Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

October 18, 2012

Questions tackle tax, employment issues

TAHLEQUAH — On Tuesday, Nov. 6, Oklahoma voters will help determine the state’s role on issues like property taxes and equal employment opportunity.

Six statewide questions have been approved for the 2012 general election ballot, and members of the Oklahoma Legislature await each measure’s fate.

If approved, State Question 758 will amend the state constitution and would prevent county tax assessors from raising the determined value of homes and farms by more than 3 percent per year.

The state’s current limit is 5 percent, and the intended cap would keep property tax bills from rising too expeditiously. By law, assessors are required to re-assess real property value every year, and the valuation of a home may increase, decrease or stay the same in any given year, said Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah.

“This state question asks the voters to approve an amendment replacing the upper limit of 5 percent per year with 3 percent. If the property increases in value faster than the upper limit, the assessed value is adjusted to the actual value at the time the property is sold,” he said. “In the interim, the owner gets relief from paying taxes on the actual value of the property. The argument for the limit is to protect fixed income seniors from big tax bills as their property increases in value. The argument against is valuations that increase more then 5 percent - 3 percent if this passes - is a gift to those living in affluent neighborhoods, where it is more likely real estate values are increasing faster. This gift, in turn, takes tax revenue from schools and county functions, while giving unearned tax breaks to wealthier people.”

The nuance, Wilson noted, is the tax assessor may be forced to raise the millage rate to compensate for the tax cut.

“Millage is not controlled by this measure. Artificially capping the assessed value and raising the millage rate effectively shifts the tax burden from the capped few, usually wealthier taxpayers, to those whose valuations are not increasing taxpayers,” he said. “Because of slower increases or declining real estate values in recent years, passing this measure helps very few.”

Under SQ 758, the big winners are Oklahomans who live in homes that are increasing the most in value, typically those in desirable suburban areas near good schools, said Rep. Mike Brown, D - Tahlequah.

“Oklahomans living in less prosperous urban or rural neighborhoods would get little to no benefit, since their homes values will not increase nearly as much, and they could end up paying higher taxes as millage rates are raised to meet obligations. Renters could also pay more when landlords pass down some or all of the increased tax bill as higher rent,” he said. “It’s a tax cut for some, paid for by a combination of budget cuts and tax hikes on others.”

Brown added that most rural assessors do not make automatic 5 percent increases to property unless there are improvements.

“The property is appraised during a sale,” he said. “If the measure passes, property taxes could be assessed a 3 percent increase annually until your property tax aligns with property value.”

State Question 759 would add a new section to the Oklahoma Constitution, if approved by the people, and would ban government affirmative action programs in the state, with some exceptions.

Affirmative action programs demand employment hiring preferences or other special treatment based on race, color, gender, ethnicity or national origin. State Question 759 would stop use of such predilections in public employment, education and contracts.

As a public institution of higher education, Northeastern State University makes sure its screening and hiring process does not discriminate against any individual, said NSU President Dr. Steve Turner.

“We expect and appreciate a diverse work force. Our goal should always be to hire the most qualified person regardless of race, color, gender, ethnicity or national origin,” he said. “The U.S. Supreme Court is currently looking at Fisher vs. The University of Texas at Austin. In this case, a student claims she was denied admissions based on other racial quotas. It seems that Affirmative Action and its application will be decided by the Supreme Court very soon. I will watch for the outcomes of the national and state debates and make sure the employment and admission processes at Northeastern State University follow the law.”

The measure would allow three hiring exceptions, which include gender allowance when it is a valid job qualification, when existing court orders and consent decrees require affirmative action and when affirmative action is needed to keep or obtain federal funds. Proponents of SQ 759 say affirmative action is no longer needed in the state and state jobs and contracts should be awarded to the most qualified applicant.

“In relation to the Oklahoma Production Center and State Question 759, one of the areas targeted is contracts, and the Oklahoma Production Center contracts with the state in several areas to perform services and/or product contracts and receives a preference, as long as it meets fair market value,” said OPC Programs and Services Director Steve Clay. “Without this preference, many people with or without disabilities would be without a job, and the money derived from these contracts would not be going back into the Tahlequah economy.”

Ironically, supporters of the ban and SQ 759 oppose practices that are already illegal in Oklahoma, or never existed in the first place, said Brown.

“There are no ‘quotas’ for hiring or admitting minorities – public hiring quotas and contract preferences have been illegal in Oklahoma since the early 1980s. However, affirmative action programs are now standard in the private sector, which has embraced equal opportunity employment practices,” he said. “From Boeing to Starbucks, to the mom and pop operations that line main street, the private sector  clearly sees the value in inclusion and diversity. Also of note, extensive research on affirmative action has so far uncovered no evidence of a new regime of reverse racism. State Question 759 makes practices that are voluntarily and widely adopted by the private sector, illegal in the public sector.”

Passage of this measure satisfies the argument of reverse discrimination, regardless of its validity, said Wilson.

“Proponents say scholarships, jobs, contracts should go to the most qualified - preferences are no longer necessary for social benefit. Opponents point to the low opportunities and high unemployment rate of some minorities  – that women make 23 percent less than men for the same job,” he said. “State law already prohibits quotas. And programs such as Tahlequah’s OPC may no longer secure contracts because they can’t compete. It seems unlikely society benefits by denying the developmentally disabled an opportunity to work and feel productive. The Cherokee Nation may not be able to secure set-aside contracts – much of what CNI and CNE does – unless the contracts fall within one of the three exceptions.”

State Question 762, if passed by majority vote Nov. 6, would amend Section 10 of Article 6 of the Oklahoma Constitution, and would remove the governor from the parole process for most nonviolent offenders. If the measure is approved, the appointed Pardon and Parole Board would have the final vote in deciding whether to release a nonviolent criminal from prison. Oklahoma is the only state in the country that currently requires its governor to approve all paroles. According to published reports, Gov. Mary Fallin has withdrawn her support for SQ 762 after her initial backing of the measure.

The provision applies to those crimes that are nonviolent 85 percent crimes, which requires the person serving time for those offenses to complete a minimum mandatory period of confinement before becoming eligible for parole, said District 27 District Attorney Brian Kuester.

“Personally, I don’t know that it is appropriate as the DA to try to influence how people vote, but I don’t lose my private right as a citizen to voice my personal opinion,” said District 27 District Attorney Brian Kuester. “We can turn to Title 21, Section 13 and 13.1 gives a list of 85 percent crimes. That list of crimes requires a defendant to serve 85 percent of that time. If it’s a 10-year sentence, they must serve 8.5 of that time. It doesn’t apply to that list of crimes. There are by far more crimes that are not listed as 85 percent crimes than there are listed. I think there are 20 crimes in Section 13.1 that are considered 85 percent crimes.”

Wilson said the governor’s involvement is primarily a logistical problem.

“Gov. Henry always wanted to review each parole recommendation along with the case file. Because he was so busy sometimes, the review didn’t happen for months. On average, these inmates cost $1,500 per month to keep in prison. Waiting an extra six month costs $9,000 each. Eight months costs $12,000,” he said. “These periods don’t make the citizens safer – just cost more money. As an example, saving six months for 5,000 prisoners saves the taxpayers $45 million.”

To qualify for parole, inmates must be low-risk, nonviolent offenders serving a sentence of fewer than five years or who have less than 11 months remaining on their sentence, said Brown.

“For violent offenses, the Pardon and Parole Board would continue to make recommendations to the governor, who would make the final decision. Oklahoma is the only state where the governor is involved in all paroles.”

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