Watching the State’s Highest Court

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The judicial branch of Oklahoma is supposed to be the final check in our system of checks and balances. By final, I mean that the court comes into play after laws have been passed or after the executive branch has taken an action. The job of the state’s highest court is to ensure that the other two branches act according to constitutional limits.

Recently, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has come under the scrutiny of conservatives because of questionable rulings regarding workers’ compensation reform and lawsuit reform. Despite constitutional language that allows multiple subtopics in legislation, the court ruled that both reforms unconstitutionally dealt with multiple subjects.

State lawmakers were alarmed when the court recently agreed to hear a challenge to last year’s tax cut. The challenge claimed that tax cuts must be voted on by the people. Most attorneys consider the challenge to be ludicrous, but during the hearings, several of the court justices seemed to be entertaining the argument.

Fortunately, the court did get it right and ruled against the challenge. It would have been disastrous if they had not done so. Ruling that a tax cut requires a vote of the people would create a precedent that could undo years of tax reform. It could have led to tax hikes, the return of the estate or “death” tax and the elimination of exemptions for disabled veterans and retirees.

According to an analysis by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a precedent of requiring a vote of the people for tax cuts could lead to the reversal of the 1998, 2005 and 2006 tax cuts. That would restore the top income tax rate to 7 percent. A single family of four with $75,000 worth of adjusted gross income would then pay about $900 more in taxes.

The OCPA also analyzed the cost of reversing the 2005 repeal of Oklahoma’s estate or “death” tax. The estate tax affects farmers and ranchers disproportionally because of the value attributed to their tracts of land. For example, the estate of a farmer with 3,200 acres of land in Dewey County, could owe $400,000 in taxes upon his death if he had not planned well under the former estate tax law.

A number of individual exemptions have been created in the past decade. A single disabled veteran living off $36,000 of adjusted gross income could pay approximately $500 more in taxes if a 2005 tax provision was ruled unconstitutional. A tax reform that aids retirees and senior citizens could be reversed along with a reform that benefits single mothers. The annihilation of other exemptions could mean that surviving spouses of military service members killed in action, active military members, aerospace engineers and the energy industry could face tax hikes.

The OCPA also warned that school districts could sue the state for millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, throwing the state budget into further disarray.

When the Oklahoma Supreme Court rules in a way that differs drastically from the actual language of the Oklahoma Constitution, they are acting like a “super legislature.” In this instance, they made the right call, but other rulings have made many of us leery of their inconsistent behavior. 

State lawmakers will continue to examine the idea of judicial reform in the 2015 legislative session. We don’t particularly like to fight with other branches of state government, but we, like them, serve as a check on other officials when they abuse their power.

As always, I can be contacted at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.


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