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Taxing rhetoric



Should Oklahoma City voters approve an extension of a penny sales tax to fund improvements to the Ford Center so the city can have its own NBA team?


There is little doubt the city is ready for the big leagues. It proved this when it became the temporary home of the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina. The city fell in love with the Hornets, and the crowds were impressive. Now a group of local businesspeople, led by Clay Bennett, wants to relocate the Seattle SuperSonics here, but the group members say the Ford Center needs improvements for the deal to go through.


Bennett and his partners, who include local energy executives Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon, recently purchased the SuperSonics. They have held Seattle hostage in recent months by demanding taxpayers there build a new arena, but local politicians and citizens didn't play along, and now Bennett, as expected, will most likely move the team to Oklahoma City. Bennett has notified the NBA he plans to do so.


This could be good news for the city. An NBA team would improve the city's quality of life, and increase business at local hotels, restaurants and shops. But, maybe before voters approve the tax, those local businesspeople who stand to benefit the most financially from the initiative should publicly acknowledge they are, in the parlance of The Oklahoman's editorial page, "tax consumers."


What exactly is a tax consumer? A tax consumer is someone who benefits from taxes, which includes everyone. Anyone who drives a car down a public street is a tax consumer. But it's also a term used disparagingly by right-wing ideologues at media outlets and think tanks to belittle anyone who gets money from the government. Under this definition, tax consumers are worthless drains on the economy.


But if the tax passes, shouldn't the negative definition apply to millionaires like Bennett, who is married to Louise Gaylord Bennett, daughter of the late Edward L. Gaylord, longtime publisher of The Oklahoman? (The Gaylord family still owns the newspaper.)


In 2004, Ward and McClendon each donated $250,000 to the Club For Growth, a political action committee, which purchased television advertisements critical of Brad Carson. Carson, a Democrat, ran that year against Tom Coburn, who has become one of the nation's most conservative Republican senators. Shouldn't this definition apply to rich political activists like McClendon and Ward, and everyone in the group?


The money Bennett and others in the group will earn if the team comes here could undoubtedly be staggering, and a foundation for these earnings will be paid for by taxpayers. The tax would raise $121 million in improvements for the arena. That is a $121 million investment to help millionaires make even more millions.


Once Bennett and crew openly acknowledge they are some of the city's largest tax consumers, local leaders could begin having rational discussions about the local and state tax base. Recent state tax cuts, along with a downturn in the economy, could threaten funding for education and other aspects of state government this year. What should the government do?


Maybe if some state leaders and editorial writers ditched the tax-consumer rhetoric and acknowledged everyone benefits from the tax base, the state could move forward with sensible tax policies.


Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From The Outback,

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