Tahlequah Daily Press

February 17, 2014

Legislators: New session, same issues

Lawmakers discuss tax cuts, state retirement system and education during Legislative Focus

By TEDDYE SNELL
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Two weeks into the new legislative session, Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, often feels like he’s re-enacting a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Brown, along with Rep. Will Fourkiller, D-Westville and Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, spoke during the first Legislative Focus, held at Cherokee ElderCare Friday morning.

Brown said he’s grows tired of hearing about flat budgets, belt-tightening, tax cuts and corporate entitlements.

“Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day?” asked Brown. “I feel like Bill Murray must have, because every session it’s the same thing.”

According to Brown, this year, the state is facing a $170 million shortfall.

“This is similar to the budget amount we had in 2008-2009, but if you adjust for inflation, we’re $572 million short,” said Brown. “Fallin has called for a $50 million increase for public education, but little, if any of that would have an impact on salary increases. The education budget this year is $300 million below FY08, and enrollment is up nearly 40,000 students. We have cut 22.8 percent in our per-pupil spending since 2008, and our teachers are paid 9 percent less than others in the region.”

Brown said all other state agencies are being ordered to reduce their budgets by 5 percent to provide the $50 million for education.

“This means there will be fewer health care benefits, the department of corrections will again have to take a cut, and we’ve already lost 400 corrections officers. Their pay scale qualifies them for food stamps,” said Brown. “And the governor is proposing a tax cut with nothing to replace it. This cripples our agencies and the ability to provide services.”

Brown said people earning $125,000 to $135,000 per year will benefit most from the cuts.

“But for the average Oklahoman, it will be about $30,” said Brown. “We have no evidence that shows the cuts have boosted our economic growth. I believe they’ve stunted our public infrastructure. We’ve got to take care of things. We’re No. 1 in the country for incarcerating women, we’re second or third in the rate of teen pregnancies, third in the nation in making the deepest cuts to education, and we’re third lowest in paying our educators. The only way to grow is by family earners having expendable income to buy a new car, or replace carpet, or buy new shoes. That puts money back into local economies. The middle class cannot continue to fund state agencies. We can’t continue with sweetheart legislation with corporate dole outs.”

Brown said it isn’t necessary to raise taxes to give pay increases.

“Just stop the bleeding with the corporate entitlements,” he said.

Brown said the state employees’ retirement system is again under attack.

“Under the new proposal, to cut the state’s obligation, it’s ‘here’s your check, you invest it,’” said Brown.

“Now, you might be good at it, but I know I can’t invest my money and get a 21 percent return, which is what the growth rate is on our current system. And it costs .3 percent to manage. We need to protect folks from the fee feeders.”

Fourkiller said he’s been equally dismayed with the new session.

“In two weeks, we’ve covered maybe 10 bills on the floor,” said Fourkiller. “Committees seem to be working slowly, and not much seems to be happening. It seems to me a lot of time is wasted, which is not the way to save taxpayers money.”

tsnell@tahlequahdailypress.com