Budget shell games

May 20, 2011

To The Editor:

Of all the statements and praise we’ll soon hear about this historic legislative session, in which for the first time the entire executive and legislative branch of government was controlled by the Republican party, I doubt you’ll hear the following: the Legislature has indebted the citizens of Oklahoma to the tune of $1.3 billion in bonds (borrowed money) that have not complied with the balanced budget requirement of the Constitution, nor been approved by a vote of the people.

At this time our annual bond payment is in excess of $180 million a year. The amount we pay in interest alone is astronomical. These “borrow and spend” tactics are fiscally irresponsible and alarming in placing an albatross around the necks of future generations of Oklahomans.

A myriad of bonds were proposed this year. One that received approval by both chambers is House Bill 2171, a $70 million, 15-year bond for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. This bond was initiated to help offset the $100 million swiped from the Transportation Department’s revolving fund in order to shore up some of the $500 million shortfall in this year’s budget.

What we owe in bonds at this point represents over 20% of our entire state budget of $6 billion for this fiscal year!

I blame this debt entirely on the leadership in our Legislature. Thirty-one Democrats serve in the House of Representatives, in which not one was included in the budget process. We were not the only ones excluded in the budget negotiations, as many members of the Republican party that are not in the highest echelons of leadership were also left out. There are 101 state Representatives in the Legislature. Refusing to include Democrats and many Republicans in these meetings amounted to the majority of Oklahoma’s population being denied a voice in this year’s budgeting process. Talk about taxation without representation!

 Representative Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, gave his annual Skunk Master Award to members who voted against House Resolution 1008. This resolution sought to require that every bill be heard in committee, so that each bill would have a chance to make it into law. This resolution could have been a crowning achievement that would have made state history and set a model for the nation. Unfortunately leadership preferred the old ways in which almost absolute power is granted to committee chairpersons who have sole discretion to decide what bills are heard and what bills die in committee. In other words, they silence the voices of thousands each time they deny a bill being heard.

The failure of leadership to be fair to Members by allowing all bills a hearing has led to growing discontent in the halls of the Capitol. Oftentimes, divisions on the floor are not among the Republicans and Democrats; it’s among leadership and those members who are not in leadership.

In my time here at the Capitol I have learned that the priorities of our current leadership are to fund tax credits and giveaways to companies, regardless if they have shipped jobs out of our state or overseas. By continuing their special tax preferences to favored industries they continue to shift the tax burden on our hardest pressed working families.

Leadership has been clever in the way they spin certain tax credits, as they try to blanket the benefits to all when in reality the very few (and the very rich) are the only ones who make good in the end. For example, the state income tax reduction slated for January of 2012 does not benefit those who need it most – it will only benefit the richest 20% of Oklahomans, with over one-third going to the top 1%.

Our work here at the Capitol should be to enact policies to lift families out of poverty, not to tax them into it. Our public schools, state parks and senior nutrition centers have all taken cuts. Where will these working Oklahomans go for vacation with our state parks on the chopping block? How is that supporting good family values? These working Oklahomans are still going to pay the same amount in state taxes, yet now with far fewer benefits. This is no more than a backdoor tax increase by a leadership that was elected on the promise of no deficit spending and no tax increases.

Our budget this year does not pay down our over $1 billion of debt – nor does it put us on track to be debt-free by the end of this decade. If we choose wisely, we can pay down the debt, deal with the retirement of the baby boomers, invest more in our future, and provide tax relief. We can bring lower interest rates, greater prosperity, and the opportunity to meet our big challenges.

I do not support budget tactics that pass our debt to future generations. I want to leave something better to our children. A state of hope, not despair. A state that is coming together, not coming apart.
Editor’s Note: Rep. James Lockhart represents House District 3 in LeFlore County. He lives with his family near Heavener.

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