OKLAHOMA CITY — As Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin fights for an increasingly uncertain income tax rate cut, some state officials have wondered aloud whether history is repeating itself.
Last year, Fallin devised a dramatic, almost 2 percent cut in the income tax rate she said would save taxpayers millions of dollars, and with fellow Republicans holding majorities in both the House and Senate, it seemed to be a done deal. But one tax proposal became several and nobody could agree which was best, so the entire idea sunk last May.
Fallin tried again this year by pushing for a more modest cut, lowering the top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent and saving the average taxpayer about $80. But disagreement between House and Senate lawmakers came into the spotlight this week after both chambers scuttled each other's version of the proposal.
"This is exactly what happened last year: The House and the Senate had two different plans, the governor sort of had her own plan," House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, told reporters Thursday, echoing his Senate counterpart Sen. Sean Burrage. Legislative Democrats have been solidly opposed to the proposal's $130 million annual price tag, saying it would divert needed funds from education, corrections and other state priorities.
"With just a month and a half left of session, to be this far apart in how they cut it ... that is significant," Inman said.
The two chambers have been working on their own proposals since the session began.
Last month, the Senate approved a bill that would lower the tax rate further than Fallin's proposal —4.75 percent starting in 2015 — as well as eliminate a slew of tax credits and deductions. The next day, the House cleared Speaker T. W. Shannon's bill matching Fallin's original proposal. The chambers then swapped bills.
On Monday, a House subcommittee unceremoniously rejected the Senate proposal, carried by Tulsa Sen. Mike Mazzei. The Senate committee approved the House's bill Thursday — but only after replacing its language wholesale with the Senate's original proposal.
Republican leaders were quick to say they weren't fighting.
"We have open dialogue with the governor and the speaker," Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, told reporters Thursday. "We all understand this is a work in progress. We'll continue to have that dialogue ongoing."
But statements from Bingman, Fallin and Shannon paint a different picture.
"Our vehicle that we had — the Senate bill Sen. Mazzei and the Finance Committee worked on — didn't make it out of a House committee, and that was a vehicle that we'd like to continue that conversation," Bingman said Thursday in his explanation for the Senate's swap of the House proposal. "Sen. Mazzei in the Senate has worked for two years advocating looking at tax credits."
Shannon told reporters he had yet to see what exactly the Senate had done.
"I'm anxious to see the amendments — I think I've been emailed a copy of them," he said.
Fallin released a statement on the apparent infighting six hours after the Senate committee's decision Thursday. In it, she seemed to give GOP leaders a gentle but pointed rebuke.
"I encourage the Senate and House to come together, negotiate, decide on the details of a tax cut plan and send it to my desk," she said in an emailed statement. "I encourage our senators and representatives to be pragmatic in their negotiations and to remember that our ultimate goal is the same: to pass legislation that will help to create jobs and allow Oklahomans to keep more of their hard-earned money."
Republicans stressed that setbacks wouldn't keep a tax cut from passing — something they said last year, even in the session's final days.
"At this point in time, I believe that we're far closer than we were last year, and I'm absolutely confident we will develop, complete and pass an income tax proposal for the people of Oklahoma," said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville and chairman of the House's Revenue and Tax subcommittee.