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Lawmakers cull out legislation

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A statewide lottery plan faces an uncertain future in the Oklahoma Legislature, but the fate of dozens of other measures has already been sealed as lawmakers complete their first month of work.

Since the 2003 Legislature convened on Feb. 3, lawmakers have killed proposals to increase the excise tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack, reduce the state income tax, exempt retirement pay from state income taxes and give Oklahoma shoppers a sales tax holiday.

A proposal to ask voters whether they want a statewide lottery to support public education is still alive, although leaders in the Oklahoma House have postponed a vote for lack of support.

Gov. Brad Henry has made a lottery the centerpiece of his plan to raise revenue for financially ailing public schools. Another attempt to pass the lottery bill is expected this week, possibly as early as Tuesday.

The list of measures that clutter Oklahoma's legislative graveyard continues to grow as bills are defeated or not given a hearing by Democrat-controlled committees.

Rep. Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, assistant minority floor leader, said 55 percent of measures left on the table in the House were Republican ideas. Democrats outnumber Republicans 53-48 in the House.

``We're not demanding that our ideas become law. We're simply asking that our ideas be on the table and be up for discussion,'' House Minority Leader Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, said.

Democrats have said partisan considerations are not behind their refusal to give some measures a hearing, especially those that might affect state revenue. Oklahoma is facing a $678 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

``They're in complete control of government,'' Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said of the Legislature's Democrat majority. Coffee's bill to offer income tax exemptions to retirees _ an idea proposed by Democratic Gov. Brad Henry _ was not heard by the Senate Finance Committee.

``They've got a majority in the House. They've got a majority in the Senate. They've got the governor's office. They've got the numbers to pass anything they want to without Republican support if they choose to,'' Coffee said.

Republican-backed Senate bills that are dead include a plan to give county commissioners more authority to regulate strip bars in rural areas.

``Residents in those areas are concerned about those businesses,'' said the measure's author, Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow. ``Right now the citizens have no voice.''

The Senate Finance Committee refused to hear a measure by state Sen. Mark Snyder, R-Edmond, to reduce the state's income tax rate. Proposals to reduce or eliminate Oklahoma's income tax have been under study for the past two years.

Snyder said his measure would have reduced the state's 7 percent income tax incrementally to as low as 3.5 percent. Snyder said the measure would have no fiscal impact this year and income tax rates would not be reduced until revenue from other sources was sufficient to compensate for the drop in income tax revenue.

``We need to look at things long term,'' Snyder said. He said the bill would encourage high-paid corporate executives to relocate their businesses to Oklahoma.

``We have people with high incomes leaving the state. We even have people with low incomes leaving the state,'' he said.

Not all the dead revenue measures were sponsored by Republicans. A measure by Rep. Glen Bud Smithson, D-Sallisaw, to bring the state income tax standard deduction in line with the federal standard deduction did not make it through the committee process.

Also killed was a measure by Rep. Bill Paulk, D-Oklahoma City, which would have reduced the salaries of Oklahoma's statewide elected officials by an amount equal to budget cuts imposed on state agencies.

Measures to offer Oklahoma shoppers a sales tax holiday each year were not heard. The measure is similar to a sales tax holiday in Texas and other states that would waive state sales taxes on shoes and clothing under $100 during the first full weekend in August.

Sales tax holiday bills were sponsored by Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore, and Rep. Greg Piatt, R-Ardmore. Similar bills have been proposed in the Legislature for the past four years.

``I think it's tremendously important,'' Piatt said. Ardmore-area merchants created their own sales tax holiday program last year by cutting prices on clothing and shoes by 8 percent, the local sales tax rate.

``We had people from Texas driving up here,'' Piatt said.

One measure killed in committee could be resurrected.

The House Revenue and Finance Committee refused to hear a bill to increase the excise tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack to $1.23 a pack. The increase would be the first in 16 years and would raise $185.7 million for tobacco cessation and health care issues.

The measure's author, Rep. Ray Vaughn, R-Edmond, said it could reappear late in the legislative session as part of the general appropriations bill.

``It's one of the few alternatives out there that would produce additional revenue,'' Vaughn said.
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