Dank presses tax limits, lower administrative costs, other reforms

By Patrick B. McGuigan

David Dank, a Republican representing MidTown Oklahoma City District 85 in the state House, plans aggressively to push anew for the broad property tax reforms that have eluded him thus far at the Capitol. He supports a freeze on property tax levies for senior citizens, and a 3 percent annual increase on other property owners. (The present cap is 5 percent.) Dank noted he has had help from Democrats, including fellow MidTown Rep. Al McAffrey, on property tax relief for senior citizens.

Rep. Dank’s proposal “to freeze property tax assessments for seniors, so long as they live in their own homes,” is HJR 1001. His HJR 1002, would replace the five percent annual increase allowed in assessments with a 3 percent limit.

In addition to such bread-and-butter tax issues, Dank continues to push for reforms in public education administrative costs.

In a Monday interview at his Capitol office, Rep. Dank noted the state has more than 530 public school districts. “It’s hard to buy the argument that we should ‘hold education harmless’ when you consider that Oklahoma’s administrative costs are three times higher than the national average. I’m supporting administrative restructuring as a way to free up dollars for classroom instruction, not as a way to cut education. If we don’t address these challenges in the present budget circumstances, I’m not sure we ever will.”

Rep. Dank’s HB 1098 would, he notes, “require that public school districts with enrollment below 500 students be administratively restructured to increase fiscal efficiency and increase learning opportunities by putting more money in the classroom.” Dank contends “quality, competent teachers improve learning, not more administrative overhead. The bill contains safeguards against the closing of school sites and gives local authorities wide latitude in determining how to implement these reforms.” 

Dank continued, “I want to see money freed up, in tough economic circumstances, for kids to take band, play sports and ride the school bus. I’m not interested in paying high salaries, in some cases exorbitant ones, to keep administrative jobs when we’re facing a situation of cutting education spending.”

Dank points to the “absurdity” of the situation in places like LaFlore County. With a population of 49,528 people, the county has 17 public school districts. Oklahoma County, with 684,543 people, has just 15 districts.

Pressed on the question of whether or not the political will now exists in the Legislature to tackle the issue of education administrative costs, Dank confessed, “I’m not sure the will is there, yet, for a majority of my colleagues. They’d be wiser to work on it now, while the Legislature is still more rural than urban in orientation. In the future they might not have me and others who are willing to do something practical without forcing the closure of a single rural school.”

Dank does not limit his critique of educational costs to common school administration.

He observed, “We have 52 college and university campuses in this state, and that is probably twice the number that actually fits our population base and our needs.” As for CareerTech, he contends, “I am a supporter of vocational education, yet it’s absolutely clear we have to decide what we can afford to fund, and get the maximum performance out of each and every school and campus. It’s not complicated. We must identify the sites that are performing up to standard in Higher Ed and CareerTech and keep those going.”

Dank has become well known as a careful and knowledgeable critic of transferable tax credits offered in some economic development packages by the state government. “We have reached a time for some tough decisions. Oil and gas are wonderful for Oklahoma, but the income from taxing the energy business is not going to carry us through what lies ahead. The Legislature needs to look at every one of the tax credit give-aways in terms of economic growth, stimulus to economic activity and better jobs. The programs that don’t measure up need to be abolished.”

Dank’s HB 1097 remains alive in the Appropriations and Budget Committee. In Dank’s summary, the measure would create a task force “to study the practice of granting transferable tax credits.”

Dank has also drawn bi-partisan support for HJR 1007, which would require that members have at least 24 hours to review bills before voting on them. Dank has dubbed his HB 1096 the Clean Campaigns Act of 2009. This measure would “prohibit PAC-to-PAC transfers of campaign funds, forbid current office holders from using funds raised for one campaign to launch another and cap total contributions in a single election cycle from any individual.” 

Dank says he looks at each of these challenging topics as part of a broad sweep of reform, a press for change because “we have to do things differently in Oklahoma government. We’ve run out of the option to allow waste and inefficiency on the scale we’ve seen in the past.”

He is leading the charge for a study of fundamental change in the state tax structure, moving the financing of government away from income taxes and toward “some kind of consumption tax or value added tax.” In Dank’s view, groceries and prescription drugs should be exempted from the reach of such taxes.

Dank expressed disappointment that the early response of state government to the revenue crunch has left most decisions to agency directors. “I’m disappointed we haven’t exercised more leadership. I don’t think the state’s elected leaders should be leaving these tough decisions to bureaucrats. Leaders who are directly accountable to the people should make the choices.”

Dank pointedly says the bulk of upcoming budget cuts should fall on “those in supervisory positions, not those taking care of troubled kids, the handicapped and those in need of mental health services.” In the wake of House budget hearings, he says the upcoming session “is going to be tough because everybody is protecting their turf. You run a small newspaper, Pat, and you do what you can afford to do in terms of the size and the distribution of that paper. You can’t spend money you don’t have, and neither should the government.”

Looking to the political campaign season that will begin in earnest after the upcoming legislative session, Dank said, “I work hard as I can out here. I’m trying to do the people’s work. That’s why I’m focused on issues like property tax relief for seniors and others. I think we should run government efficiently and professionally, as much like a business as possible. If I do a good job, and as long as I can accomplish something good for the voters who put me here, I’ll hang around.”

In the broader picture, Dank says, “it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. The Republicans have made great strides and it’s still a little shocking to observe that there are 62 two of us in the state House of Representatives.” Dank predicted, “I’ll tell you this much. The current breakdown between Democrats and Republicans in statewide offices favors Democrats by eight to three. That’s going to change this next election because voters are demanding change and Republicans, I believe, come closer to offering that.”