CITIZENS hope lawmakers' votes are cast to set good policy, but lawmakers often simply respond to those complaining the loudest. That would be the case if legislators decide to mandate paper checks for tax refunds.
In a legislative study, state Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, decried the idea that banks can charge a fee for the use of debit cards — even though citizens can easily avoid fees. Ending paper checks for refunds saves the Oklahoma Tax Commission $500,000 annually. Citizens can choose direct deposit or a debit card. Faster service appeals to most Oklahomans, so 71 percent chose direct deposit this year.
Inman objects that 10 percent of Oklahomans don't have bank accounts. But cardholders get a free transaction at any MasterCard member bank or credit union, and the cards can also be used in the MoneyPass network. A debit card recipient with no bank account can simply cash the refund in one transaction free of charge.
Yet Inman still wants the Tax Commission to offer citizens paper checks. Those without bank accounts get charged a fee for cashing a paper check as well, so it's not clear how Inman's solution does anything but increase taxpayer expense. Debit cards have been used for food stamps in Oklahoma for nearly two decades now without problem. What works for welfare recipients can work for tax refund recipients.
There's no reason to increase taxpayer expenses $500,000 or more so that a fraction of people without bank accounts can evade an already avoidable fee.
Rep. Inman might find some solace in a Wall Street Journal report this week that says more and more Americans are shunning traditional bank accounts. And not just lower-income people have joined the trend. Cited by the Journal is a Washington state family with an income of more than $200,000 a year and no bank account. The family uses a special debit card. The share of consumers with a checking account in 2010 was 92 percent; a year later it had dropped to 88 percent. The Washington family left the banking world over irritation with fees and overdraft charges. The trend mirrors one in which more people are shunning land lines for telephone service and relying solely on cellphones. It's asinine to think that shifting state tax refunds to direct deposit or debit cards instead of checks is a shifting of obligation to taxpayers. If all taxpayers save money, the shift is in the other direction.
An Edmond beauty salon owner and a former state Cosmetology Board investigator have been charged with bribery-related crimes. Patricia Migliaccio, the investigator, allegedly requested a bribe to help Tina Thi Vo pass her state-mandated licensing test. Vo reportedly promised Migliaccio $4,000. Vo faces felony charges for offering a bribe, but Migliaccio faces only a misdemeanor for soliciting a bribe. You would think government officials seeking bribes would face similar charges to those offering money. Those in a position of government power, even in a relatively low-key job like a Cosmetology Board investigator, should be held to a higher standard than the average citizen. The difference in the seriousness of the two charges gives the appearance of favoring government officials who take bribes over those who offer them.
The Oklahoma Senate continues to make strides in public transparency. Starting in the 2013 legislative session, the Senate will provide live streaming video of all committee activity online. Even more importantly, roll-call committee votes will be posted online in real time. Citizens should be able to easily learn how their lawmakers voted on legislation, particularly high-profile and controversial bills. Online posting of committee votes simplifies that process exponentially. Last month, Senate leadership also announced that all materials presented during legislative interim studies would be posted online, including lists of speakers, PowerPoint presentations and other information. Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, says more technological upgrades are in the works. Bingman noted, “An informed public is critical in our representative democracy.” He's right. We applaud his willingness to increase citizens' ability to scrutinize the legislative process.
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