Submitted by Representative Brian Renegar, DVM
The 2017 legislative session has ended, until the Governor calls us back for a special session. This session began with a great deal of anticipation and hope for improving the lives of all Oklahomans. There were thirty-two brand-new members of the House, which comprised right at one-third of the total body.
Everybody was discussing the need for pay raises for teachers and other public employees that are long overdue. There was a brand-new Speaker. Several legislative leaders from the other party, and even the Governor, were acknowledging that the tax cuts, credits and rebates they have given over the last several years were too much and too fast and some of them even acknowledged that they were disproportionately favoring the wealthiest and the wealthiest corporations and to the disadvantage of the “average” Oklahomans. The conversation was that we need to raise revenue with recurring sources.
There was sincere bipartisan talk about criminal justice reform. The very first bill that was passed was to fix the Real ID law so as to bring us into compliance with the federal law in a bipartisan, common sense way. Those Oklahomans that want a driver’s license that will get them on a commercial airplane or into a federal facility (Real ID compliant) will soon be able to get one, and those that don’t, and want to keep their identification information private, can get a noncompliant license much like we now have. Why this took a decade to accomplish, is beyond me. One of the next bills passed was to authorize a teacher pay raise, but it foreshadowed what was to come, as there was no funding for it. And things went downhill from there. Rapidly.
By its close, this session ended up being one of the most frustrating and discouraging experiences of my life. Leadership was basically nonexistent to the body. There was no foresight for our future. There was no plan, especially on how to adequately fund state government, other than the plan from us, the minority party. Obviously, that wouldn’t do, as, well, it was from us, the minority party, so the key points of it were completely ignored. The partisanship was the worst of my eleven years and bipartisanship was outright discouraged. Civility was at its lowest that I have ever seen. Self-serving actions, particularly by Committee Chairs, were the rule of the day, every day. Cooperation between the House and Senate, as bodies, did not happen, each going in its own direction, with disdain for the other.
Any revenue bill that was introduced appeared haphazard, at best, and accidental. Those that were passed are almost entirely going to be increased taxes and fees paid by middle-class and poor Oklahomans. Nothing meaningful was done to have the wealthiest bear their fair share of pulling this State out of its financial crisis; in fact, we added to the benefits given to the oil companies that own the politics of the State. Little was done to eliminate the one-time funding gimmicks from the budget, so we will remain in perpetual financial crisis we are in, at least for another year. We further slashed core functions of government which simply translates to the State cannot help those most in need, and will further hurt education, public safety, healthcare, roads and bridges and anything and everything else that you might care about. No teacher or other public employee raises. No significant criminal justice reform (which is just as much a financial issue as it is a moral, justice issue). The most significant revenue raising measures that were passed are all unconstitutional.
Just as an example of the hypocrisy, arrogance and cynicism that abounds in the Legislature, last week I heard a Republican Senator tell an audience that we are now putting more money into education than the State has ever done in its history. I was thinking to myself, “Have all my school superintendents and the Eastern Oklahoma State College President been lying to me? Did I miss something hugely important?” And then I remembered. Last year we changed the rules of the game. Now, when we are counting the money that “goes to education,” we are counting every stick of Blue and Gold Sausage the FFA kid sells, every popcorn and hotdog sold at a high school football game and every bond issue that is passed to fix the leaky roof at the junior high. By changing the definition of “money going to education,” even though we are not allocating near as much State budget funding, we can have legislators crow, “We are now giving more money to education than ever before,” and a huge number of gullible voters will buy it.
Most importantly, we gave the oil barons, the gluttons of greed, another opportunity to laugh all the way to the bank as they deposit their huge dividend checks. We allowed them the privilege to double the length of their lateral lines to suck twice as much oil out of the Oklahoma earth with half the number of roughnecks employed than the current law allows. And, they get to do this while paying the lowest gross production tax (2%) in the nation during the entire time the well is at its peak of production. Only after it is essentially “played out,” do we raise the tax to 7%. Since the legislature won’t do what is right on this, we can only pray that you, the citizens, will take up the cause with an Initiative Petition and vote at the next general election to have oil companies (and other energy companies?) contribute their fair share.
This session was nothing but lost opportunities for the future of our State. Thank goodness the other part of my job is to help constituents with State issues.
2 Cor. 9:6 Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.