We’ve noted before the tendency of lawmakers to waste taxpayer money with politically-charged press releases. State Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, piggybacked on the presidential visit this week to thank the White House “for agreeing to allow” a pipeline project linking Cushing to the Gulf Coast. The project didn’t need White House support. Whatever agreement came from the White House is as hollow as an empty pipeline. What does need White House agreement is a pipeline from Cushing into Canada. For the record, Lockhart supports both segments. We know this because taxpayers funded a press release so that Lockhart and fellow legislators can campaign for re-election on the public’s dime.
AP File Photo
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation lost a court ruling this week, but it’s the state that’s been the biggest loser so far. The Creeks sued the state in 2010 over a new law that made it illegal to sell cigarettes that hadn’t been approved by the state. Before that, the tribe sold some brands of Indian-made cigarettes that didn’t carry a state tax stamp. This meant the state lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue. On Tuesday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the Creek lawsuit. And all that lost tax revenue? For now it’s up in smoke, although that could change if the state wins a separate lawsuit it filed in Tulsa County in 2009 against tribal retailers. That case was put on hold pending the 10th Circuit case. Here’s hoping some remuneration comes the state’s way.
Graphic provided by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation
Reports about the bill-collecting practices of the Emergency Medical Services Authority have been met with deafening silence by the head of EMSA. The agency’s CEO, Steve Williamson, has repeatedly refused comment when contacted by the Tulsa World about its stories detailing EMSA users who have been hounded for payment despite taking part in a program that tacks on a few dollars a month to their utility bill to cover ambulance service. EMSA is the ambulance provider in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and surrounding communities. It’s also a government agency, funded in part by taxpayer subsidies. Those taxpayers deserve much more than “no comment” from the person in charge.
Photo by James Gibbard, Tulsa World
Three consecutive state treasurers — incumbent Republican Ken Miller and his Democratic predecessors — put the Oklahoma College Savings Plan (OCSP) at the top of their agendas. Each touted the benefits of middle-class taxpayers setting aside money for their children’s higher education. A component of the plan is a state income tax deduction worth up to $2,000 a year to families. That deduction is on the chopping block as lawmakers shop for revenues to offset a reduction in or elimination of the state income tax. Miller says OCSP has set aside nearly a half billion dollars for college expenses over the past 12 years. Continuation of the OCSP deduction, Miller said this week, “proves not only commitment to the future of a child, but the future our state.” We agree. Among the targeted credits and deductions, this one’s at the top of our list for retention.
The Oklahoman Archives
Like the Oscar nominees they helped produce, state film incentive programs are in the spotlight. Of the nine films contending for best picture, eight got government financial assistance — five via state programs and three via tax credits to film overseas. The odd film out happened to be the Academy’s favorite, “The Artist.” Stateline.org has reported on the tension over disclosing dollar amounts of incentives for individual productions. Taxpayers desire transparency; the film industry values privacy. States jockey to be the most lucrative sites in which to film, and Oklahoma’s role in the contest is up for consideration. With a Legislature eager to trim the supporting cast of tax credits and exemptions, our state’s $5 million rebate program could join other incentives on the chopping block. Its effectiveness does warrant a review. The enticement hasn’t proved strong enough for a slate of stories set in Oklahoma but filmed elsewhere. The most recent episode: Kevin Durant’s upcoming movie, “Thunderstruck,” was filmed primarily in Baton Rouge.
A bill approved by a state House committee this week would gradually make 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products in Oklahoma. Presently the age is 18. House Bill 2314 by Rep. Ann Coody, R-Lawton, would bump that by a year at a time over the next three years. Raising the age, Coody says, can help “deter many young people from ever starting this bad habit and save them years of health complications.” Perhaps. But one concern we have is that the bill as written apparently wouldn’t apply to tribal smokeshops due to sovereignty concerns. That’s unfair to nontribal businesses that are already at a competitive disadvantage with smokeshops when it comes to taxation of tobacco products. This proposed change needs to apply to all retailers, and state health officials should lead the charge to make that happen.
Jim Lange cartoon from The Oklahoman Archives
The income tax plan in Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address has drawn opposite reactions from the state’s two leading public policy think tanks. Michael Carnuccio, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, praised Fallin’s boldness. David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the proposal “would bust a huge and permanent hole in the budget.” The details of the plan must still be worked out, and one think tank leader is optimistic as the other urges caution. “We can clearly see that when the dust settles, Oklahomans will keep more of their hard earned money next year,” said Carnuccio. Blatt wants the governor to get more input on the tax policies so they’ll be “fair to all Oklahomans and adequate to our state’s responsibilities.” We’re hopeful about tax reform this session and encourage the Legislature to take the next steps with a combination of courage and wisdom.
U.S. House Democrats say the White House’s tax compromise with Republicans is a bridge too far for them. On Thursday the Democratic caucus held a non-binding vote rejecting President Obama’s tax deal that would keep income tax rates where they’ve been for the better part of the past decade. The deal also would temporarily lower the payroll tax and extend unemployment benefits. The last shriek of a House Democratic majority that’s about to go poof, or a rallying cry for progressives and liberals throughout the land? If taxes go up on all Americans in January, the backwash against Democrats might be fearful. “A clear majority of the U.S. House of Representatives supports this plan,” Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, said in a statement. “We are allowing the liberal wing of the Democratic caucus to hold these critically needed tax cuts hostage.” Maybe, but not for long. Even if Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her loyalists fight it out on last stand hill, you’ve got to think the new Republican majority’s first agenda item will be taxes.
The incoming chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee is … Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky. Rogers is the pick of the Republican steering committee over Rep. Jerry Lewis of California in a contest between two veteran appropriators. The full GOP caucus was scheduled to vote on all chairmen Wednesday. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia was favored for appropriations by tea party groups, but really, it was Rogers vs. Lewis — who would’ve needed a waiver of GOP term-limit rules on committee chairmen to take the gavel. In terms of the recent elections, neither Rogers nor Lewis looks especially responsive to the anti-Washington, anti-spending wave that rolled through in last month’s elections. Both are Beltway insiders, and cynics have a point when they say each has piled up so many earmarks during their careers that entrusting either with the helm of the House’s chief spending committee looks dubious — that is, if the idea is to cut federal spending. Rogers has said he got the message on spending from the mid-terms. We’ll see.
OK, so this is a little “inside baseball” for most non-Inside-the-Beltway readers, but a House vote Wednesday showed how potent the tax issue is heading into the November elections. Thirty-nine Democrats voted against a leadership-supported adjournment resolution that would excuse the chamber this week without taking up an extension of Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year. House leaders quickly gaveled the roll-call vote to an end once the resolution nosed ahead 210-209. Fourteen members (including Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma City) didn’t vote. Most of the Democrat no votes were from members locked in tough re-election races, moderate or “Blue Dog” Democrats trying to distance themselves from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans (and, evidently, more than three dozen Democrats) think Congress should act on the tax-cut extension before the mid-term elections. Pelosi and her lieutenants see adjournment without action as the best way to skirt the issue. It’ll be interesting to see how many of those voting no this week survive November.