By Hastings Wyman –
Well, that’s a stretch. After all, Donald Trump carried Oklahoma with 65% to 30% for Hillary Clinton last year, and his approval rating this past July was 54%, ranking seventh highest in the nation.
But something is happening. Democrats have won three state legislative seats this year, flipping them from Republican to Democratic. And in March, they came within 56 votes of winning another. Moreover, notes state Democratic chair Anna Langthorn, “We flipped two in 2016 and two in 2015, for a total gain of seven seats.” She adds, “We’ve been seeing a 17 point average increase in these special elections over the last election.”
In a news release after the most recent victories, Langthorn said, “We have momentum, and this is a great sign for our remaining special elections.” On Nov. 14, two state Senate seats and one state House seat will be filled by voters.
The reason Democrats are winning local races is not Trump, says former state GOP chairman Chad Alexander, but “the budget situation in Oklahoma … We’ve had four personal income tax reductions” in recent years and the oil production tax was reduced from 7% down to 2%.
The state, continues Alexander, has had “four [state legislative] sessions with a deficit, and we’re a balanced budget state.”
Moreover, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a $1.50-a-pack tax on cigarettes, contending that under the state constitution, the lawmakers did not meet the super-majority – 76 votes out of 101 – needed to increase taxes.
As a result, Oklahomans have experienced first-hand the drawbacks to knife-heavy tax decreases. Some 100 school districts out of 513 are now holding classes four days a week, and at least 40 more are considering the same solution. Schools are having trouble filling the low-paying teacher slots.
And state employees have not had a raise in ten years.
Moreover, the state’s budget constraints have been concentrated on the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which combined, said Fallin, serve some one million people.
Democratic chair Langthorn echoes Alexander’s analysis. “As Democrats, we are not fans of Trump,” she says, “but most voters are more concerned with what’s happening in their neighborhoods.” Thus the Democratic victories were “certainly more localized” than reaction to Trump. “We’ve had a Republican legislature with super majorities for more than a decade. And also, Republican governors.” As the “quality of life has declined,” she said, voters pin the responsibility firmly on the GOP, and not just legislators, but Gov. Fallin (R) as well.
Indeed, the Sooner Poll in May showed Gov. Fallin’s approval rating underwater by almost two to one: 61% unfavorable to only 31% favorable. Moreover, even 51% of Republicans gave her an unfavorable rating.
After the state Supreme Court held that the cigarette was unconstitutional,
Fallin called a special session of the legislature on Sept. 25, charged with finding additional revenues for cash-strapped state agencies. With federal matching funds, the doomed cigarette tax would have provided about $500 million in additional revenue.
As the legislative negotiations were underway, House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D) announced that there was a deal on the budget, providing $560 million in funds and a $2,000 annual pay raise for teachers. But it turned out to be a false alarm; GOP legislative leaders had not signed off on the proposal. At a news conference, Fallin said bluntly, “There is no budget deal … If there is only one person at the altar, there is no marriage.”
The lawmakers recessed on Friday and canceled plans to convene again on Monday, Oct. 9. Negotiations are continuing behind closed doors, but the legislature is not expected to meet again until an agreement has been hammered out.
The Democratic trend could lap over into the governor’s race in 2018, when the beleaguered Fallin is term-limited. Says Alexander, “That depends on what happens in the next session. If … they can make a deal to give teachers a pay raise and put money in other state agencies” then the GOP might regain its traction in redder-than-red Oklahoma.
Moreover, the just-released financial data shows that the state brought in $1 billion in gross receipts in September, a 7.7% increase over last September. And gross receipts for the past 12 months showed an increase of 2.3% over the previous 12 months. Virtually all revenue streams increased, with the exception of motor vehicle receipts. Unemployment in August in the state ticked up one-tenth of a percentage point, to 4.5%, just a hair more than the national rate of 4.4%.
But this relatively good news won’t solve the immediate problems facing Oklahomans, in their schools and public service agencies. That depends on state legislators in both parties. Stay tuned.