Understanding Crude Politics

On the 8th of November 2017, I travelled to the state capital of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, to witness a special session of the Oklahoma House of Representatives

State Capitol 3
The Oklahoma State Capitol Building

The special session was called by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to pressure the House into approving a funding bill aimed at bridging a looming $215 million budget deficit.

Measures in the proposed funding bill included:

  • a $1.50 excise tax on each pack of cigarettes
  • a 13.5% mixed beverage tax on light beer
  • a tax of 6 cents per gallon on gasoline and diesel fuel
  • an increase in the gross production tax (GPT) on new gas and oil wells by 4%

The monies raised from this increase in taxes would be used to protect critical health care and mental health programmes from deep spending cuts. The additional revenue would also be used to increase wages for schoolteachers and other state employees who had not received any sort of pay rise for more than 10 years. In total, the bill was projected to raise additional revenues of $140 million in 2018 and $455 million in 2019. The passage of this bill seemed like a no-brainer to me. It had broad bipartisan support and polled well amongst the electorate.

However, the most contentious element of the bill was the increase in the GPT. Oil production remains a vital part of Oklahoma’s economy, and a tax increase in GPT could potentially hurt the competitiveness of its oil and gas sector. While raising taxes, in general, is never an easy proposition in a decidedly red state like Oklahoma, a tax increase that targets the oil industry was always going to be contentious.

Importance of Oil
A mural at the Capitol building indicating the importance of the oil and gas sector

This contention was manifestly apparent in the main atrium of the Oklahoma State Capital building. Demonstrators had arrived by the busloads to protest against this bill. Organisers handed out placards and badges to these demonstrators as they began voicing their disapproval in the building. The main atrium was abuzz in chants and impromptu speeches.

Oil and Gas Votes
An example of the placards carried by protestors
Last minute lobbying
Individuals engaging in some last-minute lobbying in the…lobbies of the Capitol building

The mood in the legislative chamber, on the other hand, could not be more sombre – the sergeant at arms ensured that no one brought in any placards and that proper decorum was maintained throughout the proceedings. As the Speaker called the House into order, the sponsor of the proposed bill, Rep(R) Kevin Wallace laid out his opening arguments in favour of the bill. He urged the House to not let political ideology cloud their votes and beseeched them to resolve the funding crisis.

Chamber floor
A packed viewing gallery in the House of Representatives

House representatives then began to debate on the merits of the funding bill. Some Republican representatives railed against raising taxes, while certain Democratic representatives were against the bill because they felt that it did not go far enough in securing additional revenue for the state.

With the house preparing to vote on the bill, the overwhelmingly pro-oil spectators in the gallery glanced nervously at the chamber’s scoreboard, which would indicate the number of votes cast for and against the bill. According to Oklahoma state law, any increase in taxation must be approved by a supermajority in the 101 member House of Representatives – a minimum of 76 votes in this case.

As representatives keyed in their votes, the number of votes in favour of the bill crept up from 40 to 50, before surging past the 60 mark and entering into the 70s. Murmurs grew amidst the assembled crowd while lobbyists rushed in and out of the hall, heads glued to their phones. Much to the relief of the spectators though, the number of votes in favour of the bill stabilised at 71; 5 short of the amount required with 27 representatives opting not to support the bill.

Final vote
The final yea vote was cast after this photo was taken 

And just like that, the a relatively reasonable (in my opinion) funding bill had died on the House floor. While the governor, the Senate and other House representatives began to strategise on their next course of action, I exited the premises in a somewhat ambivalent state of mind.  While I enjoyed being wrapped up in the sporting event-like atmosphere of the proceedings, I couldn’t help but wonder about the value that interest groups and lobbyists bring to the policymaking process.

State Capitol
The figure of the oil derrick looms almost as large as the domed edifice of the Capitol building

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