OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma state budget has been cut so deeply that two elementary schools in state Rep. Jason Dunnington’s district can no longer afford to pay for art teachers. A hospital is struggling after lawmakers axed a fund for uncompensated care.
Beyond the cuts, the situation has also produced a political role reversal. Republicans want to ease the pain with increases in cigarette and fuel taxes. Dunnington and fellow Democrats are attacking those bills, hoping opposition offers their party a path back to relevance after many years in the wilderness.
“I would rather lose fighting for what’s just than win fighting for the wrong thing,” Dunnington said.
No state Democratic party has been more hapless in recent years than Oklahoma’s. It holds only a small minority of seats in the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature and has been repeatedly defeated in elections for statewide office.
But the worst budget crisis in recent state history presents an opportunity for a possible Democratic comeback, although it might mean inflicting more suffering on some constituents after three straight years of revenue shortfalls. If budget negotiations break down and Republicans are forced to make even deeper cuts, the effects could drive more voters to support Democrats in 2018.
For Democrats, “there’s no downside to this at all,” said Keith Gaddie, chairman of the University of Oklahoma’s political science department. “It costs them nothing.”
Erin Taylor, whose youngest of five children receives supplemental health insurance through a state program because of a disability, is fearful of seeing her benefits slashed.
“If I don’t have that secondary insurance, I can’t pay for Henry’s medications,” Taylor said of her 15-year-old son. “One of them costs $1,100 a month.”
Meanwhile, 7,500 other families are on a waiting list to receive the same benefits.
“That is outlandish,” Taylor said. “People have to wait decades to get their services.”
Despite holding large majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans do not have enough votes in the House to secure a tax hike without help from Democrats. The minority party is playing hardball, insisting on restoring GOP-backed cuts to the income tax or raising the oil and gas production tax in exchange for their votes.
The party is “fighting for the tax increase on a few (oil and gas) producers instead of putting the tax on average people. It’s going to be very hard to see Democrats as being villains in this case,” Gaddie said.
Rep. Scott Inman, the leader of 26 House Democrats and a candidate for governor in 2018, said Republicans “cannot embarrass or shame my caucus into voting for tax hikes for middle-class families while they give oil and gas companies a break.”
Republicans blame Inman for the impasse in negotiations, saying he’s more concerned with his political future than coming up with a workable plan to solve the budget crisis.
“It’s all about Leader Inman’s ego. That’s what’s running this thing,” Republican Rep. Bobby Cleveland said after the latest round of budget negotiations broke down. “He’s running for governor.”
The requirement that tax increases receive a three-quarters majority vote has given Democrats leverage. The measure was originally pushed by conservatives in the 1990s after they became fed up with the Democrat-controlled Legislature increasing taxes.
“This is, for Democrats, the classic example of schadenfreude,” Gaddie said, using a German term that refers to deriving pleasure from another person’s misfortune. “They’re seeing the misery of conservatives trying to raise taxes under a rule that they helped put in place 25 years ago before they came into power. It’s a 25-year time bomb.”
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