Budget & Tax
Voters ousting lawmakers who support tax hikes
July 1, 2020
In 2018, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature approved some of the largest tax increases in state history. Ever since, GOP supporters of those tax increases have proclaimed their moral courage and insisted voters endorsed their decision.
But the results of this week’s elections provide evidence to the contrary, as the political bodies continue to pile up. A growing number of lawmakers who voted for tax increases have now lost re-election bids over the past two cycles, chosen to end their political careers early, or had career trajectories negatively altered.
“In a GOP primary, the easiest way to beat an incumbent is to hang a tax increase around their neck,” said Keith Gaddie, the President's Associates Presidential Professor of Architecture & Journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
“They don’t want their taxes raised in District 3,” said Rick West, R- Heavener, who opposed the 2018 tax increases and ousted an incumbent in this week’s election. “They didn’t want them raised in 2016. I knocked on doors—that’s how we campaign—and when you’re talking to people on their front porch, they tell you, ‘Do not raise my taxes.’”
During the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers approved $610 million in tax increases and other revenue measures. The vast majority of that increase came through House Bill 1010XX, which accounted for $477.6 million of that total through tax increases on gasoline purchases, energy production, and tobacco.
While lawmakers claimed the $610 million in tax increases approved was needed to raise teacher pay that year, only $353.5 million of that total was actually directed to teacher pay, according to an official legislative summary.
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; Donnie Condit, D-McAlester; Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs; Karen Gaddis, D-Tulsa, and Sen. Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City. (The three Democrats provided crucial support to ensure passage of the Republican-authored tax hikes.)
Additional names were added to that list or in danger of joining that list after the June 30 primaries.
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, was forced into a runoff after Sharp’s support for the 2018 tax increases was highlighted. Former Rep. Shane Jett, who supported the largest tax cuts in Oklahoma history while in office, received 44 percent compared to Sharp’s 33 percent in a three-candidate primary.
In southeast Oklahoma, West defeated incumbent Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau. West previously served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2017 and 2018 and was among the lawmakers who opposed the 2018 tax increases. He did not seek re-election that year but chose to run again this year.
Notably, in 2018 Kiger announced his intention to run for the House District 3 seat prior to West’s decision not to seek re-election. That announcement indicated Kiger’s support for tax increases.
In his announcement release, Kiger said that “if the state requires increased financial needs to meet our core service needs, we must work to find long-term solutions to offset these needs with effective long-term reforms,” and criticized West for “refusing to work with leadership of the House of Representatives to get something done for Oklahoma, and specifically our county and people.”
In that same release, Kiger encouraged Democrats “to ‘temporarily’ change their voter registration to Republican” before the primary.
“After this date you can change your party registration back to Democrat …” Kiger said.
In this year’s primary race, a Kiger mailer touted his endorsement by the Oklahoma Education Association, an organization that typically endorses Democrats. In 2018, the OEA argued lawmakers should have increased taxes by an even larger amount.
In contrast, one of West’s mailers bragged that he had opposed a proposed 2018 capital gains tax increase “on the proceeds of cattle sales.” And a mailer funded by the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund said that when “the pressure from Oklahoma City lobbyists was fierce, Rick West stood strong and opposed the largest tax increase in state history.” That mailer also noted West’s opposition to raising the capital gains tax on cattle “at a time when our ranchers could least afford it.”
In House District 3, Kiger’s decision to accept a 35-percent legislative pay increase at a time when Oklahomans were losing their jobs due to the COVID shutdown also became an issue.
“I said I wasn’t going to take the $12,000 raise, I was going to give it to charity, to pro-life charities here in District 3,” West said. “And that went all over the state of Oklahoma.”
Along with Kiger, Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, was defeated in his first re-election race since voting for the 2018 tax increases. Shaw’s willingness to vote for tax increases did not appear to generate strong constituent support. He received a little under 40 percent of the vote.
Similarly, Sen. Larry Boggs, R-McAlester, was forced into a runoff. Like Shaw, he was making his first re-election bid since voting for the 2018 tax increases. Boggs received 46 percent of the vote in a three-way primary. The second-place finisher, Warren Hamilton of McCurtain, received 42 percent after promising to “drain the Oklahoma swamp by breaking the cycle of status quo politics.” Warren vowed to have “no tolerance” for tax increases.
Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan, was also forced into a runoff in his first re-election bid after voting for the 2018 tax increases.
Rep. Derrell Fincher, R-Bartlesville, was also ousted in a primary. While he was not a member of the Legislature in 2018 when the tax-increase package was approved, at a recent forum Fincher criticized State Question 640, which requires a 75-percent supermajority for lawmakers to pass new tax increases.
At that same forum Fincher’s opponent, Wendi Stearman, 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.”
Stearman won the primary with 55 percent of the vote.
The 2018 tax increases also became an issue in the Republican primary for Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District. Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, advanced to a runoff in the multi-candidate field but received just 25 percent of the vote after the Club For Growth ran ads highlighting her support for the 2018 tax increases.
While Democrats are more ideologically supportive of higher taxes, support for the 2018 tax increases did not appear to benefit Rep. Jason Dunnington, an Oklahoma City Democrat who was also sent packing by primary voters.
Some lawmakers who opposed the 2018 tax increases lost re-election bids that year, but no similar losses have occurred this year among anti-tax Republicans even as the list continues to grow of pro-tax increase lawmakers losing their jobs.
Michael Crespin, professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, said that trend is driven in part by the fact that a much larger number of Republicans supported tax increases in 2018 than opposed them.
“It is hard to say if there was a fundamental shift in Oklahoma voters on taxes,” Crespin said. “There will always be a core who think taxes should never go up, but also a set of voters who think it can be necessary at times. A lot of this probably depends on a member’s district. Oklahoma seems to have a split between the cities and the rest of the state and this split is evident within and also between the parties.”
The election-defeat tally alone may not reflect the totality of the political consequences for tax-hiking Republicans.
In addition to the Republican lawmakers who have been directly ousted by voters since they supported the 2018 tax increases, another 14 House Republicans and six House Democrats who supported tax increases did not run for re-election in 2018.
While several of those lawmakers were forced out by term limits, nine Republican lawmakers who bowed out early did so without facing term limits. In a handful of cases, those lawmakers opted to make bids for other, lower-profile offices—with mixed results—rather than run for re-election to legislative office after supporting major tax increases.
Republican lawmakers who voted for tax increases in 2018 and then chose not to run for re-election 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.
When lawmakers reconvene in 2021, tax increases could be a topic of legislative debate again. Lawmakers are expected to face a budget shortfall of around $1 billion even as they must find as much as $374 million to cover the cost of Medicaid expansion mandated by passage of State Question 802.
However, one factor will be notably different than in 2018: Oklahoma’s governor will not be calling for tax increases. Unlike former Gov. Mary Fallin, Gov. Kevin Stitt has repeatedly voiced his opposition to tax increases, a view he recently reiterated at a recent press conference when Stitt declared he was “never going to be for that as the governor.”
“We can’t just keep raising taxes on hardworking Oklahomans,” Stitt said.
West said that view appears to be shared by many voters.
“They realize down here that there’s waste up there,” West said. “They’re adamant: ‘Do not raise my taxes. Don’t vote to raise my taxes.’”
NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include comments from OU Professor Michael Crespin.