Moving Money By Sleight of Hand

Moving Money By Sleight of Hand…Common Good - October 27, 2013

State Representative David Perryman

With the speed and dexterity of a street hustler, tax revenue and state assets are shifted from one account to another. Following the money becomes as difficult as a shell game or a round of Three Card Monte.

In 2004, voters imposed twelve year legislative term limits on members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the Oklahoma State Senate. The resulting shift of power is readily apparent when we observe an overwhelming tide of lobbyist written legislation and bureaucrats in state agencies who have little concern about the “interference” of term-limited legislators.

Two case studies that deal with relatively high profile matters show who holds the real power is in Oklahoma government… and it is not the people or their elected officials.

An example of good government gone awry involves the railroad track running between the two largest metropolitan areas in the state.  The Sapulpa to Oklahoma City railroad, known as the “Sooner Sub” is a thriving enterprise, but it was not always so.  For decades, the railroad was owned and operated by Burlington Northern.  Ultimately, the rail line fell into disrepair and in the 1980’s BNSF sold the line for salvage value to the highest bidder. Fortunately, for all involved, the highest bidder on that track as well as seven or eight others was the State of Oklahoma.

 Each of the lines, with the exception of the Sooner Sub, was acquired solely to preserve and protect it for future sale back to the railroad industry.  With the exception of the Sooner Sub, each has either been sold by the state at a profit or is currently under lease to a railroad with the railroad company having the option to purchase the line from the state.

The Sooner Sub however, was not acquired for resale.  It was purchased to foster passenger rail between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Both legislation and contracts stated that intent. Consistent with that goal, the railroad was leased to a company that nurtured its purpose, was contractually required to annually install thousands of new rail ties and provide a considerable cash flow to the state.  By design, the line appreciated in value and has now caught the eye of a number of railroad companies, even the company that sold it to the state nearly 3 decades ago. 

Despite legislative intent, the bureaucracy of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has undertaken to initiate the sale of the Sooner Sub.  Moving from landlord of the line to having no ownership of the line at all will decrease and possibly eliminate any hope that passenger rail between Tulsa and Oklahoma City will come to fruition.

The legislature has no power to stop such a move; the public has no standing to demand to be heard.  Legislators can blow trumpets from the mountaintop, but career bureaucrats are not afraid of elected officials who will only be around a few years.

In similar vein, lobbyist authored legislation flies through without adequate scrutiny. A bill that on its face sounds great may have unintended circumstances.  For instance, HB 1875 was presented as the solution to a very real need.  Municipalities are overly dependent on sales tax revenue. Sales taxes are collected for cities and towns by the Oklahoma Tax Commission pursuant to contracts that currently allow the OTC to normally retain around one-percent to cover the cost of collection. 

HB 1875 is designed to decrease the OTC retainage to half of the current amount.  If this bill becomes law, the 13 cities and towns in District 56 will cumulatively receive around $75,000 more in sales tax revenue.  For instance Gotebo would receive about $190 more per year.  Roosevelt would receive around $250 more per year.  On the upper side, Anadarko could get around $13,500 more with Chickasha receiving $54,000.  The other towns in District 56 would be somewhere in between.  If you would like to know your town’s share, let me know. How could that be bad?  It pulls the money from the Tax Commission and gives it local government.

HOWEVER, slipped into the bill, after it was filed, is a provision to keep the tax commission happy.  For the Oklahoma Tax Commission to agree to allow $75,000 to go back to cities and towns in District 56, the Tax Commission will receive an additional TEN MILLION DOLLARS from the general fund.  Money from the general fund that would normally be divided among schools, colleges, technology centers, highways, roads, bridges, counties and yes…even cities and towns.  Money that could be used for COLAs for retirees or for raises to state employees who have not had a raise in eight years and are currently eligible for food stamps.  Money that provides funds for sidewalk projects and safe school projects.  Money that could be used for senior nutrition or health care.

Now, the real zinger.  District 56 contains the same number of voters as the other 100 legislative districts.  If District 56 generates approximately the same amount of sales tax revenue as the other 100 legislative districts, the Oklahoma Tax Commission would be giving up between $7 Million and $8 Million Dollars per year to receive $10 Million Dollars per year from the General Fund.  How is that for a powerful bureaucracy that increases its annual revenues by $2 Million to $3 Million Dollars by simply smiling?  This bill will be coming up early in the 2014 session.  I want more revenue for our cities and towns.  Is Three Card Monte the way to get it? 

I appreciate the opportunity to serve as a State Representative.  If there is anything that I can do to assist you, please call me at 405-557-7401 or eMail me at David.Perryman@okhouse.gov

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

All Aboard

All Aboard For The Common Good - July 7, 2013

State Representative David Perryman

My first train ride was during the Vietnam War.  It was a short ride from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Siloam Springs, Arkansas.  I remember that it was during the war because the train was also pulling a freight car transporting the body of an American soldier killed in southeast Asia.

The train ride was really a kind of novelty trip.  One of those “you better go now, because you won’t be able to for long.”  Sure enough, a few months later, passenger service ended and only freight trains remained on the railroad tracks in Oklahoma.

Through the years, I have ridden several commuter rail, subways, elevated light rail and excursion trains, but no more in Oklahoma until the Heartland Flyer began running between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.

There are a lot of reasons that passenger rail became a thing of the past in our state.  Part of the reason was cheap 22 cent gas and cheap cars with no mandatory insurance requirements and the absolute convenience of not having to deal with anyone else’s schedule.  We developed a mindset that makes us leave for trips or appointments at the absolute last minute to be able to get to a destination on time…or only a few minutes late.

As a result, we rank 4th in the nation in per capita gasoline consumption, driving an average of nearly 13,000 miles per year for every man, woman and child. Even with the 5th lowest fuel tax per gallon of gasoline, Oklahoma drivers annually send around 510 Million Dollars to WashingtonFortunately, we get back around 675 Million Dollars per year in general highway funds.  On average, that is about $1.31 in highway funds for every dollar that we pay in federal fuel taxes. 

But the story does not end there.  A fund that we come up short in is the mass transit fund, sometimes called the Surface Transportation Fund.  Oklahoma is a donor state and actually subsidizes mass transit in places like New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.

Today, a lot has changed since passenger rail service ended.  Gas is now 17 to 20 times more expensive often nearing $4.00 per gallon.  Automobiles and auto maintenance and tires are no longer inexpensive and mandatory liability insurance stretches and tests the affordability of automobile ownership by many Oklahomans.

However, geographically, because of the distance that people must travel for work or doctors, they must have access to a vehicle.  Most job applications ask about the availability of transportation. A mass transit rider’s mindset requires planning and forethought 

While a statewide passenger rail system would be the ultimate goal, a line connecting the Oklahoma City metro with the Tulsa Metro and Lawton-Fort Sill would provide the backbone of a transit system through the state’s major centers of population.  Ideally, such a rail line already exists.  The Stillwater Central Railroad stretches, among other locations, from Tulsa through Oklahoma City, by Will Rogers International Airport and all the way to Lawton-Fort Sill and points west.

Two questions must be answered, is funding available to begin a passenger service and are Oklahomans ready to incorporate a mindset that deals requires them to incorporate transit schedules into the planning of their day.

If so, commuter costs would be decreased.  Removing vehicles from the roads and highways would extend the life of roadways.  Pollution would likely decrease and another possible benefit of mass transit would be a potential decrease in the number of uninsured vehicles on the road.

A part of the puzzle is the proverbial question of the chicken and the egg.  Mass transit planners cannot expect full train cars as soon as the routes and schedules are planned.  Rail schedules must be established in such a way as to entice ridership.

The future of passenger rail in Oklahoma, particularly along the I-44 corridor between Tulsa and Lawton is an ideal subject for study.  That is why I have requested an interim study on this subject so that the concept and the cost as well as the potential benefit may be studied this between now and the 2014 legislative session.

With a little foresight and proper planning, we may soon be hearing, “All aboard on the Thunder Express.”  Mind the gap.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.  I look forward to hearing from you at David.Perryman@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7401.