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Business, civic leaders propose budget fix

Frustrated by a legislative budget impasse that has stalled state progress, a statewide coalition of Oklahoma business and civic leaders proposed a comprehensive solution Thursday that would increase state revenues, fund $5,000 teacher pay raises and alter the structure of state and county government.

The proposal calls for raising gross production, motor fuel and cigarette taxes, while eliminating certain individual income tax deductions and loopholes.

$5,000 teacher pay raises

The business leaders said their willingness to support the proposed revenue hikes is directly tied to lawmakers' willingness to vote for $5,000 teacher pay increases and embrace 10 reforms to the structure of state and county government, many of which also would require the public's approval through votes on constitutional amendments.

Everyone will be a "little irritated" by some of the revenue raising measures, acknowledged Larry Nichols, founder and chairman emeritus of Devon Energy Corp., who is one of the coalition members.

Ultimately, however, Nichols said he hopes that both the Legislature and public will conclude that if they accept the coalition's proposal as a package deal, most people will end up paying a little more, but the state will be a better place to live.

"It's a carefully balanced package," he said. "We in the business community spent a lot of time working on it."

The coalition includes dozens of Oklahoma's most influential citizens, including Harold Hamm, chief executive officer of Continental Resources; Clay Bennett, a member of the ownership group for the Oklahoma City Thunder; David Rainbolt, executive chairman of BancFirst Corp.; Mike Turpen, a former Oklahoma attorney general; Gary Pierson, president and chief executive officer of The Oklahoma Publishing Co.; Phil Albert, president Pelco Structural, Claremore; John Groendyke, CEO, Groendyke Transport, Enid; and Tucker Link, chairman, OSU/A&M Board of Regents, Finley. 

Key revenue-producing measures backed by the coalition include raising the cigarette tax, the gross production tax and the motor fuels tax, as well as eliminating some income tax deductions and modernizing the tax code. 

County reforms

Coalition members also want voters in each county to be able to select their own form of county government rather than requiring each county to be governed by a panel of three county commissioners. The proposed change is commonly referred to as home rule.

The coalition noted that much of the current budget impasse can be attributed to lawmakers inability to pass tax increases because of a constitutional amendment that requires revenue raising measures to be approved by 75 percent of legislators in both the House and Senate.

The coalition would like the Legislature to seek another vote of the people on whether to lower that threshold to 60 percent.

Nichols said coalition members believe that these and other proposed changes, listed in an accompanying story, would get the state back on the right track.

Nichols urged lawmakers to embrace the coalition's proposals as a package and not try to cherry pick one or two ideas.

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