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Oklahoma Tax Cut|Upheld by High Court

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - Because voter-mandated supermajority requirements apply only to tax increases, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the state's income-tax cut.

Jerry Fent, an Oklahoma City attorney, sued the state after the passage of Senate Bill 1246. Signed into law this April, the measure will reduce the state's income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent in 2016. An additional cut to 4.85 percent is allowed if certain revenue levels are maintained.

For Fent, the measure ran afoul of State Question 640, a constitutional amendment Oklahoma voters passed in 1992 that requires three-fourths support in both houses for any tax increase.

Fent argued SB 1246 reduces income taxes in some cases but is a "raising revenue" bill in others.

Oklahoma responded that bills that lower income taxes are not "raising revenue" and fall outside of the constitutional amendment. The state said voters understood the definition of raising revenue applies to tax increases only.

The state's high court agreed with the state Tuesday, voting 7-0 in finding the law constitutional. Chief Justice Tom Colbert and Justice Joseph Watt abstained from voting.

Writing for the court, Justice Yvonne Kauger said SQ 640's ballot title informed voters it was "aimed at only bills 'intended to raise revenue' and 'revenue raising bills.'"

"The obvious meaning of raising revenue in this context is to increase revenue," Kauger wrote.

Holding the law to the supermajority requirements "would defeat the evident object and purpose" of SQ 640, the court found.

"Absent an ambiguity," the intent of legislatures and voters is settled by the language in the amendment itself and "the courts are not at liberty to search for its meaning beyond the provision," Kauger added.

"Constitutional provisions are not made for parsing by lawyers, but for the instruction of the people and the representatives of government, so that they may read and understand their rights and duties," the decision also states. "Words used in a constitutional provision and an accompanying ballot title are to be construed in a way most familiar to ordinary people who voted on the measure."

The ruling came as a relief to Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

"This was the right decision by the court and is great news for all Oklahomans," Pruitt said in a statement. "The Attorney General's Office is proud to have successfully defended this income tax cut bill which will let Oklahomans keep more of their hard-earned paychecks."

The high court "upheld the intent of the voters" when they approved the amendment to block tax increases, Pruitt added.

Though Fent could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening, he told the Tulsa World he was happy to have lost the case because his lawsuit was about the procedure.

Fent told the newspaper he had no opinion on the cuts themselves or the amounts of the cuts.

Follow @davejourno
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