Monday, October 12, 2020

OCPA column: Time for fairness, certainty, unity


Time for fairness, certainty, unity
By Jonathan Small

Imagine that you and your neighbor work at the same business, in the same town, for the same income, yet you are subject to different taxes and regulations than your neighbor. Unfortunately, that’s the reality that potentially faces Oklahomans in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent McGirt decision, which declared the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation was never formally disestablished.

While the ruling dealt only with criminal jurisdiction and Creek land, the logic of the ruling is expected to apply to four other tribes whose territories include most of Eastern Oklahoma, and opens the door for those tribes to exert new powers in areas such as taxation and regulation.

For example, there is reason to think non-Indians could soon be subject to taxation from both the state and a tribe if they live on what is now considered a reservation, but that a Cherokee living in Tulsa (now part of the Creek reservation) may be exempted from state and local taxes. In the same way, businesses owned by tribal members may be exempted from state and local taxes paid by competitors even when both businesses operate in the same community.

The ripple effect will ultimately impact all Oklahomans. Officials at the Oklahoma Tax Commission have predicted, conservatively, that state tax collections will decline by hundreds of millions because of new exemptions created by McGirt. Yet the state will still be expected to fund things like roads, schools and public safety in the reservation areas, despite the fact that many individuals in those areas will be paying far less to support those government functions.

That will translate into major funding cuts or significant increases in taxation upon those Oklahomans not favored by the McGirt ruling. That’s a recipe for harsh division and acrimony across Oklahoma.

There is a better way.

We at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs believe any solution must provide fairness to all Oklahomans regardless of their heritage or where they live and work; certainty about the laws, taxes and regulations that govern their lives; and unity for the whole state.

To accomplish these goals, OCPA recommends Congress formally disestablish the reservations in Oklahoma. That will simply restore the status quo of the last century; tribal governments will retain their existing powers, but not expand them.

In the meantime, OCPA also recommends the state of Oklahoma and the five tribes affected by McGirt enter into an accord that cements fairness, certainty and unity for all Oklahomans, as defined above, and that has the same practical effect as disestablishing reservations.

If Oklahoma is to survive as a state, rather than a loose confederacy of competing interests, we must have equality before the law for all. And that won’t exist until all Oklahoma citizens are consistently subject to the same rules and laws.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. 

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