The Oklahoman

Dogma, Presumptions Blur Tax Cut Arguments

Image of Picasso work

The Oklahoman editorial board has attempted to philosophically defend the GOP push for a tax cut this year despite the cut’s future impact on revenue in a state that has faced budget reductions in recent years.

Unlike Gov. Mary Fallin and to an extent House Speaker T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, who mostly engage in sweeping, Republican generalizations when it comes to cutting taxes, a recent commentary in the newspaper actually tried to parse the issue and offer specific counter arguments to those people who oppose an income tax cut right now.

The newspaper should be commended for actually trying to construct a logical argument, but ultimately the overall argument fails because of misguided assumptions, lack of empirical evidence and over reliance on unproven conservative dogma. It would be nice if state leaders, including editorial writers at Oklahoma’s corporate media, could have a rational discussion about taxes, but it can’t happen if we must begin with prevailing conservative presumptions that simply aren’t true.

The editorial, “High-tax states wouldn’t mind an economy like Oklahoma’s” (April 12, 2013), essentially offers counter arguments to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which has opposed any income tax cut this year, primarily because of its future effect on state revenues and in light of recent budget cuts. The latest proposal under consideration, which came out of the state Senate, would drop the top tax rate from 5.25 percent to 4.95 percent starting in 2015, sunset some tax credits and would cost the state $169 million a year. That proposal is now under negotiation. Fallin and Shannon have pushed for a cut from 5.25 percent to 5 percent starting in 2014. It would cost the state more than $100 million a year.

I have outlined my argument against a tax cut at this time here, but in this post I want to address some of arguments put forth by The Oklahoman in its response to OK Policy and others opposed to a cut.

The commentary, for example argues that a “tax cut is hardly going to make the poor poorer” because the top income tax rate starts at $8,700 for a single filer. This argument supposedly addresses concerns OK Policy has about the relationship between taxes and poverty in the state. But the editorial doesn’t address the fact that any flat cut that doesn’t take into account income brackets is always regressive and shifts the most money to the wealthiest in our society. Also, declining government revenues eventually lead to budget cuts or stagnation, which could mean fewer dollars for safety-net programs that help the poor.

The Oklahoman dismisses OK Policy’s concerns that state workers haven’t had a cost-of-living raise since 2006, arguing in italics that it’s a political sales pitch that comes off like this: “You need to accept less take-home pay so a bureaucrat can get more.” Not every state worker is a bureaucrat, of course, and under Fallin’s original plan 43 percent of Oklahomans wouldn’t even receive a tax cut. I’m unsure the sales pitch for stopping a tax cut right now comes off to a majority of people as described by The Oklahoman. Here’s the real sales pitch: You will receive no tax cut at all or a token amount of money and it will take money away from schools.

Higher education funding from the state has declined in recent years because of lower state revenues, prompting tuition hikes, but that’s okay, according to the commentary, because colleges will raise tuition no matter what. This type of argument dismisses any real discussion of just how much tuition has skyrocketed or of the increasing cost of college, which is saddling many students with crippling debt. It also makes a presumption that colleges will always raise tuition each year, which isn’t necessarily true. A few years ago, for example, many state colleges came together and gave students a year without any increase. It also implies that colleges would have raised tuition that same amount with more state support. I don’t think that’s true, either.

The editorial goes on to argue that “no amount of taxation is ever so great that government boosters won't claim poverty,” which is a misguided, conservative assumption. On the philosophical level, so-called “government boosters” are usually people who want a fairer, progressive tax system. They actually favor tax cuts for the less fortunate in our culture. They want to adequately fund education and safety-net programs and call attention to the growing income inequality between the richest people in our culture and everyone else. Specifically, they recognize the state’s historical and well-documented lack of decent funding for education and the state’s historical and well-documented poverty levels. How can we not “claim poverty” when it stares us in the face?

Many of us opposed to the tax cut have argued that the median cut is only $39 a year, a trivial amount, at the same time it collectively takes a large chunk of money away from overall state revenues. The answer from The Oklahoman is more Republican dogma and presumption. The editorial claims, even though the cut is small the private sector “allocates money far better than any government agency.” That’s certainly true if you’re a billionaire, like the newspaper’s owner, Philip Anschutz, but it’s not so true if you’re working at a minimum wage job and don’t even receive the extra $39 annually. The free market enforces poverty as much as it makes people rich. The newspaper is making an assumption certainly not held by everyone and probably not even a majority of voters in this country.

Finally, the newspaper claims tax collections actually went up after recent tax cuts, but it completely ignores the impact of the Great Recession on Oklahoma and the steep decline in revenues after 2008. I’m trying hard not to engage in hyperbole here, but this claim borders on rewriting not just history but extremely recent history. A strong argument could be and has been made that the tax cuts sent state revenues into a devastating downward spiral once the economy tanked.

Still, I’ll give The Oklahoman some credit here for the attempt to argue ideas and also for its rather subdued approach to the tax-cut proposals presented by lawmakers so far this year. The editorial seems okay with the idea that lawmakers “may favor state spending over tax cuts this year, and consider tax cuts again in future years.” I’m okay with that idea, too.

What's Really Ailing America?

From left, images of Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn

In its quest to lionize Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn as some type of great thinker of our time, The Oklahoman editorial board has offered up for our enlightenment some fancy Coburn witticisms that seem far more crazy than profound.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who at 78 has indicated he plans to run for reelection in 2014, has vowed to stop any efforts in the Senate to pass the minor gun control measures under consideration in the wake of the Newtown, CT shootings that left 20 school children and six adults dead.

Coburn and Inhofe represent an outdated, dying set of political beliefs repudiated by President Barack Obama’s convincing reelection in 2012. They rile up the angry home folks here, for sure, but if this state had just 200,000 more college graduates it would never elect anyone even remotely like them.

Let’s start with Coburn. Last Sunday, The Oklahoman editorial page published a commentary that argues, in its clichéd, hackneyed way, “Congress could use more members like Coburn, who puts country first.” He’s not like “The Great Divider,” i.e. Obama. What’s more, “Coburn is willing to make the difficult decisions.” Insightful, no?

To prove its astounding, nonpartisan thesis, the editorial announces: “Today we present Coburn in his own words, about the most pressing concerns of the day.” Sound the trumpets! Drum roll, puhleease. What follows are an assortment of boring, Coburn quotes that mostly just regurgitate the GOP line. Some of them, however, are just plain whacky or seem like typical Republican truth stretchers. Read them for yourselves. I’ve selected a few, not in any certain order, to parse through in this post.

Coburn: “You've got to give him (Obama) credit. He's an ideologue. He actually believes in socialism. He thinks that's the way to solve the problem. And it's an elitist view that says Washington knows better than what the individual family or statesman (does).”

So does essentially labeling Obama a socialist mean he’s making the “difficult decisions” in Washington? No, it proves Coburn is a partisan, who will stoop to hyperbole and name calling to scare people here into voting for Republicans. It’s also a rejection of intellectualism. Coburn has to know what socialism is, and he has to know that Obama is not a socialist.

Coburn: “Government's 89 percent bigger than it was 10 years ago. Personal income's down 5 percent in this country. And they want to claim that we need more government to be able to solve our problems. And the problem is we're incapable of managing the government we have today.”

I tried to find some verification for Coburn’s statement about government growth but failed. I did find somewhat reputable articles that showed the number of government employees has declined under the Obama administration and overall government spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen by less than 10 percent since 2003. Both articles had conservative bents. Just like the socialist comment, this fancy witticism seems basically untrue.

Coburn: “Start treating health care like every other resource in the country. Create a real market that's transparent, created where payment is connected with the purchase. And American consumers, they're the best buyers in the world at everything else, they will lower the cost of health care.

“Our total care will decline rapidly in this country under the Affordable Care Act, the quality of care — plus we're going to ration Medicare.”

That Coburn wants a commercial health care system that is basically only accountable to “free-market” (free to die) principles is nothing new. But two statements stand out. First, Americans are absolutely NOT the best buyers in the world and they are often manipulated by unscrupulous corporations. Look at the mortgage crisis. Second, and this is more important, there is no movement to “ration Medicare,” certainly not among Democrats. If Medicare would ever be rationed—what does that even mean?—it would be part of a Republican plan to try to end the program altogether. Coburn is trying to scare people.

The editorial also contained some Coburn comments about excessive job programs in Ada that seem exaggerated and, at the very least, needs some verification from the state’s largest newspaper.

In the end, it’s just the same Coburn we’ve always known, taking ideological jabs and distorting facts while hiding under his cover as some bipartisan, fiscal expert. The Oklahoman seems quite content to perpetuate this real hoax among its dwindling readership.

Speaking of hoaxes, that man that once proclaimed that the science underpinning global warming was a type of liberal “hoax” has now turned his attention to gun control. Inhofe, along with other Republican Senators, has vowed to filibuster any gun control measures that come before the Senate. One of the proposals would expand background checks on those who purchase guns.

Obama has made gun control a priority since the Newtown shootings, and a group made up of family members of victims recently visited Washington to meet with Congressional members and push for gun control measures. According to Inhofe, “See, I think it's so unfair of the administration to hurt these families, to make them think this has something to do with them when, in fact, it doesn't.” This is just more Obama bashing, and it lacks basic compassion for those mothers and fathers who lost their children in the shootings.

Inhofe and Coburn continue to base their political platforms on creating as much anti-Obama hysteria in the state as they can and then reaping the benefits of that through constituent support. That’s about the sum total of what they stand for right now. They don’t let truth get in their way, and they are as willing as the next Republican to use the GOP standard talking points.

The Oklahoman commentary that poses Coburn as some type of great thinker of his time is laughable. In fact, the rhetorical love fest does more damage to Coburn than good because it shows just what an ideologue he remains. What’s not laughable is another six-year term for Inhofe, which seems like it’s going to happen.

GOP Inertia Slows Criminal Justice Reform

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

The Oklahoma Legislature can rush a bill through the legislative process to slaughter horses and sell their flesh, but it won’t even literally fix its own house, the state Capitol building, which rains mortar down on the ideological myopia.

The failure to fix the building, both its decaying structure and internal infrastructure like plumbing, remains the most obvious image of Republican recalcitrance in their relatively short history of state-government dominance. The building, roped off in places for public safety, could be easily repaired with a bond issue or money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, but there it sits in its iconic dilapidation.

After all, our legislators have horses to slaughter and federal laws to nullify and so our state remains dotted with the tackiness of ideological laziness and historical poverty. The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, still uncompleted, is yet another highly visible statement of what has been wrought by the ascending, dominant GOP in Oklahoma: Jobs unfinished. Dreams unrealized. Mission unaccomplished.

Yet buildings are finally only inanimate objects despite their obvious historical and cultural significance. The mortar feels no pain as it falls. An uninhabited, unfinished building doesn’t cry in loneliness. Buildings can lift our spirits, but the language they speak is symbolic not syntactic.

So it goes, then, that GOP inertia in 2013 is even more spectacularly apparent when it comes to real-life humans, in particular, incarcerated humans, many of whom fill our overflowing prisons by serving time for non-violent crimes, such as simple drug possession. At 26,000 inmates and growing, Oklahoma’s corrections system leads the nation in per capita female incarceration and ranks fourth in male incarceration.

For years, I written here and elsewhere about the urgent need for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, the need for drug courts, community sentencing, rehabilitation programs, and more judicial discretion in non-violent crime cases. I’ve advocated for decriminalization of marijuana possession, and for more treatment options for addicts of harder drugs.

Meanwhile, in recent years the state became even more conservative, further embracing a short-sighted, extreme law-and-order mentality, which only creates more criminals in the long run and makes Oklahoma seem like a dark place of needless punishment both nationally and internationally. There have been some reform efforts, true, but the record is definitely mixed, and the overall numbers don’t lie.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute leads the way now in the state in advocating for criminal justice reform, and recently laid out the case in a compelling manner. Policy Analyst Gene Perry writes, “We continue to follow counterproductive policies that push Oklahomans who are trying to escape addiction and contribute to society into a downward spiral, and the problem is growing more costly to taxpayers every year.”

OK Policy’s work in this area is well worth considering, and it even received an endorsement in an editorial by The Oklahoman, an ultra-conservative newspaper now owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Sure, we should applaud The Oklahoman in this case, but just the day before the newspaper published another editorial about the intensity of support for the death penalty here in the state. The editorial makes this clear in italics: ”There is no shame in this intensity of support.” So as other states return to their senses on this volatile issue, most Oklahomans support the death penalty wholeheartedly.

There really should be “shame” in the intensity of support for the death penalty here, but, beyond shame spirals, such support shows why criminal justice reform is so difficult to achieve here. The state’s largest newspaper can validate the state’s death penalty proponents on one morning and then call for criminal justice reform the morning after. They cancel each other out.

No major, systemic criminal justice reform can happen here without a seismic shift in how we define crime and what we do with criminals, and that has to include a long overdue discussion about the death penalty, the most punitive punishment. What needs to happens here is a collective epiphany, of sorts, and that’s probably not going to happen with a current Republican government that can’t even take care of its own house and with the contradictions of The Oklahoman.

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