I have read with interest and reflection the opinion pieces and letters to the editor about the Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite effort to collect signatures for a referendum on the tax increases passed by the state Legislature.
I wholeheartedly agree we need to have our teachers at salaries that attract the best and the brightest to educate our most valuable resource, our children. We should have the highest-paid teachers in our area of the country and the most accountable.
I believe in our teachers. I also believe in efficient and transparent government. We do not have the latter, and taxpayers bear the cost.
But what happened in the Legislature will cause Oklahoma to fail, not succeed. The Legislature has raised over $1.1 billion in new taxes since 2015. But what they have not done is look at every state agency and ask what is the goal of each, how do they spend their money and are they transparent with the resources they get. Bureaucracies by their very nature are not efficient. Their goal is survival and expansion and most are not mission-focused, but survival-focused. That is just human nature.
Take, for example, the recent news about the Oklahoma Department of Health. A commissioner’s slush fund? The firing of 188 state personnel because the accounting in the agency was so poor it did not know where the money was and the limitations on it? Then $30 million in additional appropriations that were not needed.
State agencies have not had effective oversight in decades. For us to make Oklahoma less competitive without doing the hard work of holding our government accountable will lead us into a worse, not better, financial position.
Oklahomans should know that the governor vetoed a bill requiring all spending to be put online, so all Oklahomans can see how our tax dollars are spent. She also refused to share how much in federal grants each department received and what that money was used for. Using information publicly available on openthebooks.com, I supplied that information to the state Senate.
This lack of transparency and accountability by our Legislature and executive branch has led to highly ineffective and unaccountable government at costs, which are not sustainable in the long run.
What should we do? Are we to continue down the path where the majority of our college graduates seek employment outside the state? Or do we create a competitive Oklahoma where people want to start businesses, raise their families and educate their children?
I believe in our teachers. I also believe in efficient and transparent government. We do not have the latter, and taxpayers bear the cost. Continuing in the vein of special interest tax increases without reforms to our state government is ill-conceived and treats the symptoms of the problem, not the real disease.
Ask yourself: Are sunshine and transparency important, or will short-term thinking and perpetual tax increases guide our state in the future?
This piece originally appeared in the Tulsa World
Dr. Tom Coburn is the Nick Ohnell Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former two-term U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.