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As state lawmakers prepare to convene for an October special session focused on cutting taxes, a state think tank is urging the governor to expand investment in core services in a state that remains top 10 in poverty rates.
For years, Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt has pledged to make Oklahoma a top 10 state. Meanwhile, numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey shows the state holds the 8th highest poverty rate in the nation.
The state currently enjoys a record-high savings in the state budget. Oklahoma Policy Institute is urging lawmakers to invest in core services rather than cut taxes. Roughly 15.7% of Oklahomans live in poverty, much higher than the 11.5% national average.
The data show Oklahoma’s poverty ranking hasn’t changed from last year. It’s a striking detail that stands out to OK Policy Analyst Gabriela Ramirez-Perez.
“The programs we currently have in place aren’t having a big enough effect, if any,” Ramirez-Perez told The Black Wall Street Times on Wednesday. “So, that means it’s going to require bold action to change this and make sure 15 percent of Oklahomans aren’t struggling to make ends meet.”
Special session looms as Oklahoma remains top 10 in poverty
On Monday, Sept. 11, Gov. Stitt called a special session for October 3. The move comes as the Oklahoma Supreme Court is set to decide whether tribal members who live on reservations and work for tribal entities must pay state income tax.
As Gov. Stitt continues his battle against tribal sovereignty, he’s warned that if the court allows tribal members to avoid the state income tax, he will seek to eliminate it for all 4 million Oklahomans. He’s so far failed to speak on the Oklahoma being ranked top 10 in poverty.
Specifically, Stitt called the Oct. special session to push lawmakers to vote on three proposals, according to an executive order:
- To create a statutory trigger which automatically eliminates any tax assessed by the state or its political subdivisions if that same tax is found by a state or federal court to be inapplicable to any individual by virtue of their race, heritage, or political classification;
- To deliver Oklahomans a personal state income tax cut — one that puts the state on a pathway to zero personal state income taxes;
- To increase transparency in the legislative budget making process.
In August, Gov. Stitt celebrated the state reaching $9 billion in its bank account. Meanwhile, thousands of Oklahomans continue to need support in a state ranked top 10 in poverty rates.
“What policymakers can do is make sure changes to the tax code don’t further burden Oklahomans who are least able to pay,” Ramirez-Peres said. She wants to see lawmakers maintain adequate funding for education and the state’s newly expanded medicaid program.
“If we want to provide relief to hardworking Oklahoma families, cuting the taxes isn’t gonna do much for the families who need help. We need targeted policies, not just across the board tax cuts,” she said.
To cut or not to cut taxes
One of the most alarming data points for many is the fact that Oklahoma’s child poverty rates are even higher (19.5%) than overall poverty in the state.
While the state overall ranks top 10 in poverty, not all communities face equal levels.
Roughly 1 in 4 Black Oklahomans face poverty, a number nearly twice as high as the state’s rate. In addition, more than 1 in 5 Latino and Indigenous Oklahomans face poverty.
There has been one piece of positive news, though. The rate of people without health insurance went down from 13.8% of Oklahomans in 2016 to 11.7% in 2022. That’s thanks largely to voters approving the expansion of Medicaid in 2020.
“What we need are data-driven solutions and proposed policies in order to address the inequities we have in our state, and part of it is funding our essential services more to strengthen our social safety net,” Ramirez-Perez told The Black Wall Street Times.
To reverse the trend of Oklahoma remaining top 10 in poverty, Oklahoma Policy Institute has made several proposals for the Republican-controlled legislature to consider.
- Raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour
- Expanding access to tax credits
- Avoiding tax cuts that will deprive core services of revenue
- Making the tax code more progressive rather than regressive
- reforming court fines and fees
- Paid family and medical leave
- increasing access to affordable child care
“I know that Republican lawmakers are starting to take a look at these policies, which is encouraging,” Ramirez-Perez said. “We know in what direction we shoud head, but it’s taking the steps there that we still need to work toward.”