Washington Post

In this Bible Belt state, Democrats call hot-button issues a ‘smokescreen’

Even some Republicans in GOP-run Oklahoma say that abortion and transgender bills are a distraction.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For The Washington Post

Some public schools are starting summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March.

But instead of addressing a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services, Oklahoma lawmakers have been busy debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students’ access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama.

With more painful cuts to come, Democrats are accusing the GOP-controlled legislature of creating a “smokescreen” to distract the public from an estimated $1.3 billion shortfall caused by declining oil revenue and years of big tax cuts. Even some Republicans have criticized the focus on social issues as frivolous.

“They run this stuff out there because it excites the base,” Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said of the social-issues bills. “But nobody ever banked on the public also looking up and saying: ‘You know, we like schools. We like hospitals. We like roads. We like to have stuff that works.’ ”

Oklahoma is among eight states facing serious budget shortfalls after a two-year drop in oil prices that radically curtailed revenue from the oil industry. Also contributing to Oklahoma’s budget crunch are years of income-tax cuts and corporate tax incentives, especially for oil companies. Last week, Reuters reported that oil industry lobbyists secured one of the lowest tax rates in the country, a tax break that deprived the state of $470 million last year alone.

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This story appears on Page A3 of The Washington Post.

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