Gov. Mary Fallin challenged lawmakers Monday to cut the top bracket of the personal income tax and develop a plan to repair the crumbling state Capitol, and for the first time, she publicly urged them to approve legislation that would let local communities have control over tobacco use in public places.
The governor, beginning her third year in office, also asked lawmakers to overhaul the state workers’ compensation system and to continue to back efforts to reduce the size of state government and increase the number of compressed natural gas vehicles in the state’s fleet of more than 11,000 cars and trucks.
Fallin, a Republican, sprinkled proposals on how lawmakers should appropriate nearly $7 billion for the 2014 fiscal year, which takes effect July 1, along with accomplishments of her administration during her 50-minute long speech. She was mostly met with support from the GOP-controlled Legislature. Republicans outnumber Democrats 72-29 in the House of Representatives and 36-12 in the Senate.
Fallin asked lawmakers to knock 0.25 percent from the top income tax bracket, which kicks in after the first $8,700 of income made by every Oklahoman, from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. Proposals seeking bigger cuts made by the governor and lawmakers failed to advance last year.
“This proposal gives us the flexibility we need to ensure that we are reducing taxes responsibly, without starving government,” Fallin said.
“This is not the last tax cut you will see from my administration.”
Curbing tobacco use
Fallin said she is backing a proposal to restore local control to cities and towns regarding tobacco use in public places. Lawmakers failed to advance similar legislation the past two years; among those voting no on last year’s proposal was House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, who was elected last month to the powerful House post.
Shannon didn’t sound like he was on board with the governor in comments he made after her speech.
“I always have a two-part test when we’re talking about legislation,” Shannon said. “No. 1 is, what’s the problem? I think she underlined the problem very well — we’ve got too many people addicted to nicotine, and we’ve got too many people, too many children, who have access to nicotine. The second part of that question I always ask is, does this solution fix the problem? And I’m not sure that from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard about ... some of the local control stuff on smoking actually addresses that, so I’m anxious to see whatever specific proposal comes through.”
Most lawmakers applauded and several cheered when Fallin said communities should be free to decide the issue.
“Any plan to improve the health of Oklahomans must address the state’s No. 1 killer: Tobacco,” she said.
Fallin said about 6,000 Oklahomans die each year because of smoking-related illnesses. Both her parents died from smoking-related illnesses, she said.
“The implications for health will be enormous,” Fallin said. “The city of Pueblo, Colo., serves as a great example. When their citizens were given local control and allowed to implement a tobacco ban in local taverns and restaurants, they saw a dramatic reduction in smoking and smoking-related illnesses. In fact, the city’s heart attack rate dropped 30 percent.
“Families living in our cities and our towns across Oklahoma deserve the same support,” she said. “If a community wants to take action to improve the health of their citizens, let’s let them do it.”
Oklahoma and Tennessee are the only two states that prohibit local communities from establishing tobacco laws that are stricter than those of the state.
“Our communities deserve the opportunity to engage in local dialogue and take steps closer to improving the health of their residents,” said Ted Haynes, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma, in a statement after the governor’s speech.
Fallin is seeking $10 million in supplemental funding for the nearly 100-year-old Capitol: $8 million to repair the crumbling limestone exterior and $2 million for a study to develop a plan to repair and renovate the building. The money would come from about $125 million that is available from various accounts for lawmakers to appropriate this fiscal year.
Yellow barricades and scaffolding to protect passers-by were put up 18 months ago on the south side of the Capitol after chunks of limestone began falling off the building.
“The Capitol is a symbol of our state, a place of business and a living museum dedicated to preserving Oklahoma’s history, its literature and its art work,” Fallin said. “It’s not right for our visitors to come to the Capitol and see construction cones and barriers outside, to have crumbling facade from the top and a faulty sewer system that stinks.”
After lawmakers applauded, Fallin quipped, “I’m glad somebody else doesn’t like that smell in the basement because I don’t like it.”
Noting that Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, didn’t join in the standing ovation, she looked at him and said, “Richard, you must like it.”
Her response was met with laughs and hoots from lawmakers.
“Just joking, buddy,” Fallin said, smiling.
Morrissette later issued a statement criticizing the governor’s approach.
“It’s like knowing the roof leaks, the siding are sliding and the toilet doesn’t work but addressing only one of these issues,” he said. “The entire structure remains unfit.”
It’s been estimated it would cost $160 million to repair and renovate the Capitol. A $200 million bond issue proposal was crushed last year in the House, failing 77-15. Shannon said last week he didn’t think the House would support a bond issue for any project.
“Stop playing games,” Morrissette said. “Take out a loan at zero interest or take $150 million out of the Rainy Day Fund. Just do it. Fix the building, Governor. Let’s do it and do it right.
Fallin didn’t mention any funding for the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in downtown Oklahoma City. Five years after its original projected opening, the cultural center still lacks about half the total $170 million cost to complete the project.
Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, said he was disappointed the governor didn’t include the project in her speech.
“South Oklahoma City deserves better than an empty building,” he said. “The time to make accusations and be blame mongers is gone. Put simply, we need to get this done.”
Contributing: Staff Writer Zeke Campfield