Education

Ray Carter | March 17, 2021

Lawmakers reinforce ‘politician’ stereotypes

Ray Carter

In the past year, children across Oklahoma have been barred from full-time, in-person instruction at schools across Oklahoma, prompting parents across the state to become involved in the political process to improve their children’s education system.

As they have done so, many parents have found that stereotypes about politicians often exist for a reason.

“Our experience hasn’t necessarily been that they say they’re going to do one thing and then do another, but our conversations with them they speak in vague terms,” said Jennifer Johnson, an Owasso parent who is active in Parent Voice Oklahoma. “They’re kind of noncommittal one way or another. To get a hard-and-fast yes or no has been kind of like pulling teeth.”

In at least one instance when Owasso parents met with their local lawmaker—Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso—they came away feeling they understood Vancuren’s viewpoint, even if they disagreed with it. The meeting included discussion of House Bill 2701, which would provide $18.5 million in tax credits to individuals who donate to local schools, and $6.5 million in credits to those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations. Supporters believe the bill is a win-win because it boosts funding that can help local schools deal with unexpected expenses while also providing new opportunities for low-income children to attend private schools.

But Vancuren told parents he did not support the bill because he did not support tax credits in general.

“The gist was that his rule of thumb is that he doesn’t vote for tax credits,” Johnson said, “and so this was no different.”

But Vancuren’s record in the Legislature belies that claim. In the three legislative sessions he has been in office, Vancuren has voted for at least 11 measures providing tax credits or major deductions. Combined, those measures involve at least $665 million in annual tax breaks for various entities.

In fact, in the days following his meeting with parents, Vancuren voted for a bill providing $377 million in new deductions to entities that would otherwise pay state corporate income tax.

“I love Mark Vancuren. He’s always been a good guy,” said Ron Causby, a father of students who attend Owasso and Oologah schools. “And I told him, ‘If you’re not going to vote for the bill because of tax credits, I can stand behind you on that because that’s your conviction.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can look at my voting record. I don’t vote for anything with tax credits. I don’t believe that the rich need to get richer off tax credits.’ And I was okay leaving the meeting and understanding that that’s his point of view. But then I found out that he’s voted for several tax credits, so I didn’t know how to feel about that.”

“My understanding was that he essentially dislikes state tax credits, and every opportunity he has to vote against them he does,” said Rob Marsellis, another local citizen who attended the meeting with Vancuren. “That has been, kind of, his rule of thumb. I totally understand that. I don’t have a problem with that. But I do think there are certain cases where they make sense, and there are situations where he could easily explain, legitimately, why he would vote for one. And education would be one of them, in my opinion. Ultimately, how could we ever go wrong by allocating more money to fund education?”

Johnson said one issue raised by Vancuren is that he “likes to see the history of a program, how it’s been used,” before voting on a tax credit.

However, that track record exists for the programs in HB 2701, which have been in place for several years. The legislation simply increases the amount of tax credits available for the two programs.

Also, because HB 2701 would attract as much as $2 in donations for every $1 in tax credits provided, fiscal analysis showed it would generate a net increase in public school funding of up to $27.5 million.

Third-party review has found the scholarship tax credits also generate net savings for state government. An analysis conducted by Jacob Dearmon and Russell R. Evans at Oklahoma City University found the tax-credit scholarship program generated savings of $2.91 for every $1 in tax credits issued, and predicted that figure would rise to $3.16 in savings for every $1 in tax credits issued.

Even as Vancuren has declined to support education tax credits, voting records show he has supported tax breaks for numerous other entities, including railroads, automotive part manufacturers, employees at software companies and film productions.

In 2019, Vancuren voted for SB 200, which doubled the amount of tax credits provided annually for film projects, adding another $4 million in credits to the program each year.

Vancuren’s support for film-tax credits came despite the fact that consultants hired by state’s Incentive Evaluation Commission urged lawmakers to eliminate Oklahoma’s film tax credit in 2016. The independent evaluation found there was “no evidence” the credits strengthened the Oklahoma film industry, and that associated job creation “is neither stable nor sustainable absent state support.”

Legislative documents show that in 2019 and 2020 Vancuren voted for many tax-credit bills.

HB 2112 extended a program providing up to $20 million in tax credits for investments in clean-burning motor vehicle fuel property. HB 2502 provided $51.1 million in income tax credits for teachers HB 3823 provided $11 million in tax credits to rural doctors. HB 3859 provided $5.8 million in income tax credits for railroads. HB 1884 expanded an existing program involving up to $5 million in annual tax credits to include automotive parts companies and their employees. HB 2759 provided $2.5 million in income-tax credits to software or cybersecurity employees. SB 1204 provided over a half-million dollars in income tax credits software or cybersecurity employees.

So far this year, Vancuren has already voted for several other major tax breaks that dwarf the combined cost of the measures he supported in the prior two sessions.

HB 2041 provides $188.9 million in income-tax credits annually. HB 2089 provides income tax credits for rural doctors. The associated fiscal impact statement for that bill said it “is difficult to estimate the number of physicians that will qualify for the proposed tax credit” and therefore “an unknown decrease in income tax revenue would occur.” House Bill 2083 provides deductions to large companies subject to the state’s corporate income tax. On the House floor, officials said that bill would cost up to $377 million per year when fully implemented.

Vancuren did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Marsellis said he understands that lawmakers will occasionally vote for bills they don’t like to gain support for other measures, so he does not necessarily think a lack of consistency should count against a legislator.

“I understand their attempt to be consistent,” Marsellis said, “but they are living in a world that forces them to be consistently inconsistent.”

Marsellis said he appreciates that Vancuren met with local parents, and Marsellis said continued interaction between lawmakers and the communities they represent is important to shift legislative attitudes on education issues like HB 2701.

Similarly, Johnson said she appreciates that Vancuren has supported other measures, such easing restrictions on open transfers between public-school districts and funding reforms that reduce “ghost student” payments to schools for children who no longer attend classes in a district. Supporters believe schools will be more responsive to parent needs if districts are not shielded from the financial consequences when school officials’ actions drive families away.

But newly engaged citizens have also been surprised how often lawmakers are willing to ignore constituent needs to curry favor with various lobbying organizations.

“Something that we have seen that has been really frustrating is the amount of power that institutions have over the politicians,” Johnson said. “We as parents and constituents, I feel like, should be the ones that have the most sway on their vote, since they’re supposed to be representing us. But that hasn’t been the case thus far.”

Causby said local parents have met in person to discuss their concerns about education and related legislation with Vancuren and Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, and said the two lawmakers “seem concerned.” Even so, they have often deferred to lobbyist organizations working in opposition to local parents and student needs, such as the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which has fought to kill a bill allowing recall elections for school-board members, opposed legislation that would increase voter participation by moving school board elections to November, and continued to support mass closures of schools even after weekly coronavirus cases had declined 80.5 percent.

“Sitting down as a naïve parent, not knowing how politics works and how the government operates up there on a daily basis, it’s a learning curve for sure,” Causby said. “You have to go into it with a ‘take what he said with a grain of salt’ (attitude) because he’s got other powerful lobbyists coming at him on the other side of it. And I had no idea that was even taking place. I thought you voted for somebody, they went up there, and they did what their constituents wanted. And I’m finding out that’s not always the case.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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