Speaker Steele said taxes will be cut (this year), more legislative transparency will come (some day) and lobbyists are powerful (every year)

During a recess for lunch, as the Oklahoma House of Representatives prepared to work late on Thursday (March 15), Speaker Kris Steele said he felt members were quickly processing all aspects of the Republican agenda, including tax reforms, waste-fighting, government modernization, pension reforms, and pro-life issues. He again expressed support for the Open Carry measure many members want to enact. 

Turning to several broad issues of public policy, the Shawnee Republican added, “I appreciate the bi-partisan cooperation we’ve experienced. We are working together, and I appreciate that.”

In the wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Steele touched on most of the major issues still awaiting resolution in the 2012 session. 

One journalist suggested this year’s session has been less acrimonious than the 2011 one. Steele commented that both former Floor Leader Dan Sullivan of Tulsa and current leader Dale DeWitt of Braman had performed well. He reflected, “Each session has its own personality. This is my twelfth session.” Steele is term-limited, and this is his last year in the House.

Concerning the dynamic this session, he speculated, “Election years might be different?” He continued, “We’ve done a lot of work. We worked hard over the Interim, perhaps we were better prepared this year.” 

Discussing the top issue at the Capitol this year, a wave of income tax reduction proposals, and measures entirely to phase out the unpopular levy, he said a working group he named last week will represent House Republicans in upcoming work on the range of tax and tax-related issues. 

Members of that working group include Reps. Earl Sears of Bartlesville, David Dank of Oklahoma City, Leslie Osborn of Tuttle, David Brumbaugh of Broken Arrow, Marty Quinn of Claremore, Lee Denney of Cushing, Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City, Scott Martin of Norman, Fred Jordan of Jenks, Harold Wright of Weatherford, and Todd Thomsen of Ada. 

Concerning their work, Steele reflected, “We are looking for the best ideas on behalf of the Republican caucus and will then we will move forward. I think we will begin working closely with the Senate and the governor’s office in the next 2-3 weeks.”

One reporter suggested a 3 percent first-year cut in the property tax rate, from 5.25 percent to 2.25 percent, now seems “pie-in-the-sky.” Steele responded, “I don’t know what the percentage will be. I can tell you there will be a significant income tax reduction this year.”

Steele referenced House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Earl Sears’ repeated comments to the same effect, saying he agreed.

Yet another journalist wondered why the state would consider any tax cuts, in light of challenges facing the Department of Human Services (an area of importance to Steele), the state’s ranking in teacher pay, and flat pay for employees of the government. 

Steele commented, “We’ve begun preliminary discussions on the budget. Outside the core areas of education, transportation, HHS and public safety we’re looking at all of it.” He estimated such “core spending” amounts to 83 percent of the appropriated total.

CapitolBeatOK asked if, as found in Gov. Mary Fallin’s tax reform plan, a five percent threshold for economic growth before future income tax cuts are “triggered” was too high. Steele said, “I can’t say I yet know an answer to that. We took the governor’s plan and simply introduced it. That is the reason for the working group to get more information and help us with the issues.”

Steele reiterated his support of efforts led by David Dank to end transferability of certain tax credits, some of them controversial. Sears commented recently that the House “has a long way to go” on the issue.  

Steele agrees with Dank, but observed, “There are a lot of members who think there’s a lot of viability and importance in transferability. For myself, I don’t think transferability repeal is completely off the table. I think there is support for additional accountability measures.”

He noted that other “criteria” for tax credits, reflected in a report from Dank’s task force and in legislation advanced by Rep. Dennis Johnson of Duncan, are still viable in the 2012 legislative process. Steele said, more than once, “I personally believe in the transferability reforms.”

Steele was pressed on a perception that as lobbyists’ succeed in peeling off some proposed reforms, “the ones who lose” are the poor, with child care tax credits and the Earned Income Tax Credit suggested for elimination. 

Steele commented, “There’s no question the lobbying community is alive and well at the state Capitol. Their effectiveness is, however, contingent on the individual member. There are good lobbyists and effective lobbyists. I’m not sure I agree with your premise about the poor. Under the governor’s plan, those under $30,000 will have zero personal income tax. The goal is NOT to hurt the less fortunate.”

Some critics of Republican tax reduction reforms have pointed to suggestions from state Rep. Leslie Osborn and others of perhaps $100 million in education spending cuts, most of that in Higher Education.

Steele replied, “I can’t speak for any other member, but even within the core services there is certainly room for efficiencies.”

Steele suggested the House would not hear a proposed constitutional amendment to give Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones additional authority to engage in performance audits. He countered a reporter’s suggestion some legislators thought the proposal would give too much power to the auditor.

Steele said, “That wasn’t the concern I heard from members. They were worried about taking money away from elsewhere in the general revenue.”  Asked about the issue again later in his weekly session with the Capitol press corps, Steele commented, “The concept intrigues me. I am open. There needs to be a level of accountability to make it work.” 

CapitolBeatOK pressed on income tax reduction or phase out questions, asking if the work of lobbyists amounts to “the death of a thousand cuts,” or “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Steele, enjoying the analogy, replied, “I still believe there will be a tax cut.”

CapitolBeatOK also asked if tax reductions and/or reforms in credits/exemptions would be considered separately from other issues, or “stitched together” in the process. He responded, “My guess is that will all be stitched together.”

In an arena of admitted disappointment to members of the Capitol press corps, it appears that open records and open meetings provisions will not be applied to the House, despite legislation advanced by state Rep. Jason Murphey of Guthrie, with Steele’s support. 

Steele commented, “Rep. Murphey has done due diligence on this. I’m not sure what the entire explanation is. I know there were 20 amendments filed. My support and commitment was firm; I cast a committee vote for it myself.  Today, it is doubtful it will be heard.”

Concerning Rep. Murphey’s labor, Steele said, “I cannot overly underscore his work on this, in terms of the objective. … Some how, some way this will happen, but it might not be this year.” 

Steele said, as he has often, he agrees with Murphey, that the Legislature should be subject to the same kinds of provisions that city and other Oklahoma governments face. 

He continued, “I get it.” Pointing to a wide range of transparency provisions he and other Republicans have advanced, he continued, “The Legislature, this House, works within the spirit of open record and open meetings laws.”

As for the hesitations of his colleagues, Steele said, “the body feels some aspects that are concerns.” These are focused primarily on four issues, Steele said:

·      constituent communications

·      work product

·      flushing out ideas

·      caucus meetings/political processes

He concluded, “Members of the body want some questions answered.” In all, he noted, “Forty-four other states operate under these rules in one form another. We’ve taken steps in the right direction. We’ve advanced the issue further along than it ever has been, and it might yet be reconsidered.”

Steele did not quarrel with the decision of Senate leaders to pull a proposal creating an Oklahoma-based insurance exchange to comply with federal health care mandates. He expressed confidence, however, the state can respond if the controversial federal law is upheld at the U.S. Supreme Court: “Based on the work of the interim and the committee, if there comes a time when the state needs to create an exchange, we’re ready to go.”

Asked about a possible special session to address the exchange issue, he said that “is rare and unlikely.” Stressing he was “not calling for that,” it is nonetheless “possible.”