Will the history of SQ 640 repeat itself? (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.

For those who remember, history in some respects is poised to repeat itself. The events unfolding now bear a close resemblance to how Oklahoma became saddled with SQ 640. SQ 640 imposed the requirement of a 75 percent majority on the legislature for revenue measures and prevented the attachment of an emergency clause — available for all other measures — even when an emergency clearly exists. The backdrop for passage of SQ 640 was an on-again, off-again 20-month special session lasting from August 1989 to April 1990 that resulted in passage of HB 1017. HB 1017 was the final revenue increase in a series that had been passed in the 1980s to keep the ship of state afloat.

HB 1017 passed with the emergency clause, which required a 2/3 majority of the legislature, allowing the law to take effect immediately on signature of the governor. The emergency clause prevented the implementation of another Constitutional provision allowing circulation of a referendum repealing the law by vote of the people. Not to be denied, a group of fervent anti-tax proponents, with the backing of powerful conservative interests, circulated initiative petitions calling for the repeal of HB 1017. Their efforts contained what became SQ 639 and the tax limitation language that became SQ 640.

The difference then to now is that HB 1017 had already been in effect for a year when SQ 639 was voted on. People had seen the positive effects of the smaller class sizes, new curriculum offerings, and other reforms of HB 1017, plus the lift in enthusiasm and the pride of teachers who felt supported by legislators and the people of the state for the first time in many years. But even with the enthusiastic support for HB 1017, it took a monumental campaign by education supporters to defeat SQ 639 by a vote of 54 percent to 45 percent in October 1991.

Meanwhile, the vote on SQ 640 had been delayed by litigation and was not voted on until March 1992. All the energy of the education supporters had been depleted by the battle to save HB 1017. After the victory, the field for protecting the future revenue of the state was left open for the anti-taxers. An uncontested anti-tax message is always powerful, and SQ 640 passed by a 56 percent to 44 percent vote. Thus began a generation of Oklahoma state government unable to provide revenue increases but fully capable of passing tax cuts.

If a new generation of anti-taxers, with the powerful support of Tom Coburn and other ultra-conservative interests, succeeds in getting a referendum on the ballot to repeal this year’s revenue, it will require a rigorous and probably expensive campaign just to keep the revenue intact. Even if that succeeds, which in my opinion seems likely, it will leave supporters of adequately funding state government exhausted, just as education supporters were in 1992. It could be a long time before the Legislature decides to tackle the revenue issue again or the people decide to correct the mistake that is SQ 640.

It’s unlikely that anyone can reason with Coburn and his fellow travelers — no one in Congress, Republican or Democrat, was able to. So, people should be thinking about a way to avoid another generation of impoverished state government services in Oklahoma. We’ve seen the opportunity costs of this kind of thinking.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Will the history of SQ 640 repeat itself? (Capitol Update)

  1. Tom Coburn has shown his true colors. He has sold his soul to the devil and is willing to risk destroying entire OK education system for minority interests of big business. Mr Coburn please come to your senses and stand up for the OK citizens.

  2. In the countrywide view, Oklahoma used to have a good solid reputation as a mid-America state with strong family values.

    Now we are viewed with disgust and dismissal as a state that does not look out for what is best for Oklahomans, just those wealthy and powerful Oklahomans. I grew up in the 50’s in Oklahoma and thought this was the best place to live. I have had good life with friends and family here. I walked to my school and received a good education with great teachers.

    We cannot even make emergency funding measures to help our citizens because there is a huge lock on Oklahoma’s bank account with only opportunities to bribe large companies to move their plants here. WE HAVE TO BRIBE THEM TO COME HERE!

    Please rethink your position that is very selfish and mean-spirited. At my later years in life, I never thought I would want to leave my home state to live elsewhere, not now that is a consideration. I cannopt live out my life in such a negative environment.
    Barbara VanHanken

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