Friday, February 16, 2018

Voting Against Largest Tax Increase in State History; By Rep. John Bennett


I want my constituents to know the House just voted down the largest tax increase in Oklahoma history. I voted no on House Bill 1033xx, also known as the first portion of the Step Up Oklahoma plan. Altogether, the plan would have raised $723 million, largely on the backs of average Oklahomans through income tax changes and increased taxes at the gas pump.

This plan was brokered by big business leaders who have no concept of what it’s like to live pay check to pay check or be taxed nearly to death. When I met my constituents on their doorsteps, in their living rooms, at my local office and in the community I gave them my word I would not vote to raise their taxes. I kept my word and will keep on keeping it.

The likes of such a massive tax increase hasn’t been seen since the Democrat-controlled majority passed House Bill 1017 in the 1990’s. That plan led voters to change the state Constitution requiring a three-fourths majority of both legislative chambers to pass any tax increase. In the house, that equals 76 votes.

The vote Monday was 62 in favor and 35 against. This troubles me. This bill should never have been brought to a vote, especially before we hear the latest revenue figures from the state Board of Equalization. The board meets next week to give us an idea of revenue for fiscal year 2019. I’m hearing we’ll have about a $170 million surplus, not the $850 million shortfall predicted last fall.

The constitutional supermajority requirement has effectively killed every major tax increase attempted by the Legislature. The change does allow a vote on tax increases to be brought to a vote of the people, and that is exactly what should happen. County and city governments can only increase taxes by a vote of the people; the state shouldn’t be any different. 

The people I represent, specifically the middle and lower income families who would have been hit the hardest with this latest tax increase voiced their thoughts to me before, during and after the vote. Some were for the tax increase – and who can blame teachers advocating for a pay raise – but a great majority of this district was against it. While teachers certainly need a raise, the Legislature owes it to this state to make sure that happens the right way and we owe it to hard-working taxpayers to be respectful of your hard-earned dollars and not rob you of them.

I could not in good conscience vote on such a massive tax increase package for a few reasons. I believe it is irresponsible governance to ignore the systemic issues that got Oklahoma into this mess and to punish my citizens with higher taxes to solve our current budget woes. Putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound is a temporary fix. We are in a boat with a hole in the bottom, water coming in on all sides, and just raising taxes is equivalent to standing in the boat and dipping the water out with a bucket instead of plugging the hole first.

We must hold all agencies accountable for your tax dollars instead of just throwing more money at them in the hopes everyone will just forget about the government corruption that has been taking place.

I've been asked, "You voted no; so what's your solution?" I have proposed many options to leadership. Of course the most obvious is addressing the waste, fraud and abuse. This is not a hypothetical but a proven issue in our state agencies. We need audits and investigations already underway to continue. This will save money and stop the bleeding, but, it's not the only solution. There are countless other reforms including, but not limited to, using existing funds from the Commissioners of the Land Office to pay for a teacher pay raise, using TSET funds for actual health care needs; bringing the administrative costs in higher education to the national average, saving $300 million per year. Our Arkansas neighbors recently audited the Medicaid roles and found over $80 million dollars in savings. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will find a way for a teacher pay raise and to fund core functions of government without raising your taxes. We are only in our second week of this regular session. Now that the Step Up plan has been defeated, I believe the Legislature can get back to work on something that can pass without harming the hard-working taxpayer.

Please contact me with your concerns, issues and input. I truly appreciate it. It is an honor to serve and fight for you as your state representative.

John Bennett represents Oklahoma House District 2. He can be reached at (405) 557-7315 or John.Bennett@okhouse.gov.

Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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