Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma Policy Institute Executive Director David Blatt: Reducing Income Tax Could Hurt Public Safety System

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma Policy Institute Executive Director David Blatt: Reducing Income Tax Could Hurt Public Safety System

Article excerpt

While Oklahoma legislators consider reductions in - and even the elimination of - the state's personal income tax, new cuts to an already-tight Department of Corrections budget could spawn major problems for the public safety system, a public policy expert said.

Since 2010, the state's prison system has seen its budget cut while, at the same time, the number of prisoners continues to increase. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, DOC's budget reductions totaled $76,281,887, according to state records.

And though the Oklahoma corrections system didn't see the massive cuts of previous years, last year's budget for the department was still down by 0.5 percent.

At the same time, some legislative leaders - and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin - have called for the reduction or elimination of the state's income tax. In December, Fallin told The State Chamber of Oklahoma that her goal was to reduce the income tax rate to about 3 percent.

"I've set a goal that I would like to, gradually over the years, look at lowering it down to around 3 percent," Fallin said. "But we also have important governmental needs that we have to fund and we have to figure out how we're going to do that."

Fallin said eliminating some of the state's $5 billion in tax incentives could offset the tax rate reduction.

"We have over $5 billion in rebates and incentive programs in the state and one of the ways that we can look at reducing income tax gradually is to look at tax incentives and rebates and look at which ones don't produce jobs," Fallin said. "That's one of the ways we can look at revenue sources to gradually fund (the incentives) to make us more competitive as a state."

Still, for DOC officials, the budget picture remains gray. Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said his agency expects a flat appropriation for 2012.

"We aren't expecting a sizable increase," Massie said.

But talk of massive reductions to the state's income tax - and its possible elimination - is a cause for concern.

Doing away with the income tax would eliminate about a third of the state's budget, said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

"If you look at the funds appropriated to the Department of Corrections, and you eliminate a third of it, you're talking about 9,300 inmates," Blatt said. "And that would be on top of an inmate population that's at 95 percent and staffing that's under 70 percent."

Legislative leaders say a reduction in income tax would spur economic growth and expand the tax base.

"The last thing anyone wants to do is jeopardize public safety or any other core service," said John Estus, a spokesman for House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. "That's simply not going to happen under the speaker's watch. The better off our economy is, the better off our core services will be. …

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