Monday, May 19, 2014
Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
This is the last week of the 2014 Oklahoma state legislative session. According to the Oklahoma state constitution, legislative sessions must begin at noon on the first Monday in February, cannot exceed one hundred and sixty days, and must be finally adjourned by no later than five o'clock p.m. on the last Friday in May of each year. This has been an interesting legislative session. Early in the session, the Senate passed a bill to approve the National Popular Vote compact, but after an uprising from the citizens in the state, the House thankfully killed the bill. Common Core has been debated all session and appears to be headed for repeal in the Sooner state (we’ll see). Tax breaks for drilling, increased bonding authority for school districts to build storm shelters, funding for the Indian Cultural Center, and repair of the Capitol are still issues the legislature may tackle before they Sine Die on Friday.
The legislature did approve a budget last week that is $102 million less than last year’s budget. Common education (public schools) funding, however, increased by $80 million. Many state agencies took cuts of 5-6% but public safety, higher ed, and mental health were not cut.
Some observations about the issues that still linger at the legislature:
First, the Indian Cultural Center is a money pit. It’s an uncompleted building in a high traffic location- I40 & I35- in Oklahoma City. The state has already been out over $100 million dollars on this boondoggle, but here’s the dilemma; do you let the building just set there unfinished or do you appropriate taxpayer dollars to finish it? Bear in mind, the state is paying for maintenance and upkeep on the building now. It’s a tough issue and there is no clear cut right answer. Some Republicans are adamant that we should not fund the project- others say give them the $40 million and get it finished. This whole project has been a complete mismanaged mess, but if completed, the museum ‘could’ be a great compliment to the Western Heritage Museum- or not. Who really knows? A plan to take $40 million out of unclaimed property was rejected because the legislature rightfully recognized that in a down budget year, it sends the wrong message if you fund the Cultural Session, but cut more essential services. It is a quagmire.
Second, why are we not using some of the rainy day fund to repair the Capitol? The Rainy Day fund has been tapped for funding shortfalls far less legitimate than the crumbling Capitol building. Or better yet, why not use a portion of the ‘reserve funds’ state agencies have sitting in the bank? According to last estimates, over $800 million of taxpayer dollars is sitting in state agency bank accounts. The estimates to fix the Capitol- and it needs repair- is $120 million. Why doesn’t the legislature pass a bill to have every agency to send in 20% of the reserve funds? That sounds reasonable and logical, but no one is talking about the reserve funds. Isn’t that money the taxpayers? That’s not the property of the state agency! I can assure you that if a vote were taken, the vast majority of Oklahomans would support taking money out of the accounts of state agencies in lieu borrowing money and having their kids and grandkids pay it back.
Third, increasing the bonding amount for school districts to build storm shelters is a no-brainer. It allows the local school district to determine whether they want a shelter on not. The legislature should also look at giving a tax break to organizations and individuals who would contribute to a school district for a storm shelter. Everyone wants Oklahoma’s kids safe, but mandating a district to provide a storm shelter when they don’t want or need one is foolhardy. School districts are not one size fits all.
Fourth, the tax break for horizontal drilling is a complicated one. When the tax break was initiated, just a small percentage of wells were horizontal, but now the vast majority of wells drilled are horizontal. The tax breaks should continue for the following reason- it’s their money! It’s not the state’s money! What many legislators mistakenly believe is a corporation pays taxes, but ultimately tax increases are passed on to the consumer. Keep the tax on drilling low and you stimulate drilling.On a personal note, my wife Debbie will retire on Friday. She has been teaching for 39.5 years in three Oklahoma school systems. She has positively impacted literally thousands of children’s lives. She’s the real hero in our family!