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The Oklahoma legislature recently approved a cut to the state’s top personal income tax rate, at the urging of Governor Mary Fallin. When the plan is fully implemented in 2016, the state’s top tax rate will fall from 5.25 to 4.85 percent, at a cost to the state of $237 million per year. While a slim majority (52 percent) of Oklahomans support the idea of an income tax cut in the abstract, that support evaporates (falling to 31 percent) once the plan is explained in more detail.
That detail is as follows. According to an analysis by our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), roughly 4 in 10 Oklahomans—generally lower- and middle-income families—will receive no tax cut at all under the plan, while the average tax cut for a middle-income family will be just $30. The wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers, by contrast, will receive 40 percent of the benefits, with the state’s top 1 percent of earners alone taking home a tax cut averaging over $2,000 per year.
When these basic facts about the tax plan now on Governor Fallin’s desk were explained to a random sample of registered Oklahoma voters, 60 percent of them said they opposed it, with a full 47 percent describing themselves as “strongly opposed.”
Voters’ reaction was similar upon being informed that the plan will require reducing state services like education, public safety, and health care. This vital piece of information resulted in support for the tax cut dropping to just 34 percent, and opposition rising to 56 percent (with 44 percent “strongly opposed.”)
These polling results are backed up by interviews with Oklahoma citizens conducted by the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. One Oklahoma resident explains, for example, that “If [the tax cut] harmed education I don’t want it. I have a niece that is a schoolteacher and I’d rather have more teachers than the little bit of money.” Another says that “It sounds like the rich are just getting richer.”
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI) explains that the plan isn’t just unpopular—it’s fundamentally irresponsible: “We have seen no evidence that Oklahoma will be able to afford a tax cut in [2015, when the first stage of the cut takes effect]. Indeed, we are already seeing signs of faltering revenue collections, with revenue falling below last year.” Concern about the sustainability of Oklahoma’s revenues is compounded by the possibility that “the state could be on the hook for as much as $480 million” in additional expenses if a court ruling against its tax break for capital gains is upheld. The Associated Press reports that when the impact of this court ruling is “combined with an estimated $237 million price tag for a tax cut approved by the Legislature this year and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin… the cost to the state could amount to 10 percent of the total state appropriated budget.”
Given these challenges, it’s hard to argue with OPI’s policy prescription: “Now that cuts are scheduled, the only responsible path forward is to pursue real tax reform that goes beyond the top income tax rate. To fund education and ensure a prosperous future for Oklahoma, we need real action to reign in unnecessary tax credits and exemptions that cost us hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”