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House Leadership Talks Taxes, Budget Hole, Education During ‘Oklahoma Watch’ Forum

Oklahoma Watch Executive Editor David Fritze, House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) and House Speaker Jeff Hickman (R-Fairview) during an Oct. 20, 2015 panel discussion in Oklahoma City.
Patrick Roberts
Oklahoma Watch Executive Editor David Fritze, House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) and House Speaker Jeff Hickman (R-Fairview) during Tuesday's panel discussion in Oklahoma City.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman says he expects next year's state budget gap to be even higher than the $611 million shortfall lawmakers faced when crafting the spending plan for fiscal year 2016.

The Republican from Fairview expects it could be as high as $700-800 million.

“Nobody knows at this point. They’re all guesses,” Hickman said during a public forum Tuesday night hosted by Oklahoma Watch. “For anyone to say it’s going to be $1 billion, it’s a guess. Could it be? Sure, it could be. But I don’t think I’m seeing anything right now to lead me to believe that’s the case.”

House Minority Leader Scott Inman said the state has been fiscally irresponsible by cutting from core functions of government like education and healthcare.

“When you’re in a hole, and you want to get out, you’ve got to stop digging,” the Del City Democrat said. “What we’re doing now is we are in what I believe to be a perpetual march toward zero when it comes to the income tax.”

Hickman said the state needs to broaden its revenue base. Inman argued the state continues to cut taxes for people who can afford it, while shifting the cost of running government to the poorest citizens.

The pair also addressed the proposed one percent sales tax increase to fund education. University of Oklahoma president David Boren leads a grassroots movement that plans to file an initiative petition Wednesday for the penny sales tax proposal to raise $615 million for common and higher education.  The Oklahoma Daily’s Daisy Creager, who’s also a KGOU contributor, reports about $125 million would go toward higher education, leading to a possible tuition and fee freeze:

The rest of the funds would increase teacher salaries, fund grants for locally controlled reforms, early childhood education programs and the vocational tech school system. None of the funds would go toward administrative spending, according to the press release. After the initial filing, state courts have 90 days to determine whether or not the proposition is legal. If it is considered legal, the petition for the initiative will need 135,000 signatures to appear on the ballot in 2016.

Inman called the plan an indictment of education cuts by the executive and legislative leadership at the Capitol, even though he's not wild about the one cent proposal.

“I’m generally not a big fan of increasing sales taxes, because they’re the most regressive form of taxation in the state,” Inman said. “But I will tell you this, if the folks in charge won’t step up and do what they’re supposed to do and fund education appropriately, then by golly let’s let the people of Oklahoma do it.”

If the petition receives enough signatures, it could appear on the ballot next November. Hickman didn't take a position on the proposal.

“We have a high sales tax already in this state. Woodward, in my district, is already at 10 percent. This would put them probably not only at the highest in the state, but the highest in the country,” Hickman said. “So all of those things have to factor in, and I just think Oklahomans need to make an informed decision.”

Hickman said he didn't want to see something like State Question 744. The constitutional amendment on the ballot five years ago would've funded public education at the expense of other state agencies. That was defeated by more than 80 percent of the voters.

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Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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