Budget & Tax
Oklahoma voters continue ousting tax-increasing incumbents
August 26, 2020
This week’s primary runoff elections saw voters oust several incumbent lawmakers who voted for one of the largest tax increases in Oklahoma history. In the two election cycles since the passage of those tax increases, 12 lawmakers who supported tax hikes have lost reelection bids.
In some cases, an incumbent’s support for tax increases has been a major issue in subsequent reelection campaigns, while in other races an incumbent’s support for raising taxes was not emphasized but also appeared to do little to augment the lawmaker’s standing with the electorate.
During the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers approved $610 million in tax increases and other revenue measures. The majority of that increase came through HB 1010XX, which accounted for $477.6 million through tax increases on gasoline purchases, energy production, and tobacco.
Lawmakers argued tax increases were necessary to raise teacher pay. But an official legislative summary showed just $353.5 million of the $610 million went to teacher pay raises that year.
Polling done prior to the tax increase indicated Oklahoma voters did not support many tax proposals.
A 2018 poll commissioned by the Oklahoma Education Association, which supported tax increases, showed much public opposition to the concept. The poll asked if people would describe the taxes they pay to Oklahoma state and local governments as too high, too low, or about right. Eighty-six percent combined answered “about right” or “too high.” Just 10 percent said “too low.”
Only 17 percent of voters said it was a “good idea” to raise the state sales tax to fund teacher pay raises. Only 19 percent called fuel-tax increases a good idea. Less than half—46 percent—said it was a good idea to raise gross production taxes on energy in Oklahoma. Raising income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year was deemed a good idea by just 42 percent. (At that time, only around 26,000 tax filers out of nearly 1.8 million in Oklahoma had an income of $250,000 or higher.)
Only an increase in tobacco taxes drew majority support with 53 percent saying it was a good idea to raise those taxes to fund teacher pay raises.
The tax-increase package approved by the Oklahoma Legislature that year included tobacco taxes, but also the unpopular taxes on gasoline and energy production.
This week, three incumbent Republican lawmakers who supported those tax increases lost reelection bids: Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee; Sen. Larry Boggs, R-McAlester; and Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan.
Taxes were openly highlighted in both the Sharp and Boggs races.
Former Rep. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, who defeated Sharp, supported the largest income-tax cuts in Oklahoma history during his prior service in the Legislature. Jett’s record on taxes was contrasted with Sharp’s support for one of the largest tax increases in state history in campaign mailers sent by independent groups.
Warren Hamilton of McCurtain, who defeated Boggs, campaigned as an abortion abolitionist but also promised to “drain the Oklahoma swamp by breaking the cycle of status quo politics” and vowed to have “no tolerance” for tax increases.
Sharp, Boggs, and Scott join a growing list of lawmakers who supported the 2018 tax increases and have since gone on to lose reelection bids or retire early from the Legislature.
Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, was also defeated in the June primary in his first reelection race since voting for the 2018 tax increases.
During the 2018 election cycle, seven lawmakers who supported tax increases were voted out of office, including Reps. Greg Babinec, R-Cushing; Scooter Park, R-Devol; Steve Vaughan, R-Ponca City; Gary Condit, D-McAlester; Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs; Karen Gaddis, D-Tulsa, and Sen. Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City. (The three Democrats were all defeated by Republican candidates.)
In June’s primary, Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, also lost his primary despite having supported 2018’s tax increases.
In addition to lawmakers directly ousted by voters, another 14 House Republicans and six House Democrats who supported the 2018 tax increases did not run for reelection that year. That group included nine Republican lawmakers who were not forced out by term limits but simply chose not to run for legislative office again after voting for tax increases.
Republican lawmakers who voted for tax increases in 2018 and then chose not to run for reelection to legislative seats included former Reps. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison; Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette; Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City; Katie Henke, R-Tulsa; John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon; Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa; Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang; Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore; and Michael Rogers, R-Broken Arrow.
Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, also faced strong criticism for her 2018 support of tax increases in her bid to become this year’s Republican nominee in Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District. Bice narrowly prevailed in the runoff primary against businesswoman Terry Neese. While Bice won the nomination, she was forced to deplete much of her campaign funding in the process as she defended her record on taxes.
Oklahoma Republican lawmakers’ defense of 2018 state tax increases is occurring even as other Republicans are touting President Donald Trump’s tax-cutting success at the federal level. At the Republican National Convention, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, noted that Trump and congressional Republicans had “put hard-earned tax dollars back in people’s pockets by cutting their taxes, especially for single-parent households like the one I grew up in, cutting single mothers’ taxes 70 percent on average.”
“We actually saw revenues to the treasury increase after we lowered taxes in 2017,” Scott said. “Rest assured the Democrats do not want you to know that.”
While lawmakers who support tax increases have struggled, particularly in Republican races, GOP candidates who have hewed to traditional party stances in opposing tax increases have fared better this year, and the tax issue has been a factor in other races that did not involve incumbents who voted for the 2018 tax package.
Former Rep. Rick West, R-Heavener, opposed the 2018 tax increases but did not seek reelection that year. When West ran for the House again this year, he defeated the man who replaced him, Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau. In 2018, Kiger criticized West’s opposition to tax increases.
Rep. Derrell Fincher, R-Bartlesville, was not a member of the Legislature in 2018 but publicly criticized State Question 640, which requires a 75-percent supermajority for lawmakers to pass new tax increases. Fincher was defeated by Republican primary challenger Wendi Stearman, who said, “I believe fewer regulations and lower taxes will result in increased economic activity and thus create increased revenue. Any budget shortfall is a spending problem and not a revenue problem. The answer to a budget shortfall is reduced spending.”
The lessons that lawmakers take from this year’s campaigns are expected to impact budget decisions in 2021. When lawmakers reconvene next year, tax increases could be a topic of debate again. Lawmakers are expected to face a budget shortfall of as much as $1 billion and will also have to provide as much as $374 million in new funding to cover the cost of Medicaid expansion mandated by passage of State Question 802.
House Democrats have already called for additional tax increases, especially income-tax increases.
“I know it’s hard to have a conversation about revenue and taxes,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said during a budget debate earlier this year. “We’ve had it several times, but the one thing that we’ve never addressed in the right direction is this progressive tax measure that we can take.”
While Republicans hold supermajorities in the Legislature, they relied heavily on Democrats for budget support and guidance in 2018.
Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) gave its 2020 Outstanding Legislator Award to Rep. Mark McBride, a Moore Republican who chairs the House Appropriation and Budget Subcommittee on Education. The OEA declared McBride was “instrumental during the 2018 walkout in bringing Democrats back to the table for budget negotiations” and “helped craft legislation that garnered three-fourths of the House necessary to pass a funding package for historic education funding.”