameters of SQ 640 stay in place, but during certified revenue failures the number of votes required to increase revenues drops to the two-thirds or a 60 percent vote threshold. This option is based on an objective measure of emergency and need. It allows the Legislature a better shot at doing its job in times of crisis.
SQ 640 is doing what it was designed to do; it makes tax increases unlikely. Its success is problematic, though; it’s a contributing factor to the Legislature’s gridlock and lack of statesmanship. It is time to make state government work efficiently for its citizens. It is time to remove barriers that block compromise and undermine representative government. It is time to do something different.
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