What The Oklahoma Legislature Didn’t Do Matters

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

At least for state progressives, when the Oklahoma Legislature adjourned Friday it made the most news for things it didn’t do, including not passing a tax cut and not passing the personhood and creationism bills.

Obviously, the failure of the legislature to pass a tax cut, which was a centerpiece of Gov. Mary Fallin’s agenda for the session, was its most significant non-action. At the beginning of the session, it seemed like an income tax cut, perhaps a large one with future triggers, was a certainty.

As I wrote in my last post, the GOP perhaps lacked what I called an “intellectual apparatus” to truly vet and sell a major tax cut. Another conjecture is that, in the end, Republican leaders just didn’t have the heart for a tax cut after years of state budget cuts.

I won’t rehash it again, but one other factor in the tax-cut debate was the editorial page of The Oklahoman, which slowly withdrew its support for a major tax cut as different plans moved forward. Various editorials announced that the income tax rate was too high at 5.25 percent, but in the end, The Oklahoman published an editorial with this title, “Republican base takes a hit with GOP-backed tax cut,” and the tax-cut game was over.

The editorial cited the analysis of the Oklahoma Policy Institute on the final GOP plan to cut the top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 4.8 percent, which included the loss of the personal exemption for some taxpayers. Here’s what it concluded:

Republicans wanted a tax cut to tout on the campaign trail, but flinched when it came time to reduce spending or eliminate business breaks to balance the budget. So what we have now is a shell game masquerading as a tax reduction.

The Oklahoman had it exactly right this time around, and any hope for an income tax cut, especially in an election year, was probably over at that point.

Another non-action for progressives to celebrate was when House Speaker Kris Steele and other Republican leaders refused to hear the so-called personhood bill, which would have granted civil rights to a fertilized egg in a woman’s womb. The anti-abortion bill had passed out of the Senate, but it was apparent that strong opposition to the bill had worried some legislators.

After the bill died, things got ugly in the political realm as I pointed out here, but for progressives it was a major victory. When the Oklahoma State Supreme Court later invalidated an initiative petition drive to place the issue on the ballot, the victory become even sweeter.

Finally, one of the state’s unsung heroes, Victor Hutchison, an OU professor emeritus in zoology and a founding member of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, led the successful charge against the effort to bring creationism ideas into the state’s public science classrooms. The House eventually passed a bill that argued certain topics, such as biological evolution, can cause controversy and required school districts “to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies,” but the Senate Education Committee refused to hear it. This was clearly a backdoor attempt to challenge evolution theory and the scientific method.

When Republicans made a last-ditch effort to bring the bill to the Senate floor, which I wrote about here, Hutchison rallied the academic community and its supporters once again. The bill never received a Senate vote.

After the legislature adjourned, Hutchison congratulated those who helped defeat the bill in an OESE email:

. . . these organizations also sent messages and urged their members to respond [against the bill] as well: Oklahoma Academy of Science, Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, Interfaith Alliances of OKC and Tulsa, several special interest groups on Yahoo, National Association of Human Genetics, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Other organizations that wish to remain anonymous lobbied directly against the bills. The Tulsa World had a staff editorial against the bills and others wrote op-eds, letters to editors and posted on state political blogs. This was the most response we have had in the past decade!

The bottom line is that it could have been much worse for progressives here this session. The lack of a tax cut is especially significant (the other two issues, if passed, probably would have been tied up in court), and the Oklahoma Policy Institute, one of the state’s two main think tanks, should be congratulated for leading the opposition to it. I remember when the state didn’t have a think tank that supported progressive issues.

The session also shows Republicans, the party in power here, are in disarray as different factions try to seize control of the GOP agenda. What that means for next year, unless more Democrats get elected, is more Republican infighting over all three of the issues mentioned in this post. It’s only a reprieve.