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Oklahoma, like most states, has many hundreds of tax expenditures, a.k.a. “spending in the tax code.”  Actually the state offers about 450 special tax credits, deductions or exemptions designed to benefit a specific activity or purchase and, in most cases, the interest group behind it – usually in the name of economic development. There is a growing awareness that these tax expenditures, despite their high costs to the state, aren’t monitored very well.  In fact, no one seems to even know how much the state spends on them. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Oklahoma legislators have formed the Task Force for the Study of State Tax Credits and Economic Incentives. The Task Force is taking a hard look at the breaks, deductions and exemptions Oklahoma offers and asking whether the state really benefits from each of these costly expenditures in terms of economic development and the general public good.

The task force met over the summer and will continue to meet until they present their recommendations around the end of the year. After its first meeting, the Oklahoma Policy Institute reported some good news: “The meeting made clear that it will be a long and sometimes contentious process, but that this Task Force is serious about meeting the challenge. “ Legislators appear to be coming to terms with the difficult political reality that every tax credit or tax expenditure has supporters. State Rep. David Dank was recently quoted saying, “It never ends. The simple truth is that we could exempt almost everything from taxation. And then I suppose we could apply for a historic preservation tax credit to turn this state Capitol building into a casino or something because state government would be broke and out of business.”

The Oklahoma Policy Institute offers a superb report on tax expenditures in the state and recommendations for change. The Institute has long called on lawmakers to ensure that “the state is allocating public resources in the best possible fashion” and the Task Force, if successful, will bring Oklahoma closer to a smart, public interest tax code.  (As long as the chairs fail in their efforts to abolish the personal income tax, but that’s another topic.)

For more on tax expenditures and other games legislators play in the name of economic development read this ITEP brief. To read about the tax expenditure problem on the federal level take a look at this CTJ report.  And if you’re really into tax policy, you can follow the Task Force meetings here, where a local news consortium is live blogging every session! The next meeting is October 20th.

Photo of Oklahoma Capitol Dome via BJ McCray Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0