Law & Principles

A tribute to State Question 640

July 13, 2017

Jonathan Small

By Jonathan Small

As lawmakers navigated through the final days of the 2017 legislative session, with debates over budget gaps and proposed tax increases, some who love the idea of soaking the taxpayers for all they can get bemoaned the existence of one of the most important constitutional safeguards in state history: State Question 640, passed overwhelmingly by the voters in 1992.

If it wasn’t for that pesky 640, they wailed, we could jack taxes up as much as we want. This, of course, was precisely the purpose of that landmark constitutional amendment: to protect Oklahomans from tax consumers.

Prior to 1992, bare legislative majorities raised taxes time and time again, most notably in the early 1980s after the oil bust. They were determined to keep state government on its spendthrift course, even while Oklahoma businesses and families were swimming upstream through a serious extended recession.

But when voters said “enough!” with 640, the tax-raising authority was rigidly curtailed. Under its provisions, taxes could not be raised during the last week of the legislative session, all revenue-raising measures had to originate in the House of Representatives, and both houses of the Legislature had to approve any tax increase by a supermajority of at least 75 percent. Alternatively, voters could approve a tax increase at the polls.

No longer was the annual tax increase the go-to strategy of the big-government advocates.

Some then claimed that 640 would hamstring government forever, making any revenue-raising measures impossible to pass. But that has turned out to be untrue.

In 2010 and 2011 alone, legislators deployed bipartisan supermajorities to pass bills that raised some $200 million in new state funds and $268 million in matching federal dollars. Also, Oklahoma has raised personal income taxes since 640 was adopted by voters.

Oklahoma voters are not inevitably tax-averse. They just want any tax increase to have broad public support and to be spent responsibly for the public good. They also sought to block the common instinct of many government officials to raise taxes endlessly to feed the unsustainability of government. That’s what State Question 640 sought to assure, and it has been a resounding success.

We should all be thankful that Oklahoma voters were wise enough 25 years ago to pass State Question 640. The mad dash to address an $878 million budget shortfall in the closing days of this year’s legislative session focused almost entirely on raising taxes.

But Oklahoma’s budget issues are not due to too few, or too low, taxes. They stem from two clear causes—an extended recession that hit the core oil and gas industry especially hard and the persistent failure of state leaders to truly address the convoluted, wasteful structure of government.

Given that total state spending is at an all-time high, it’s clear that many opportunities for spending reform still exist.

But if we too easily give government more money, they’ll just find a way to spend it. And then, they’ll be back next year asking for more.

Jonathan Small is the president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. A Certified Public Accountant, he previously 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.