NORMAN — Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, has taken criticism for voting “no” on House Bill 1054, but he believes that vote was needed. Cleveland said he has constituents who support his decision.
The Senate passed a budget bill last week that would have increased taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and gas, as well as the gross production tax for oil and gas companies, solving a $215 million budget hole and providing a $3,000 pay increase for teachers. But the House’s failure to pass budget legislation means the multi-month special session will continue.
If the Legislature is unable to pass a new budget by the end of the month, several state agencies, including the Department of Human Services and the state health department, will begin to absorb severe budget cuts. Cleveland was one of 27 House members who voted against the budget bill.
For Cleveland, the primary motive behind his “no” vote was his concern about corruption in “a lot of state agencies,” and that most people understand when he explains the reason for his vote.
“We’re never going to get it under control if we turn our backs on it,” he said. “We’re mismanaging the money.”
Passing the bill would have allowed that mismanagement to continue, he believes.
“If our budget would’ve passed and not gone to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, we wouldn’t have know about the mismanagement of the health department,” Cleveland said. “Sometimes bad things have good consequences.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks all state agencies aren’t using taxpayer money wisely.
“We have some great people that I think the world of that are good for Oklahoma: Terri White with mental health, Director Allbaugh at DOC, he’s doing things and making it work with less money, and you have Michael Patterson with ODOT who’s doing a good job,” Cleveland said. “Those are good people who you can talk to, and they’ll tell you the truth, but there is so much mismanagement. Tourism has mismanaged money as well.”
Cleveland said the tourism department admitted that they’ve violated state laws.
“That’s been going on for quite a while,” he said. “What they were doing there took more than one person. That’s two big agencies, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Cleveland said he has voted for teacher pay raises several times this session, and he supports raises for correctional officers.
“Teachers are going to get a pay raise, and they’re going to get it at the same time time they would have,” he said. “Voting ‘yes’ would have been a vote of approval of the corruption that’s going on.”
He said the governor wanted a tax increase of around $500 million on Oklahoma residents.
“That is one of the largest tax increases in the state of Oklahoma,” Cleveland said. “How could I call myself a conservative while voting for one of the largest tax increases in Oklahoma?”
Cleveland said the point of the special session, from his point of view, was not to raise taxes on the people.
“We were called into session because of a $215 million dollar gap when the Supreme Court threw out the cigarette fee,” he said. “We wanted to take money from the revolving funds, which the Legislature’s been doing for 100 years, and it replenishes itself. We would take that money and do $60 million cuts to agencies. Doing that, we’re not raising taxes on the people.”
Cleveland said critics who say he’s pandering to big oil are wrong, and that the oil and gas industry is paying more than previously.
“We’ve taken 6,600 wells and moved them from 4 to 7 percent (on gross production tax),” Cleveland said. “For the past two years, we’ve taken oil and gas exemptions away to the tune of $250 million dollars. In Oklahoma, there are 150,000 Oklahomans in the oil and gas sector.”
Earnings represent $15.6 billon from the oil and gas industry, he said.
“What the Democrats keep saying, that we are the cheapest [gross production tax] in the region is not true,” Cleveland said.
He said other states like Texas give rebates that bring the true total down.
He said oil and gas is the largest single source of revenue in the state, paying $2 billion or 22 percent of the state taxes in 2015, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
“That only accounts for 6.5 percent of total employment in Oklahoma,” he said. “What’s the average wage in Oklahoma? The average wage in Oklahoma is $44,178. The average wage in the oil and gas industry is $105,000.”
Cleveland said he has researched these numbers.
“There is a lot of places we could do better at spending our money,” Cleveland said. “Special session wasn’t designed to rework the whole budget.”
Cleveland believes lawmakers will find the money for mental health, teachers, Department of Corrections and others, through the original plan that the Republicans in the House of Representatives proposed seven weeks ago.