TALK of state tax cuts or entirely eliminating a revenue source, such as is happening now in Oklahoma, usually occurs when times are flush.
That was true when Oklahoma began a round of tax-cutting after the flush 1990s and again following recovery from the post-9/11 recession.
With recovery from the latest recession still not etched in stone, it's remarkable that tax cuts are being talked about along with a phaseout of the Oklahoma personal income tax. This is primarily due to the “takeover” of state government by Republicans in the 2010 election.
Like individuals, states have been having to make do with less. How much less can they make do with?
This is a question the people must answer. And they must do it soon. The 2012 legislative session begins in a little more than a month and a key item on the agenda is the income tax phaseout.
Stateline.org says state agencies across the country “are seeing growing backlogs of work, as increased demand for state services in a weak economy bumps up against the state's efforts to cut their payroll costs.”
Oklahoma isn't alone in looking at tax cuts. It's definitely not alone in reeling from the effects of year after year of state budget cuts. Oklahoma and most other states have general fund budgets smaller than they were at pre-recession levels. The state has fewer employees. Classrooms are more crowded.
But many workers in the private sector have also suffered — if they have a job at all.
Still, any discussion of tax cuts must be balanced by discussion of the effects of the recession on state government. What backlog in services do we have? Can the state replace aging workers with younger ones, given the relative paucity of pay? Are voters willing to trade lower taxes for further reductions in services?
These are practical questions that will be settled in a political forum, one that is charged with election-year sideshows. Gov. Mary Fallin and other Republican leaders seem determined to seize the moment and begin phasing out the state income tax. Democrats and their allies in advocacy groups and public employee unions will make the case that taxes have been cut enough — too much, actually — and that restoration of suspended or reduced programs should take place before the income tax is cut again or put on a path of gradual phaseout.
Yes, we know it's Christmas week and our visions are focused on sugar plums. But February will arrive like a cold winter blast. This is no longer an academic discussion. Let your voices be heard in the coming weeks.