Budget & Tax , Good Government
Jonathan Small | January 10, 2017
An agenda for the legislature
The Oklahoma Legislature will convene for its 2017 session in less than a month. This year, our lawmakers have a rare opportunity to take some real steps to address chronic budget issues and to make our state a better, safer, more attractive place to live.
First, it is time to end the wasteful tax incentives granted to the wind-power industry, which cost us an ever-escalating tens of millions of dollars annually, more than $100 million in 2014. In addition, a companion five-year property tax exemption for wind farms costs schools and local governments even more. This is an unjustified giveaway.
Next, it’s time to reform our unelected Judicial Nominating Commission to reduce the incestuous power of lawyers to choose judges. All too often, judges appointed via the commission’s recommendations issue rulings at odds with the opinions and values of Oklahomans. One good step would be to give our state Senate the authority to confirm or reject judicial nominees.
Voters endorsed a series of criminal justice reforms in November, a good first step to reducing prison overcrowding and associated costs. Now we should reduce the often burdensome fees and fines associated with too many criminal cases and work toward breaking the multi-generational criminal cycle by offering school choice scholarships to children whose parents are incarcerated. We should also increase the use of alternatives to prison and further reform occupational licensing.
Just over 60 percent of Oklahomans are in the labor force. One reason is that a combination of taxes, excess regulation, and the attraction of welfare programs that replace work all create disincentives. More rational state policies in all those areas would help return many to work. Imagine the boost to our economy if we’d only add another five percent of our citizens to the labor force!
Teacher pay? Yes, let’s raise it, but not with new taxes. The dismal failure of the Boren Tax Increase proposal (State Question 779) last November made it clear that Oklahoma taxpayers insist on a better way to reward teachers. We can do it by setting rational priorities, beginning with repealing those wind-power subsidies and using that money for teacher pay raises. Recent reforms in how our state employee health insurance system operates should also generate savings of $100 million or more.
Since a $5,000 raise for every teacher in Oklahoma would cost about $245 million, we’re almost there with those two savings alone.
And while we address that education issue, it is past time to enact true school choice for all Oklahoma families in the form of Education Savings Accounts that allow them to use a portion of the state funds dedicated to educating their child in alternative ways beyond the local public school.
Critics of ESAs claim they would hurt public schools. That’s simply untrue. If we allowed parents to take a portion of the state funds dedicated to their child to an alternative educational setting like a private school, the public school would no longer be spending money on that child but would still get to keep a significant portion of that child’s per-pupil revenue.
When injecting choice into the school equation, public schools respond by improving the services they provide. ESAs would be a win for children and for education as a whole.
At the higher education level, we can stop annual tuition increases by creating lower-cost “freshman academies” to allow students to complete their basic college courses more economically. At the same time, our major universities should expect professors to do more teaching. And, we can trim the non-teaching administrative overhead in our inefficient higher education system.
Currently, the administrative overhead in our colleges and universities (as a percentage of the private-sector workforce) is 61 percent greater than the national average. That represents tens of millions of dollars that never get near a student or a classroom.
In addition, a study of teaching loads at OU and OSU showed that 20 percent of the faculty are teaching half or more of the course load. There are professors earning well above $100,000 each year who sometimes teach as few as 20 students!
Finally, legislators should reaffirm last year’s opposition to Medicaid expansion that would have added hundreds of thousands of able bodied adults to a program meant for the genuinely needy. Refocusing the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, whose endowment now is $1 billion and whose annual earnings and annual settlement contributions exceed $100 million a year, can meet critical health care access needs the Oklahoma way without shackling Oklahoma to failed federal policies.
Jonathan Small is president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.