Proponents for deep tax cuts and the ultimate elimination of the state’s income tax, as well as anti-abortion groups, district attorneys and anti-smoking advocates all have suffered setbacks so far this legislative session.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposal to slash the state’s top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 3.5 percent is alive, but House and Senate leaders acknowledge that deep of a cut — and the elimination of various tax credits and deductions need to offset such a cut — is unlikely this session. Seniors, retirees and veterans groups quickly rallied to protect retirement and military income tax exemptions, but lobbyists derailed any attempt to eliminate those credits.
Now that the Legislature is past Thursday’s deadline, House Speaker Kris Steele said “there will be more focus on the budget, and the actual income tax reform proposals that are out there should start to firm up soon. We’re making progress, and I think we’re on pace to have a successful session from a policy standpoint.”
Steele, R-Shawnee, touted the passage of several proposals, including the development of a statewide water plan and his initiative to slow the state’s growing prison population.
However, several pieces of Steele’s criminal justice reform plan were radically altered in the Senate. One component would have saved an estimated 326 prison beds over the next decade by allowing certain inmates to start earning so-called “good-time” credits more quickly. It was stripped by state Sen. Jonathan Nichols, who described those convicts as the “worst of the worst.”
Ryan Kiesel, the head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the revised bill “reform in name only.”
“The lack of political resolve to tackle one of our state’s most pressing issues is distressing,” said Kiesel, referring to the state’s high incarceration rate. “There will be real and long-term consequences for the people of Oklahoma if the Legislature continues to kick the can down the road in the name of political expediency.”
But John Estus, a spokesman for Steele, downplayed the Senate’s changes to the criminal justice measures and said they’re still projected to save the state an estimated $200 million over the next decade.
“The facts are clear that this is still, without a doubt, an incredibly weighty reform that will dramatically slow prison growth in Oklahoma while significantly reducing violent crime,” Estus said.
Several anti-abortion groups were dealt a blow this week when a so-called “personhood” bill that would have granted fertilized human eggs the rights of other Oklahoma citizens wasn’t heard on the House floor. Steele said members of the House GOP caucus privately voted twice not to bring the bill for a vote, prompting outrage from anti-abortion activists.
“The Republican leadership in Oklahoma is testing the resolve of the state’s pro-life movement,” Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA said in a statement.
Advocates for personhood are gathering signatures required to place a personhood measure on the November ballot. They say their goal is to ban abortions and set up a challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court gave women a legal right to an abortion.
Another bill that failed to pass the House this week would have allowed large employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation system and instead self-insure or have alternative coverage. But Steele said the bill was held over on a procedural move and will be granted another hearing next week.
Several anti-tobacco groups also fell short this legislative session with a bill that would have given cities and towns greater authority to regulate tobacco use. That bill failed to clear a Senate committee.