Tuesday, February 7, 2012
By M. Scott Carter, Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Republican Gov. Mary Fallin called on state lawmakers to flatten the state’s income tax rate, restore funding for teachers’ health benefits, refill the state disaster fund and provide more money for road and bridge improvements during her State of the State speech Monday.
Fallin also issued a second terse response to leaders of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. She said she would request more money to hire the very best counsel to defend the state against the tribes’ joint lawsuit over the Sardis Lake Reservoir.
Previously, the governor sent a joint letter to both tribal leaders calling on them to withdraw their lawsuit.
“As you know, the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations have sued the state of Oklahoma concerning who owns the water in 22 counties,” the governor said Monday. “We continue to hope this issue can be settled through mediation, without huge legal fees, and with all parties negotiating in good faith.”
But should the tribes not share that goal, the governor said, her office would defend the water rights of all Oklahomans against a claim that favors one group over the interests of the entire state and all of its citizens.
“To ensure we are adequately prepared to do that, the attorney general needs additional resources to retain the very best counsel,” she said.
Fallin’s speech, which lasted about an hour, was interrupted by applause more than three dozen times. During that time, the governor touted her work during the 2011 legislative session, describing that session as one of the most productive sessions in memory.
“I’m proud of the work we have accomplished in such a short period of time,” Fallin said. “But that work is not done.”
On Monday, Fallin said that work would include a major overhaul of the state’s tax system that would reduce the tax rate from seven brackets to three. She said the system would eventually phase out the income tax for every Oklahoman.
“It provides broad-based tax relief to the middle class without starving government or hurting the working poor,” she said. “It also protects core government services.”
Fallin said her plan would eliminate state income taxes completely for couples making up to $30,000 per year and sets a rate of 2.25 percent for those making $30,000 to $70,000. For families making more than $70,000 per year the tax rate would be 3.5 percent.
“Under these new rates, a middle-class couple making $40,000 a year will pay 37 percent less in taxes in 2013, with additional cuts in future years,” the governor said.
The rate cuts would take place immediately.
“Moving forward, tax rates would be cut by an additional quarter point in any year which the state of Oklahoma hits a revenue growth trigger of 5 percent,” the governor said. “That growth trigger gives the state a safety net should we experience another economic downturn.”
Fallin said she would offset the tax cut by eliminating more than 30 tax credits currently on the books, cutting government waste and capitalizing on economic growth.
“We have a common goal,” she said, “to lessen the tax burden on Oklahomans, and to do it in a responsible manner. Send this plan to my desk and let working families keep more of their hard-earned money and provide a higher quality of life for all Oklahomans.”
Fallin also asked lawmakers to approve a supplemental appropriation to pay for public school teachers’ health benefits, increase the number of Oklahoma highway patrolmen and fund new personnel and equipment for the beleaguered state medical examiner’s office.
“Because of the positive trajectory of that agency and the capable management provided by our new Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eric Pfeifer, I am asking for supplemental assistance on their behalf,” she said.
Along with her request for supplemental funds, Fallin urged lawmakers to pass a bond issue to fund renovations to the state Capitol and called on every state agency to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020.
Fallin concluded her speech by asking lawmakers to pave the way toward another year of growth and prosperity.
“Just like we are asking our citizens to make good decisions about their lifestyles, they have asked us to make good decisions for Oklahoma here in the state Capitol,” she said. “Today I’ve outlined a path forward to a more prosperous, better and brighter future for our state and its citizens.”