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Gathering Place joins River Parks in attracting crowds for Tulsa's FreedomFest

Sounds of “kaboom!” “crackle” and “pop” filled the air and skies over Tulsa on Thursday night as people celebrated Independence Day.

Crowds packed into Veterans Park, River West Festival Park and River Parks to watch the fireworks of the 2019 Folds of Honor FreedomFest presented by QuikTrip. Eyes wide open, spectators looked upon the sky to watch the dazzling light show over the Arkansas River.

Close to 7,000 large shells were fired off from the 21st Street Bridge, with more than 145 volunteers working the area.

Malares Roller, 18, said her dad won tickets for the FreedomFest VIP tent and that they received a meal and free face painting.

This was Roller’s first time to attend the Tulsa celebration, and she said before the show started that she was looking forward to seeing all the fireworks.

Spectators lined the Arkansas River both north and south of the bridge, while others ventured to nearby parks and other locations in the area.

Some wanting to celebrate went to the Gathering Place to get a good view of the fireworks. The Gathering Place opened Sept. 8, so this is the first year it has been open on the Fourth of July.

Tony Moore, park director of the Gathering Place, said a little uncertainty came with hosting a holiday celebration for the first time, not knowing how many people would show up.

“We certainly knew that traditionally Riverside Drive is a viewing spot,” Moore said. “But we were just absolutely excited to be a part of FreedomFest and the heritage that it has.”

Moore said that while “this is a new experience, … we think this will also ultimately lend it to be a little bit of a Tulsa tradition from a viewing point of view.”

While waiting for the show to start, visitors were treated to an array of activities, food trucks, live music and interactive performers dressed in red, white and blue.

Telessa Hulvey, 29, and her family drove from Cleveland, Oklahoma, to watch the Tulsa show because their normal fireworks presentation was flooded out.

“This was an awesome option for our family,” Hulvey said. “The kids can play, get a little freedom, and it’s still close enough for us to keep an eye on them.”

Trump asks Americans to 'stay true to our cause'

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump celebrated “the greatest political journey in human history” in a Fourth of July commemoration before a soggy but cheering crowd of spectators, many of them invited, on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. Supporters welcomed his tribute to the U.S. military, while protesters assailed him for putting himself center stage on a holiday devoted to unity.

As rain fell on him, Trump called on Americans to “stay true to our cause” during a program that adhered to patriotic themes and hailed an eclectic mix of history’s heroes, from the armed forces, space, civil rights and other endeavors of American life.

He largely stuck to his script, avoiding diversions into his agenda or reelection campaign. But in one exception, he vowed, “Very soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars,” actually a distant goal not likely to be achieved until late in the 2020s if even then.

A late afternoon downpour drenched the capital’s Independence Day crowds, and Trump’s speech unfolded in occasional rain. The warplanes and presidential aircraft he had summoned conducted their flyovers as planned, capped by the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team.

By adding his own one-hour “Salute to America” production to capital festivities that typically draw hundreds of thousands anyway, Trump became the first president in nearly seven decades to address a crowd at the National Mall on the Fourth of July.

Protesters objecting to what they saw as his co-opting of the holiday inflated a roly-poly balloon depicting Trump as an angry, diaper-clad baby.

Trump set aside a historic piece of real estate — a stretch of the Mall from the Lincoln Monument to the midpoint of the reflecting pool — for a mix of invited military members, Republican and Trump campaign donors and other bigwigs. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, Barack Obama and Trump held inaugural concerts, and protesters swarmed into the water when supporters of Richard Nixon put on a July 4, 1970, celebration, with the president sending taped remarks from California.

Aides to the crowd-obsessed Trump fretted about the prospect of empty seats at his event, said a person familiar with the planning who was not authorized to speak. Aides scrambled in recent days to distribute tickets and mobilize the Trump and GOP social media accounts to encourage participation for an event hastily arranged and surrounded with confusion.

Back at the White House, Trump tweeted an aerial photo showing an audience that filled both sides of the memorial’s reflecting pool and stretched to the Washington Monument. “A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!” he said.

Many who filed into the sprawling VIP section said they got their free tickets from members of Congress or from friends or neighbors who couldn’t use theirs. Outside that zone, a diverse mix of visitors, locals, veterans, tour groups, immigrant families and more milled about, some drawn by Trump, some by curiosity, some by the holiday’s regular activities along the Mall.

Protesters earlier made their voices heard in sweltering heat by the Washington Monument, along the traditional parade route and elsewhere, while the VIP section at the reflecting pool served as something of a buffer for Trump’s event.

In the shadow of the Washington Monument hours before Trump’s speech, the anti-war organization Codepink erected a 20-foot tall “Trump baby” balloon to protest what activists saw as his intrusion in Independence Day and a focus on military might that they associate with martial regimes.

“We think that he is making this about himself and it’s really a campaign rally,” said Medea Benjamin, the organization’s co-director. “We think that he’s a big baby. … He’s erratic; he’s prone to tantrums; he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. And so this is a great symbol of how we feel about our president.”

The balloon remained tied down at the Mall because park officials restricted the group’s permission to move it or fill it with helium, Benjamin said.

Protesters also handed out small Trump-baby balloons on sticks. Molly King of La Porte, Indiana, a 13-year-old Trump supporter in sunglasses and a “Make America Great Again” hat, happily came away with one.

“They’re making a big stink about it, but it’s actually pretty cute,” she said. “I mean, why not love your president as you’d love a baby?”

A small crowd gathered to take pictures with the big balloon, which drew Trump supporters and detractors.

“Even though everybody has different opinions,” said Kevin Malton, a Trump supporter from Middlesboro, Kentucky, “everybody’s getting along.”

But Daniela Guray, a 19-year-old from Chicago who held a “Dump Trump” sign, said she was subjected to a racial epithet while walking along the Constitution Avenue parade route and told to go home.

She said she did not come to the Mall to protest but ended up doing so. “I started seeing all the tanks with all the protests, and that’s when I said, ‘Wait, this is not an actual Fourth of July,’” she said. “Trump is making it his day rather than the Fourth of July.”

Trump had sounded a defensive note Wednesday, tweeting that the cost “will be very little compared to what it is worth.” But he glossed over a host of expenses associated with the display of military might, including flying in planes and tanks and other vehicles to Washington by rail.

Not since 1951, when President Harry Truman spoke before a large gathering on the Washington Monument grounds to mark the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has a commander in chief made an Independence Day speech to a sizable crowd on the Mall.

Pete Buttigieg, one of the Democrats running for president, said: “This business of diverting money and military assets to use them as a kind of prop, to prop up a presidential ego, is not reflecting well on our country.” Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a Navy Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2014.

Two groups, the National Parks Conservation Foundation and Democracy Forward, want the Interior Department’s internal watchdog to investigate what they say may be a “potentially unlawful decision to divert” national parks money to Trump’s “spectacle.”

Trump has longed for a public display of U.S. military prowess ever since he watched a two-hour procession of French military tanks and fighter jets in Paris on Bastille Day in July 2017.

Washington has held an Independence Day celebration for decades, featuring a parade along Constitution Avenue, a concert on the Capitol lawn with music by the National Symphony Orchestra, and fireworks beginning at dusk near the Washington Monument.

Trump altered the lineup by adding his speech, moving the fireworks closer to the Lincoln Memorial and summoning the tanks and warplanes.

Recent state tax increases help Oklahoma's bottom line more than expected

Revenue from higher state gross production taxes has far exceeded expectations, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, but industry insiders and some general skeptics are warning that the new levies may be taking a long-term toll.

A broader question, though, is whether the most recent reworking of the tax code, accomplished amid great turmoil over the past few years, is really a long-term solution to Oklahoma’s frequent budget shortfalls. It includes few broad-based taxes and, some argue, increases the state’s dependence on suspect commodities — a presumably finite resource (oil and gas) and products whose use seems to have either leveled out (motor fuel) or is diminishing (cigarettes).

“Oil is not only super dependent on the world economy, but there seems to be a long-term move away from oil and gas,” said Paul Shinn, senior budget and tax policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “We’re still going to be drilling for oil and gas in Oklahoma in 20 years; whether it’s something we want to depend on as part of the tax base is an open question.”

Actually, reducing Oklahoma’s dependence on oil and gas, in particular, has for years been a widely stated goal of lawmakers and policy analysts.

“We’re in the top seven states for government revenue volatility, and that is largely due to being too reliant on taxes that directly correlate with what’s going on in the economy,” said Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

For the present, though, the new taxes seem to be working fine.

19% more than projected total

According to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, the higher gross production taxes under 2018’s House Bill 1010xx totaled $290.9 million for fiscal year 2019, and that’s only through the end of the May.

When June’s collections are added, the sum will almost double the $170 million predicted for FY 2019 when HB 1010xx passed.

Receipts from the other two big-ticket tax increases in 1010xx — a sharp increase in cigarette taxes and a smaller one on motor fuels — are closer to the original predictions.

The bump in fuel taxes had brought in $97.2 million through the end of May, which puts it on track to exceed by a narrow margin the $105 million expected for the full fiscal year.

The higher cigarette tax had brought in $119.1 million, which means it’s likely to fall short of the $152.1 million projected by about the same margin that cigarette sales dropped in the same time period: 25%.

Combined, the three brought in $507.2 million in additional revenue in FY 2019, already far more than the roughly $425 million projected for all of FY 2019 when legislators agreed to HB 1010xx.

$252M from other measures

Although HB 1010xx received more attention as lawmakers struggled over several sessions to make state government’s ends meet, a series of “51 measures” – so called because they require only a simple majority instead of the three-fourths required of bills such as HB 1010xx — also amounted to tax increases.

The OCPA says it’s identified $1.1 billion in what amounts to state tax increases since 2015. It is difficult to get complete numbers on all of those, but for several months the tax commission tracked seven “51 measures” passed in 2017.

The commission attributed $252.3 million to those seven measures in less than a full budget year.

Oil and gas bore the largest share of the increases — somewhere in the vicinity of $400 million at a minimum with current prices.

Some industry observers say this has hurt the industry and note a decline of more than a third in the number of active drilling operations, which could bode ill for future production.

Rig counts, like the business itself, are cyclical, though, and were about 40% lower than at present just three years ago. Also, new technology and changes in oil and gas law allows greater production from each individual well.

Meanwhile, federal statistics show total oil and gas production at or near record levels and industry employment fairly stable.

Quietly generating revenue

For all the attention given gross production, cigarette and motor fuel taxes, one of the biggest increases has gone largely undetected by the general public.

In 2017, a “51 measure” removed a state sales-tax exemption from motor vehicle purchases. Although several attempts were made to reinstate the exemption for truck fleet sales, the full 4.5% tax remains in place and has averaged almost $12 million a month in revenue during its first year.

Democrats, especially in the House, pushed for an income tax component of revenue reform. Small and Shinn both say there are problems with income taxes, but for different reasons.

Small and the OCPA say income taxes hurt the overall economy, especially with Oklahoma next to Texas, which has no personal income tax.

Shinn says, and Small agrees, income taxes are just hard to collect. “Both property taxes and sales taxes are more stable than income taxes,” Shinn said.

“There are plenty of legal ways to avoid income taxes,” he said. “And then there are ‘aggressive’ ways to avoid it. It’s very hard to avoid property tax, and it’s much harder to avoid sales tax (than income tax).”

Public sentiment and powerful lobbying groups make property taxes a third rail of Oklahoma politics. Oklahoma does not have a state property tax, but relatively low local taxes contribute to increased demand for the state to pay for schools and other services.

“Those who want more government need to have a conversation about paying for it at the local level,” Small said. “Property taxes are the chief way of doing that. It’s more stable and more realistic.”

Small said this particularly applies to education.

“To the extent people believe their schools need more money, they should look for ways to pay for that with local taxes.”

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