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GOP confronts another failed tax experiment in Oklahoma

Sean Murphy
Associated Press

Oklahoma City – When the GOP took full control of Oklahoma government after the 2010 election, lawmakers set out to make it a model of Republican principles, with lower taxes, lighter regulation and a raft of business-friendly reforms.

Conservatives passed all of it, setting in motion a grand experiment. Now it’s time for another big election, but instead of campaigning on eight years of achievements, Republicans are confronting chaos and crisis. Agency budgets that were cut during the Great Recession have been slashed even deeper. Rural hospitals are closing, and teachers are considering a statewide strike over low wages.

“I’m not scared to say it, because I love Oklahoma, and we are dying,” said Republican state Rep. Leslie Osborn. “I truly believe the situation is dire.”

Oklahoma’s woes offer the ultimate cautionary tale for other states considering trickle-down economic reforms. The outlook is so grim that some Republicans are willing to consider the ultimate heresy: raising taxes to fund education and health care.

“Without new recurring revenue, we can’t fix these problems,” said Osborn, who was ousted as chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations and Budget committee for her outspoken support of tax increases.

The crisis has also placed the oil and gas industry, a sacred cow in Oklahoma, in an awkward spot since it sought the huge tax cut that is one of the biggest factors in the budget mess.

Gov. Mary Fallin and GOP leaders have been unable to reverse course because of a constitutional quirk that says any tax increase needs a three-fourth’s majority vote of the Legislature. Despite broad GOP support for tax hikes, a small number of fiercely anti-tax Republicans have joined with the minority Democrats to derail attempts to raise revenue. Democrats complain that most of the tax plans unfairly target the poor.

While state leaders bicker over how it went wrong and what to do about it, a half-dozen Republicans are jockeying to succeed Fallin. Although the candidates represent different wings of the party, all of them agree about the depth of the problem.

The only GOP candidate for governor who openly advocates for a tax hike is Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, an accountant and former chairman of the state Republican Party. He’s been particularly critical of the Legislature’s decision to make permanent a generous tax incentive on new oil and gas production.