In this episode of Capitol Insider, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the Democratic budget proposal for the coming year with House Minority Leader Emily Virgin. Virgin talks about why her caucus wants to reverse income tax cuts and expand Medicaid.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. And our guest is House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, Democrat of Norman. Representive Virgin, good to have you with us.
Rep. Emily Virgin: Thanks for having me.
Shawn Ashley: Representative Virgin, House Democrats unveiled their plan for the FY 2020 budget a few days ago. In doing that you said, "For Oklahoma to have top ten outcomes, you have to invest like a top ten state." What exactly are you proposing?
Virgin: Mainly, what we would like to see is reinvestment in core services, and we proposed to do that in a number of ways. But I think it's important to remember that we took a step last year in terms of revenue and reinvesting, but we have a long way to go, because we've been facing cuts as a state for eight to ten years.
Ashley: Part of your proposal involved restoring previous income tax cuts. Do you see that happening in this session?
Virgin: Well, I certainly hope so. The income tax makes up about a third of our state's revenue, and so every time we cut that we are cutting important revenue to core services. The main thing about this proposal is that it would affect a very small number of Oklahomans, of taxpayers. Right now we have a top income tax bracket that captures virtually all taxpayers. So what we would do is create two new income tax brackets for those at the top, and that still would mean that those high earners would pay less as a percentage of their income in taxes than those at the bottom, because those at the bottom are paying a much larger percentage in things like sales tax and other regressive taxes.
Ashley: You also propose restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was eliminated several years ago. Do you think the Earned Income Tax Credit restoration is going to get traction in the final month of the legislative session?
Virgin: I think so. It's something that we've been talking about for years now, ever since we did away with it a few years ago in a lean budget year. What's important to remember about the Earned Income Tax Credit is that it's for people who are working, and it's for people who are paying taxes. But we know that they're the people who are most likely to be paying a very large percentage of their taxes in things like sales tax. And so we would like to give them back some of their income tax and make sure that they have the resources that they need to pay their rent, to pay their bills, because when we see people who are losing housing, losing employment it's sort of a spiral from there. People are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. So by making this investment we can save a lot of money in other areas.
Pryor: Expanding Medicaid is part of the proposal. Oklahoma is one of 14 states that does not accept federal Medicaid expansion money to provide for greater access to health care. To the extent Republicans may be re-evaluating Medicaid expansion, why do you think that is happening?
Virgin: Well I think it's happening because of a few things. But I think, number one, we're seeing more and more health care deserts when it comes to rural Oklahoma. Women are having to drive an hour or more to deliver a baby, and there isn't access to emergency care and a lot of communities now. And that's simply unacceptable.
Pryor: Do you think the filing of a ballot initiative regarding Medicaid expansion is also causing a bit of a change?
Virgin: Oh absolutely. I think the timing of that, the people who who are supporting that and have filed that, I think they were strategic. I think next year, in an election year, we can expect even more discussion on it. It's our job to do it. We should do it as a legislature, but I'll support it however it gets done.
Ashley: There's talk of higher education getting about $20 million more in the FY 2020 budget. That's significantly less than the $105 million that they requested. Is there any urgency within the legislature to begin stepping up appropriations to higher education?
Virgin: There absolutely is within the House Democratic Caucus. Our concern is that with drastic cuts to higher ed, because it's one of the agencies that's been cut most over the last 10 years, with those cuts we're putting a college education further and further out of reach for those students who may need help in the form of scholarships and really depend on us keeping tuition as low as possible. So I think especially in the smaller colleges around the state we're seeing the effects, and those colleges and those students I think have made their voice heard to their legislators.
Ashley: As we've talked with other legislative leaders this year we're hearing that there is a more collegial atmosphere here and more cooperation. Are you seeing that?
Virgin: I am. I think that the communication has improved, but I don't want to get this confused with there being more bipartisan legislation being passed. We may be getting along better, but we're still seeing extreme legislation, with the first bill that was fast tracked through the legislative session being the permit-less carry bill that is going to into effect soon. I would say that the atmosphere is better because, frankly, we're in a better budgetary situation. It's a little bit easier to do things when you have some money to spend, and I think Oklahomans across the state would agree with that.
Pryor: House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, thanks for joining us.
Virgin: Thank you.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at email@example.com or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and eCapitol.net, Or contact us on Twitter at KOGO. You can also find us online geo Eudora any capital dot net Apple podcast and Spotify. Until next time with Sean Ashley. I'm Dick Pryor.