The little think tank that could
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, June 03, 2012
6/03/12 at 4:15 AM
Is everyone else as surprised as the members of the chattering classes that the Oklahoma Legislature didn't adopt a tax-cut plan this year?
While GOP leaders did manage to score some important victories this session, what's most notable about the session is what they didn't accomplish.
So what happened? With supermajorities in both the House and the Senate, and Republicans in charge of all major offices, why couldn't they push through something as wildly popular (according to them) as a tax cut?
Theories abound, of course. One logical one is that now that the GOP has a firm grasp on power in the state, the party is suffering the growing pains of proliferating factions. Moderate Republicans must try to fend off the ultra-conservatives and tea-party types who threaten their very political existence. Even among the leadership, differences and divisions are becoming more obvious.
Concerns over sluggish natural gas prices and the continuing impacts of years of budget cuts also came into play.
But maybe those aren't the only reasons the GOP couldn't get together on a tax-cut proposal. Maybe, just maybe, the growing chorus of reasonable, dedicated, well-informed - dare we say progressive? - Oklahoma leaders, stakeholders and everyday citizens had something to do with it. And maybe one reason this fervent contingent of Oklahomans found their collective voice this session like never before had something to do with a scrappy little think tank that half-a-decade ago didn't even exist.
Legislation is influenced in a number of tried-and-true ways. There are the paid lobbyists. There are advocacy groups and issue-based coalitions that rally their supporters and seek out publicity. We in the editorial business try to do our part. Agency leaders are constantly on the prowl, trying to make their cases to elected officials.
Then there are the think tanks.
Yep, that's right. Think tanks aren't just for national issues any more. In Oklahoma, the two best-known ones represent the opposite ends of the political spectrum. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, founded nearly two decades ago, aims to "accumulate, evaluate, and disseminate public policy ideas and information for Oklahoma consistent with the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and individual initiative."
In the other corner is the Oklahoma Policy Institute, at only four years old the toddler of think tanks, which aims to promote "adequate, fair, and fiscally responsible funding of public services and expanded opportunity for all Oklahomans by providing timely and credible information, analysis, and ideas."
Put another way, the OCPA is the conservative think tank and OK Policy, as it's known, represents the progressive (some would call it liberal) point of view.
Certainly OCPA has its supporters and its share of legislative victories over the years - in the reddest of red states, it would be surprising if a conservative think tank couldn't point to significant successes. What is surprising is how fast OK Policy has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in this bastion of conservatism.
It would be a stretch to credit OK Policy with the failure of the tax-cut effort. But the policy-pushers are due some credit, it's arguable, for shaping and even steering the debate; for generating a sustained drumbeat against tax cuts; for giving the opposition plenty of persuasive arguments, and even for motivating stakeholders to rally and fight back, rather than just sit back and take it. As one supporter put it on Facebook, "Thanks, David and company. You made a difference, and give hope to those of us who had begun to believe that resistance was futile."
David and the GOP
At the helm of OK Policy is one of Oklahoma's top policy gurus, David Blatt. He believes OK Policy's relentless, data-driven research - distributed daily through blog posts, emails, press releases, fact sheets and opinion pieces - helped poke holes in tax-cut claims.
"Tax-cut proponents were trying to sell the idea that doing away with the income tax would provide such enormous economic benefits that Oklahoma would not be forced to cut services or raise other taxes. We brought together some of the state's leading economists to show that the claims about the economic benefits of tax cuts were either vastly overstated or simply false," he noted. OK Policy's work helped persuade many Oklahomans that "eliminating the state's largest revenue source would necessarily lead to cuts in services or increases in other taxes."
Blatt believes thoughtful Oklahomans "understood there's no free lunch and that one way or another, tax cuts would have to be paid for."
OK Policy's steady drumbeat against tax cuts seemed to help rally stakeholders, even everyday Oklahomans such as parents of public schoolchildren, to speak up. As the weeks passed, lawmakers seemed to take notice.
"Legislators from both parties agreed that they heard from far more constituents against tax cuts than for them," said Blatt.
Blatt gives lawmakers credit for, in the end, doing the right thing in the face of years of painful budget cuts, the economy's uncertain future, and the concerns of constituents and stakeholders.
The influence of the progressive movement on this legislative session, however instrumental it was, cannot be ignored. Remember, early in the session, it appeared that "tax cuts were a done deal and that no amount of data and common sense could overcome the political forces pushing for a tax cut," as Blatt put it.
But, the fact the other side was even heard and considered suggests "if you present elected officials with good information and strong arguments, you have a good chance to persuade them to do the right thing."
"Maybe not every time, but at least on some issues," he added. Recalling David Stockman's book about the Reagan era, "The Triumph of Politics," Blatt added this postscript: "This time we saw 'The Triumph of Policy.'"
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
Gov. Mary Fallin (lower center) waves to the crowd seated in gallery before delivering her State of the State address to a joint session of the Oklahoma Legislature. She called for fiscal restraint and more efficient state government. JIM BECKEL/The Oklahoman file
David Blatt: You have a good chance to persuade them to do the right thing