COMMENTARY: Driving a man to drink -- Is Oklahoma state Treasurer Ken Miller “growing in office?”
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Published: 16-Nov-2012

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A question that inquiring minds – at least this one – seek to answer is this: Is Oklahoma State Treasurer Ken Miller “growing” (moving to the Left) in office? 

The question takes me back to my time in the District of Columbia, when observant conservatives often fretted over the tendency of friends to shift slowly (in some cases rapidly) to the political Left, earning words of praise from The Washington Post and other keepers of the liberal flame.

Returning to the present tense, some background data.

In the forthcoming Capitol Report for News9, I will discuss impressive growth in state government revenues in the two recurring measures of tax income, Miller’s regular summary of gross receipts, and Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger’s monthly report on all state tax streams.

Tina Korbe Dzurisin, policy impact director at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) observed in a Thursday (November 15) essay, “The numbers this month -- while impressive -- are actually nothing new; they simply continue a trend that essentially began when a small reduction in the income tax rate took effect in early 2011.” 

On a related front, federal spending, and various scenarios for drops or even a collapse in such funding, have been the focus of an interim study guided by Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican. 

His timing was and is perfect, considering that Gov. Fallin has not yet announced whether she’s going along with Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act (which the president has, in the end, embraced proudly as “ObamaCare”). 
Dzurisin and all the folks at OCPA have long said that federal spending matters. Chasing federal dollars demonstrably spurs higher state spending. Brandon Dutcher, the policy vice president at OCPA, was dismayed that Republican leaders bragged about the new fiscal year 2013 budget: “There’s no cuts!” 

That explains why state spending is at an all-time high – at least in the analysis of OCPA’s Jonathan Small, who generally reaches the same conclusions I do.

Indeed, the Tax Foundation, a respected 75-year-old think tank, actually concluded Oklahoma leads the nation in state-government spending growth over the past decade. Yikes! That spending growth information is often obscured by the state’s comparative economic boom, especially since the start of the Great Recession. 

Some political leaders are not pleased when this spending reality is reported, but it’s curious that state Treasurer Ken Miller is among them, as he commented recently: “Those who paint current officeholders as the biggest spenders in state history are being disingenuous.” 

He continued: “Thanks to the inclusion of federal dollars, the [Tax Foundation] study shows Oklahoma with the highest spending increase in the past decade. … Federal spending is the responsibility of Congress and the president, not state lawmakers …”

Wait a second. Tax Foundation vice president Joseph Henchman replied this way: “Treasurer Miller concedes that Oklahoma’s spending growth is the fastest. His response is that the spending growth is not so high if you exclude Oklahoma’s state spending that’s funded by federal dollars. We don’t think it's appropriate to exclude that spending, as it’s still state spending.”

Tina and her colleagues at OCPA, including fiscal analyst Small and vice president Dutcher, agree. As a matter of economic analysis, so do I. I know, I know, I am a mere historian and journalist, rather than a practitioner of the dismal science. And, perhaps I’m in need of remedial education. 

Gently nudging Treasurer Miller, note that state policymakers do indeed have some control over federal spending in Oklahoma. In fact, this is what the debate over the Obamacare Medicaid expansion is all about.

In any case, it’s interesting to take note of a professed conservative -- a guy I can’t help but like even when he is gigging my friends –  as he “grows in office.” Attacking not only the venerable Tax Foundation, but jabbing conservatives in general, is getting to be a pattern for Miller.

Early in his career Miller stood with OCPA as the group released its Taxpayer Bill of Rights study.  He was against “revenue enhancements” before he was for them

But lately he has lined up on the opposite side of ALEC, Arthur Laffer, OCPA, the Tax Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page — while lining up on the same side as liberal think tanks like the Oklahoma Policy Institute and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), as well as liberal professors at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned his doctorate in economics.

It’s no wonder that my friends at OK Policy, including David Blatt, would be eager to call attention to Ken Miller’s articles — because many of his arguments are the same ones used by OK Policy and other critics of Dr. Laffer and OCPA.

“Tax reform should not be confused with simply eliminating the state’s largest revenue source on a wing and a prayer,” Miller wrote, equating the detailed, thorough, sophisticated study done by a world-historical figure with “a wing and a prayer.” That one made me grit my teeth. 

On October 30 he even took a shot at the historic tax cut enacted by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

In a November 1 commentary called “Stop the Madness,” Treasurer Miller’s more conservative side was on display, as he challenged the use of one-time revenues to plug recurring budget gaps.

I happen to think he’s right that is a tactic to be avoided, but his shots at the state budgeteers of 2012 is curious, given lamentably long-standing Republican precedents, including those established during his tenure as House Appropriations Chairman, to … use “one-time revenues to plug recurring budget gaps.”

To confess bias, I am drawn to the formulation expressed days ago by Secretary Doerflinger, who said that as we await the likely impact of national policy decision-makers on the Sooner State in the months ahead: “Our best defense is to keep playing good offense.”

In moments of subjectivity I can’t help hoping those comments from Doerflinger are code words for “This time, the governor really is going to cut taxes.” 

Am I missing something? Or, do I need to ponder all of this over a brew or two? Is it Miller Time? 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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