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Doerflinger says…

February 25, 2017 Comments off

As you probably know by now, the state of Oklahoma declared a revenue failure again this week.

For the second time in two fiscal years, the state of Oklahoma has declared a revenue failure, meaning tax collections are below the estimates used to pass the state budget last session.

“Our revenues are difficult at best, and maybe they fall into the category of pathetic,” Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger told a packed room of elected officials, bureaucrats and media this morning. “Our situation is dire. I beg you to have an appreciation for the situation we have before us.”

What this means is that state agencies will receive a reduction in funding from what was budgeted at the beginning of the fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30. For public education, that’s over $46 million in mid-year cuts.

Doerflinger could not emphasize enough how critical this situation is.

Doerflinger also alerted the board to an even larger budget hole for Fiscal Year 2018 than had been anticipated: $878 million, up from $868 million. He more than subtly urged the board — and legislators — to consider Fallin’s bold revenue ideas.

“I don’t know how much more I can emphasize that the time for action is now,” Doerflinger said. “It’s not a game. We need new revenues.”

Doerflinger spoke at a podium directly in front of Fallin and Lamb, who stepped down from Fallin’s cabinet last week because he said he could not support the governor’s proposal for sales tax to be implemented on a variety of services.

“The governor is a pragmatic person, a reasonable person,” Doerflinger said to a silent, crowded room. “She has put forward a bold proposal. I know she and I look forward to specific plans to be revealed by other people involved in this process.”

Fallin’s bold proposal includes eliminating the grocery sales tax and corporate income tax. She would replace them with a menu of taxes on services, such as tattoos, oil changes, and haircuts.They also want to increase the cigarette tax.

The governor’s estimates (which are Doerflinger’s estimates) are huge. I question whether they’re reliable. These are the same people who have worked with legislative leaders to “balance” the state budget each of the last three years, leading to massive shortfalls every time.

According to Fallin’s estimates, applying sales tax to services would bring in $1,703,879,742 (that’s 1.7 Billion dollars with a B) to government coffers. Of that, the state government would receive $934,247,035, county governments would get $648,274,017, and cities would collect $121,358,690.

This is essentially a 10% tax hike on small businesses and consumers across the state, as the cost of doing business and obtaining services will go up about 10%.

Fallin lists 164 different categories she wants taxed. This includes all manner of construction-related contracting services, cable TV, pet grooming, carpet cleaning, business and legal services, utilities for residential use, funeral services, medical services… the list is very long, and you can view it here.

Fallin FY2018 sales tax hike.png

It’s not a very good plan, but at least it’s a plan.

I’ve been pretty quiet the last few weeks. I’ve seen lots of revenue plans (such as nearly tripling the beer tax) and teacher pay raise bills. What I haven’t seen is any momentum behind a solid idea to fix the fundamental problems in this state.

For three years, we’ve listened to state leaders blame the budget hole on low oil and gas prices. In her State of the State address this year, Fallin even blamed online shopping for contributing to lower state revenues.

These things contribute, but not as much as the tax cuts our state has passed during the last ten years. And yes, I know that dates back into Brad Henry’s second term as governor.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates the annual cost of these tax cuts at more than $1 billion. You and I have barely felt those cuts. Most are large cuts for the wealthy and cuts for oil and gas. Other states that rely on fossil fuels for revenue haven’t been hit this hard. They also haven’t decimated their own tax base to intentionally starve the beast of core state services.

Repeating the gravity of the situation, Doerflinger spoke Friday to a Republican group in Tulsa. You can watch clips of his remarks at the Tulsa World website. I’ve transcribed a few sections:

0:25 At some point, we have to determine what type of state we want. Do we want to invest in things like common education or not, and if not, and if we’re not, then we should just tell teachers – and I have friends that are teachers, I have friends that are corrections workers, I have friends that are child welfare workers – at some point we just need to tell those people that we don’t care, or we need to decide that we need to invest in those areas. And I’m telling you, that there are still areas and places we can improve from an efficiency standpoint.

Based on the last few years, I’m reluctant to say what kind of state his audience envisions. Fallin is still governor. We keep digging deeper holes in our budget. An actual plan to raise teacher salaries by $5,000 was defeated at the polls in November. Like it or not, this is the Oklahoma standard right now.

1:50 And agencies have peddled doubt and fear for so long that it’s hard for you to believe me whenever I stand up in front of you and try to make an argument for the fact that these agencies have taken serious cuts over many years and if we’re going to hit them this year with the Draconian-style cuts that I think some people would have us hit them with, then we’re at risk at this point of doing real harm. Some of these people that we’re talking about, if they sustain these type of cuts – and I’m not a dramatic person – people die. We’re putting our corrections workers at risk. We’re putting child welfare workers at risk. And then again, if you care about teachers and the teacher pay raise, I don’t know how you fund that without looking at some types of new revenue.

 

If stating directly what ongoing cuts mean to those we serve means we have peddled doubt and fear, then I don’t know what to tell you. Then again, he’s not a dramatic person, and he thinks people are going to die if we don’t do something different.

2:40 If the agency known as the State Department of Education and if the Education Establishment in general would start coming with more solutions to the problem versus just the answer being solely we need more money, because there are opportunities to realize efficiencies within the common education universe. The problem is that the Education Establishment really is fixated on just maintaining the status quo, which is sick and really disgusting and it doesn’t benefit the children in this state, so enough of that already.

That’s some weird phrasing: the agency known as the State Department of Education. How else would they be known? And of course, there’s the red meat for his base: the Education Establishment.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m fixated on improving the education my district provides our 14,300 students. Cutting $5,000,000 from our budget last year and over 100 support, teaching, and administrative positions doesn’t make that easy. Losing almost $1.3 million in the second half of this fiscal year doesn’t either. School funding is being held hostage by someone who shows no evidence that he can reverse trend behavior.

And that is really disgusting.

3:20 What we are doing is not sustainable. It’s not, and we need to figure out – the collective we – how we want to approach that. I – again, if anybody things the budget that I pushed out this year is the budget that I wanted to push out – it’s just not true, but it was the reality that we faced in order to try to invest in our state and try to avoid doing real harm in areas where – I can tell you, it was a guiding principle. The governor has told me, the last two years for sure, please try to protect areas, Preston, where people die, or real harm occurs, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

This entire scenario reminds me of a scene in The Hunt for Red October. A Russian admiral, played by Sean Connery, wants to defect to America and bring his big, bad new submarine with him. He’s being chased by another Russian submarine, which fires a torpedo. Connery’s sub outmaneuvers the other one, and the torpedo tracks towards the one that fired it.

One of the Russians turns to the ship’s captain and says, “You arrogant ass; you’ve killed us!”

As with the torpedo movie, we’ve taken the safety features off our budget. We’ve all but eliminated taxes on horizontal drilling. We give money away by the bucket to corporations that fail to invest it back into our state. We keep cutting taxes and then desperately trying to steer out of the way of disaster.

And every time we do this, someone in the Education Establishment will say how grateful we are that we were held flat, as opposed to facing more cuts.

I’m over that.

And if you want a list of some of the suggestions we’ve made over the years, check out Rob Miller’s blog post from today. He’s not thrilled with Mr. Doerflinger either.

During a speech to the Tulsa Republican Club Friday, State Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger remarked that the Oklahoma state government cannot continue to function at anything close to current levels without new revenue, calling the state’s current budgeting path “not sustainable.”

Duh, ya think!

Thank you, Preston Obvious.

Rob discusses several funding and policy solutions we have proposed for years. We’re not beholden to the status quo. I would love to change many things about how we pay for education and how we provide it.

What the Education Establishment can’t do is fix the state budget. Hopefully someone can.

And so it starts…

January 11, 2017 1 comment

A year ago at this time, we were just beginning to learn the depths of our state’s revenue failure. The state had declared a revenue failure, which began a series of cuts for school districts everywhere. It’s not just that we knew we’d have less money for the following school year; no, we had to make cuts right away.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Today, superintendents around Oklahoma had a serious sense of déjà vu.

shortfall memo.png

In case you can’t read the image, it’s a memo from Superintendent Hofmeister letting us know of a funding shortfall (which is different than a revenue failure). Here’s the key part:

Based on the December revenue collections, the 1017 Fund is approximately $11.7 million or 3.5 percent below the estimate. The total January deposits are approximately $9.7 million short of the funds needed to make the scheduled payment in full.

At this time, for payment purposes, instead of reallocating State Aid Allocations statewide, we will reduce the percentage of payment based on available cash.

  • For Financial Support of Schools (State Aid formula funding), we are only able to pay 8.47 percentthis month instead of the scheduled 9 percent (a 0.53 percent payment reduction).
  • The January accumulated percentageof the latest allocation is 53.47 percent.
  • To calculate your state aid payment, multiply the accumulated percentage by the most recent allocation and then subtract the amount paid to date. The result is the amount of payment for each month.
  • The effective date for the January payment remains Thursday, January 12, 2017.
  • At this time, all other line items continue to be paid at the scheduled accumulated percentage.

We will continue to look at each month’s cash revenue and re-evaluate our course of action on a monthly basis.

School districts receive 11 monthly state aid payments. They are uneven. There is no July payment. The August payment is eight percent of the overall state aid. September and May are ten percent. The other months are nine percent.

Wait, that’s a lot of numerical verbiage. Let me try it in a table.

Month % of State Aid Received Month % of State Aid Received
July 0% January 9%
August 8% February 9%
September 10% March 9%
October 9% April 9%
November 9% May 10%
December 9% June 9%

For the first six months of this fiscal year, we received the payments we expected to receive. The memo today tells us our January payment will be short.

It will be on time, but it will be short. The shortage will be different for each district, but our payment will be about $281,000 less than we were expecting.

And that’s just January. We don’t know if this fund will be short again next month, or maybe every month for the rest of the fiscal year.

And we don’t know about other funds.

And we don’t know if the state will declare revenue failure again this year.

What I know is that we cut over $5 million from our budget this year and elimnated about 100 jobs. Yet somehow, we’re still taking on water.

That’s why I hate the question, “How can school districts save money?” We’re already doing that. And the people who work for us are busy exploring their options.

At the semester, we had a teacher leave us to take a job in a correctional facility. That’s the most re-tweeted tweet I’ve ever tweeted. Apparently that struck a nerve with people. It did with me. That’s why I tweeted it.

It also struck a nerve when the editorial writers at the Oklahoman tried to make sense of Rep. Kevin Calvey’s press release about Superintendent Hofmeister’s budget request. Their synthesis only made things worse.

Bureaucrats seldom volunteer to embrace efficiency and often resort to doomsday rhetoric when changes to the status quo are proposed. The problems noted with the Department of Education’s budget request won’t be unique among state agencies.

Whether we volunteered for it or not, whether we’re embracing it or not, we’re becoming more efficient. As for the doomsday rhetoric, I’ll refer you to today’s memo and to the teacher leaving us for a correctional facility.

Teachers want raises. They also want to have manageable class sizes. Oh, and they want current instructional materials. Technology that works would be nice too. It’s the little things.

Today, I don’t feel like blaming anyone. I don’t feel like calling out particular politicians who I think have contributed to a climate in which all functions of state government are suffering.

I also don’t feel like being told we need to be more efficient.

A few legislators get it.

A few isn’t enough. Today, we bleed a little more. Next month? I don’t want to think about that yet. I’m just waiting on the weather to possibly give us another four-day week.

icemageddon.png

One way or another, we have to make ends meet, right?

Bring on 2017!

December 31, 2016 1 comment

Year end recaps are usually trite and self-serving, so why should mine be any different? I won’t belabor the huge loss of talent that we’ve seen this year. Sure, we’ve seen the passing of Prince, Alan Rickman, John Glenn, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Sharon Jones, David Bowie, and even the guy who played Schneider on One Day at a Time. We even had three major celebrity losses (George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds) in the last week!

That’s not the talent I mean. Besides, CNN says we need to get over ourselves because it’s not even the worst year in recent memory for celebrity deaths. They have numbers and everything.

I’m talking about the ongoing talent loss in public education. Year after year, we continue to teach more students with fewer teachers. Of the teachers we have, more and more of them have entered the profession through the emergency certification route.

image1

Five years ago, Oklahoma granted a grand total of 32 emergency certificates. Halfway through the current school year, we already have 1,082. Teachers are leaving the profession because they see a better pathway for supporting their families somewhere else. Worse yet, we don’t have very many college students picking the profession to begin with.

We continue to have budget problems. Our Legislature had to fix a $610 million budget hole in Fiscal Year 2016 (2015-16). They had a $1.3 BILLION shortfall in FY 17. As they set to work on the FY 18 budget, they will begin with an $870 million deficit.

Knowing that any prospect of significant teacher raises died November 8th with the defeat of SQ 779, teachers who have options will spend the spring looking elsewhere for opportunities. Some will look to other careers. Some will look to other states.

The exodus isn’t beginning because of the election. It’s continuing. It may even be accelerating. Even Texas newspapers are noticing. The Dallas Morning News piggybacked on a Tulsa World article in August about one such move: LeAnna Snyder moving from Tulsa to Grand Prairie for a $20,000 raise. She cited the fact that her own children are about to enter college and she just had to do more for them. It’s more than the money, though:

“Yes, I’m getting a raise of almost $20,000 — and that’s a big help to my family, especially with two kids about to be in college. But it’s not just salary,” said Snyder. “It’s retirement, it’s class size, it’s supplies. It’s about kindness and respect. When you walk into that building in Texas, it’s clean, it’s not old, it’s sharp-looking. It felt safe.”

It’s not just Texas, either. Snyder could have crossed the Kansas or Arkansas borders for raises as well.

tps-to-ks-and-ar

Tulsa World

In fact, all the states that border Oklahoma have higher average salaries than we do.

regional-teaching-averages

Tulsa World

We still have legislators and policy groups who dispute those figures. We even have teachers who do. Remember that when you see an average teacher’s salary figure, though, that you’re looking at salary, insurance, and retirement – not just taxable income. Also remember that those are the same numbers used for other states.

State support for public education has been trending downward for a long time. According to data from the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), from FY 2000 to FY 2015, the state share of school funding dropped from 57.3% to 47.7%.

Fiscal Year Local Share State Share Federal Share
2015 40.8% 47.7% 11.6%
2010* 36.1% 46.5% 17.4%
2005 34.1% 52.2% 13.8%
2000 32.8% 57.3% 10.0%

*In 2010, federal stimulus funds supplemented state aid.

Another way to look at this is to place state funding for education side-by-side with public school enrollment growth, as KOSU has done. For FY 08, the Legislature appropriated $2.53 billion for common education. The amount dropped the next three years and then increased the following three years before dropping again this year.

enrollmentvsstatefunding__1__1 KOSU.png

KOSU

As it stands, funding is $100 million lower than it was eight years ago, but enrollment is nearly 50,000 students higher. It’s also worth mentioning that 2016 dollars have less buying power than 2008 dollars. Fortunately, the Oklahoma Policy Institute has calculated the extent of Oklahoma’s per pupil cuts, adjusting for inflation.

funding-cuts-2015

Per pupil state funding in Oklahoma is down nearly a quarter since 2008. That’s the worst figure in the country. Sure, we’ve seen a downturn in energy sector of our economy, but it hasn’t hit all the states that produce oil and gas as hard as it has hit us.

education-cuts-worst-in-nation-opi

North Dakota is another oil producing state, and they lead the nation in per pupil funding increases. They’re even adding to their equivalent of our Rainy Day Fund as we have all but shaken the last coin from our piggy bank. I don’t want to model everything we do after North Dakota – they’ve had a pretty rough time the last few months with DAPL, you know – I just want to live in a state with sound fiscal planning. And I don’t want to move.

Part of our state’s problem is that we give too many tax breaks without getting anything in return. The 2016 version of the Legislature fought this travesty head on – by eliminating the Oklahoma Earned Income Credit. This was, in essence, a tax increase on the state’s poorest citizens. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same politicians used that reasoning for opposing the penny sales tax.

For more than a decade, we’ve seen declining tax revenues in Oklahoma. Some of this is due to policy decisions; some is due to oil prices. Due to cuts to income taxes alone, the state has lost over $1 billion in revenue since 2008. I know, you want to keep more of what you earn. So do I. We’re not the ones benefitting from these tax cuts, however.

avg-tax-cut-opi

 

If you’re making what an average school teacher in Oklahoma makes, your cut was about $29. Actually, it was less. Your taxable income is less than the $47,500 listed in that table.

Pretty much every state agency has seen funding cuts during the current cycle of budget woes. Meanwhile, working Oklahomans haven’t seen game changing tax breaks.

Oil companies have, though. We continue giving tax breaks all over the place to them, though.

oklahoma-tax-breaks-horizontal-international-business-times

International Business Times

Similar to what we’ve done in Oklahoma, North Dakota has reduced property and income tax rates. They’ve continued to tax drilling, though.

Apparently, we’re going to dig out of this hole by taxing haircuts, tattoos, and cigarettes. Twice, in fact, since the end of the legislative session in May, I’ve met with Republican legislators who blame Democrats for not supporting a cigarette tax proposal that they think would have raised $150 million annually. I reminded both that Republicans have veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, and that they also hold the governor’s mansion.

After November 8th, Republicans now hold even wider margins in both chambers of the Legislature. They have a 75-26 advantage in the House and a 42-6 gap in the Senate. Republican unity would seem to be a bigger issue than courting Democrats to their side. Hopefully, many of the newly elected legislators will be as education friendly as they’ve sounded.

Of course, we also have distractions. Days before the election, the state superintendent was indicted for alleged violations of state campaign laws. Interestingly, the charges were filed at the end of absentee ballot voting and at the beginning of early voting. Do I think that made a difference?

  Absentee Early Voting Election Day Total
Yes 52,989 63,895 466,545 583,429
No 46,147 86,400 721,026 853,573

Yeah, I think it made a difference. Before the indictment, Yes on 779 had a slim margin. After the indictment, it was No in a landslide. Are the charges against Superintendent Hofmeister valid? I’m not a lawyer or a judge. Out of thousands of pages of evidence that were reviewed, we’ve only seen a 32 page complaint by the district attorney’s office. We haven’t seen or heard defense arguments yet. A lot can happen between here and there. The timing (on allegations that were 17 months old) definitely stung, though.

We also have the distraction of what appears to be a hush hush settlement orchestrated by the former Speaker of the House. In case you’ve missed the drama over the last couple of weeks, I’ll let the Oklahoman sum it up for you:

A fired legislative assistant and her attorneys were secretly paid $44,500 in state funds in November to settle her sexual harassment complaint against a state representative from Tulsa, records show.

Hollie Anne Bishop, 28, complained Rep. Dan Kirby, 58, began sexually harassing her shortly after she started working for him in January 2015. She complained she was fired without explanation on Nov. 20, 2015, in retaliation for reporting the harassment.

She accepted a $28,414.20 payment, online records show. Her Edmond attorneys accepted a $16,085.80 payment.

The payments appear to have come from taxpayer funds meant to operate the state House of Representatives. The payments were made Nov. 22 after Kirby, a Republican, won re-election, the records show.

Keep in mind that while education and every other function of state government saw a cut in funding, the Legislature increased its own operational budget by 183% for FY 17. Surely this isn’t why, is it?

It’s also worth noting that Kirby won his re-election on November 8th –two weeks before the settlement was paid. Is that timing also fishy? Of course it is.

Since the revelation of this settlement before Christmas, Kirby has resigned, we have learned that outgoing Speaker Jeff Hickman was instrumental in lining up the settlement, Kirby has rescinded his resignation, and that new Speaker Charles McCall wants to investigate the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Scott Pruitt is headed to the Trump administration, the incoming Secretary of Education does not appear to have ever set foot in a public school, and – oh yeah! – we still have nearly a billion dollar hole to fill.

I don’t envy the task our legislators have. Some who are well-meaning engage with public education advocates on social media quite effectively. Others shut down quickly and lament that they are tired of hearing us complain without offering any solutions. I have two things to say to that:

  1. You ran for office. Aren’t you supposed to have some ideas?
  2. We’ve been giving you our ideas for the last several years now. Do we need to list them again?

In the past few years, the Legislature has listened to us on non-revenue issues. They added parents to the third-grade reading committee. They authorized changes to A-F Report Cards. They passed new academic standards. They eliminated End of Instruction tests and simplified teacher evaluations too. Year after year, they’ve even turned back voucher bills.

I know that most of our legislators listen to us. We just can’t seem to get anywhere with funding.

In spite of all of this, I’m going to remain hopeful.

hope gif.gif

We have 700,000 public education students to teach in this state. More than 14,000 of those are in my district alone. I even still have one in my household. Public education continues to be a bargain for taxpayers and a building block for citizenship. In spite of the challenges – both for funding and respect – I see great things every day in our schools. Even the teachers who are looking for an exit come to work and try to make an impact every day.

We have new and returning legislators who need to continue hearing from us. They need to know what our struggles look like. They need to see faces. They need to hear our opinions about everything from funding to vouchers to accountability. We owe them that. We should call them, and they should call us.

2016 is gone, and good riddance to it. Bring on 2017, come what may.

They came, they saw, they puked

October 30, 2016 Comments off

In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, Oklahoma has faced budget shortfalls each of the last three years, and they just keep getting bigger. This has created tension at our Capitol – you know the one getting the $245 million in repairs.

That’s not what this post is about. I’m glad the Capitol is being restored. Here’s what Governor Fallin said in her state of the state address back in 2014:

In fact, this building has become a safety hazard. We are doing a great disservice to our state and its citizens by allowing the Capitol to crumble around us.

The exterior is falling apart, to the point where we must actually worry about state employees and visitors – including teachers and students on field trips – being hit by falling pieces of the façade.

The yellow barriers outside are an eyesore and an embarrassment.

The electrical system is dangerously outdated.

And guys, the water stains you’ve seen on some of the walls downstairs? I have bad news for you. That’s not just water.

Raw sewage is literally leaking into our basement. On “good” days, our visitors and employees can only see the disrepair. On bad days, they can smell it.

Based on a Fox 25 story from last week, some of those same terms could be appropriate in describing the state’s budget negotiations process. As Phil Cross explains:

Documents obtained by FOX 25 shed new light on the difficulties of filling the $1.3 billion hole in the state’s budget. They reveal the governor’s office began talking about the budget long before the session kicked off. Doerflinger said while formal negotiations did not start until 2016, the talks started shortly after the 2015 legislative session closed.

Emails from the governor’s staff showed the session began with optimism. Even when House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) told the Tulsa World there was no chance for a teacher pay raise during the session, the Governor’s Chief of Staff Denise Northrup wrote “challenge accepted…gov remember this for the meeting with Inman soon.”

Ultimately though, no teacher pay raise happened in the session. By May, a staff member for the governor’s office wrote, “Not very grateful,” in an email to Northrup containing the statement of Oklahoma State School Board Association on the end of the session saying schools would continue to struggle under the budget agreement. Northrup replied, “jerks.”

I don’t find much of this surprising. The governor’s staff didn’t like the push back they received to their budget ideas. And maybe they were upset that Inman didn’t think their ideas would produce a teacher raise, but show me where he was wrong.

Remember, the Republican party can pass any piece of legislation they wanted to without a single Democrat voting for it. If the governor vetoed it, they could override her, again, without a single Democrat supporting them. That’s called a supermajority. Governor Fallin has had that luxury for the six years she’s held the office. It’s a luxury Fallin expects to retain for her last two years as governor as well.

There’s more:

“In this budget, there are things that you don’t like,” Doerflinger said, “and in this case that was one that made my stomach church but at the end of the day the governor has to make a decision as to whether all the other things that were accomplished in this budget.”

The stomach churning was not confined to Doerflinger’s office. Upstairs, in the governor’s office Northrup looked at the final agreement which included an addition that was never part of any negotiation. She simply wrote, “puke.”

I love this kind of insight. Knowing that there would be no budget deal otherwise, the governor’s office accepted something they didn’t want. It made them want to puke.

dodge ball threw up in my mouth.gif

I couldn’t bring myself to use a Linda Blair gif.

Yet when the OSSBA feels the same way, they’re jerks, right? Right.

During the last six years, I can’t even count the number of financial decisions our state has made that have made me feel that way. Just for fun, though, here are a few:

In 2012, Oklahoma voters approved SQ 766, which now costs the state tens of millions of dollars annually in property tax collections. This impacts our cities and our schools, and it deepens the budget deficits we face in this state. It benefits large corporations, most notably AT&T. The measure passed 65% to 35%, because all we heard was “tax cut.” Never mind that it doesn’t help most of us.

In 2014, the Legislature passed an income tax cut that continued to cut into state revenue. It is likely that the legislation responsible for dropping the tax rate in Oklahoma to 5 percent this year will cause it to fall even further in 2018.

In 2015, the Legislature passed HB 2244, which threw motor vehicle tax collections into a spin that created huge imbalances in state aid to school districts. On top of that, the Oklahoma Tax Commission misinterpreted the Legislature’s intent for how those collections should be distributed. A judge’s decision against the OTC now means that some corrective action will be taken, which will impact districts’ budget planning.

In 2016, school districts throughout the state faced cut after cut after cut, but only once half the year had already passed. Then during the summer, the same people who wanted to puke because of all the jerks announced that they had accidentally cut $141 million too much from state agencies. They even tried re-branding it a surplus and attempted to talk legislators into having a special session (like the one they worked to avoid in May by holding their nose and accepting an imperfect product).

Meanwhile, the governor’s biggest cheerleaders (besides Oklahoma’s energy industry) – the editorialists at the Oklahoman and the think tank double-speakers at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs – spent the year alternating between trying to convince teachers that they were actually making good money and contriving strategies to use one-time funds (such as the surplus that wasn’t) to fund raises that wouldn’t be sustainable. One of the OCPA guys even suggested that we should illegally spend bond money to pay salaries. If he thinks that idea will float, then he’s probably going to buy OU’s Tuscan monastery.

Making the burn of bad decisions worse, North Dakota has managed the spoils of their energy industry and created a real budget surplus. That could have been Oklahoma.

Yeah, I still want to puke.

Puke shirt.png

We vote in nine days. Maybe you’re still on the fence about SQ 779 – the penny sales tax that would generate raises of at least $5,000 for teachers. Or maybe you’ve been reading propaganda that says more than half the money will go to higher education. That’s a lie. No matter how many times you read it on the Internet, it’s still a lie. If you want to read the legal language and get back to me, feel free.

If the people who are running things at the Capitol make you want to puke, you still have a chance to support pro-education candidates. A few changes here and there, and our collective stomachs might rest a little better.

That’s about it for things that make me want to puke – well, as long as I don’t get started on the Halloween overtime that is our presidential election.

Time to get woke (as the kids are saying)

October 16, 2016 1 comment

Here we are, 23 days away from Election Day, and two things are still true.

cub-fan-bud-man

Ok, well, not those two things. I am rooting for the Cubs in the playoffs right now, but as for the other, I prefer something that isn’t so mass produced – maybe even something made in Oklahoma.

No, the two things that are still true are (1) that we still have a massive teacher shortage, and (2) that many teachers in Oklahoma qualify for government assistance programs, such as WIC and Sooner Care.

This election will be critical, but at the top of the ballot, we have two figures whose personalities turn people off in droves. I won’t get into that. We must look past that and vote anyway. We have several state questions that are important, and dozens of competitive legislative races. Unfortunately, there are no statewide office holders on the ballot this time around.

One thing that really hit home for me this week was when a friend asked me to guest lecture in his class for pre-service teacher candidates at Oklahoma State University. I also had the chance to speak to a broader group before the class discussion.

osu-speaker-announcement

I really didn’t know what to expect when I met with America’s Brightest Orange ™. We had some great comments and conversations about the state of public schools in our state. In both talks, though, I had to answer a question, somewhere along the lines of, “After I graduate, why should I stay in Oklahoma?”

My answer, as I was mindful of the fact that this during work hours, was that if SQ 779 passed, or if the our elected leaders could find a meaningful way to give raises to teachers, that there are a bunch of reasons to stay. (I also told them that if they choose to stay in Oklahoma, they should choose Mid-Del. Don’t judge. You’d have promoted your own district as well.)

I also told them that if the state can’t find a way to raise teacher salaries before they graduate, then I can’t in good conscience market the state of Oklahoma to them. I love it here. I’m a fourth generation Oklahoman and I’ve lived here my whole life. My own children are looking elsewhere, though.

We also talked about the lack of students entering the profession in the traditional way, through the teacher prep programs at our colleges and universities.

I know some great teachers who started their careers with alternative certification. I even know some teachers with emergency certification who work out just fine. Over the years, though, it’s the teachers who went to college with the intent to become teachers who tend to work out most reliably and stay with us the longest.

I’ve written it many times, but once you sign to come to work for me, I don’t care what pathway you took into the profession. Our job is to support you and help you become a rock star teacher. With the people I have around me in Mid-Del who are geared to support just that, it’s much easier to make the case of why you should come work for us than why you should stay in Oklahoma.

I didn’t say it directly on Thursday, but I support  SQ 779 – the penny sales tax. I tire of the argument that we’re letting the Legislature (and governor) off the hook for failing to do their jobs. The truth is that the bigger the margin of victory, the more it will be seen as a reprimand. We’re calling out our elected leaders.

They’ve spent the last six years with one party control of the government, yet per pupil state aid for schools has steadily declined. The first four of those years, they missed an opportunity to help all core state services while oil prices were at historically high levels.

historical-oil-prices

The last two years, they’ve built flimsy budgets on faulty estimates. This led to a massive revenue shortfall last year, and the state miscalculated that too. This fiscal year, the state continues to fail to meet revenue collection estimates. That means we’ll likely see another revenue failure declaration and more budget cuts – after the election, of course.

Voting for SQ 779 is important because our various branches of government can’t agree on (a) how to fund public education adequately, or (b) just how much money they’re working with in the first place. These are also reasons why we must send some different people to the Capitol.

As much as I want to, I won’t specifically endorse any candidates for November’s election. Yes, it’s my personal blog, and I’m on my own time. I have every right to do what I want, but I’m increasingly aware of the fact that I need to have good working relationships with whoever voters send to 23rd and Lincoln.

That said, if you want to educate yourself about many of the races, my friend at Blue Cereal Education has some great candidate comparison. Whenever possible, he lets candidates’ own words do the talking. In particular, I find his information on House Districts 69 and 93, and Senate Districts 33 and 37 particularly compelling.

Educating yourself about candidates is a moral imperative. According to a Sooner Poll survey cited in the Oklahoman today, teachers feel quite underappreciated.

A vast majority of public school teachers across the state have an unfavorable opinion of the state Legislature — 81 percent, according to SoonerPoll — which has some teachers seeing similarities between this year and 2014.

In unrelated news, puppies are cute.

puppy

If we’re all really that frustrated, then we need to get off of our butts on Election Day and do something about it. The people who still want to wreck public education keep finding new angles.

ocpa-environment-for-the-win

I’m not making this up. Yes, the OCPA, which refutes that climate change is even a thing, now wants us all to support school choice in order to help the environment.

That reminds me, as long as you’re voting on November 8th, you should probably take a good hard look at SQ 790. Supporters claim that the intent is to allow us to move the 10 Commandments statue back to the Capitol. The fact that it currently sits in front of the OCPA building speaks volumes though. It’s really a back door for spending state money on religious education. I’ll be voting no on that one.

Again, if you’re a parent, educator, or future teacher, you need to vote. You need to vote in numbers that exceed the averages for other groups of people.

Public schools educate 90 percent of Oklahoma’s children. If we have any chance of continuing to serve them effectively, we can’t sit this one out.

Ignore the presidential election if you must. Just be informed and make smart choices.

Halfway Nowhere

October 9, 2016 3 comments

In case you missed it while following the non-stop coverage of Donald Trump’s obscenities and vitriol, our governor issued an official proclamation this week for the state’s oil and gas industry.

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I get it. She finally realizes that handing the energy producers an endless stream of tax cuts and credits has not helped the state’s economy, and she has one hope left. Pray.

I’m all for prayer. Residents from our state celebrate many faiths and worship in a variety of ways. Sure, her proclamation ignores many of these people and most of the faiths, but that’s ok. We’re Oklahoma. We don’t need diversity, right?

Fine, the exclusivity of her proclamation bothers me. So does the fact that under her leadership for the last six years, our state’s economy has continually worsened. Prayer and faith are great things, but they’re no substitute for a functioning government. Without a plan for how our state can diversify the economy or properly fund core state services, no amount of prayer is going to change the direction we are going.

I’m going to assume that our state leaders – along with the majority of Oklahomans – have been praying for all sorts of prosperity prior to now. That’s not what’s we’re missing. If our governor and Legislature had been doing their jobs during the last six years, maybe we wouldn’t be in a cycle of budget holes that worsen each year.

Prayer doesn’t change the fact that our leaders are patching problems with one-time money and taxes disguised as fees. Faith in God does not excuse us from the need to understand math. If you lower taxes, you have less money to fund schools, health care, roads, bridges, foster care, and corrections.

After six years with one party leading everything in the state – you’d think they could work together to make Oklahoma great again more prosperous. They haven’t. That’s why SQ 779 – the penny sales tax – had to happen. Nothing else was. Oh, those of us who support public education have been praying aplenty – for anything that would stem the tide of teachers leaving the state and the profession.

Right now there aren’t enough monestaries in Tuscany to make some of our teachers stick around. Maybe the governor’s next proclamation will be to ask for a day of prayer for the future of our schools. I’m not holding my breath.

Instead, I’m planning. I’ll be voting in less than a month for SQ 779 and for some new faces at the Capitol. November 8 can’t come soon enough.

Cheap Budget Trick

July 31, 2016 Comments off

While the school year and legislative session were both coming to an end in May, one story of budget cuts – and not a public education story – really stuck with me. From KFOR:

The Department of Human Services is freezing a program which helps low-income Oklahoma families pay for child care.

New applications within the child care subsidy program will soon be denied in an effort to save money.

Those who are currently enrolled in the system will not be impacted.

It’s those moms who are currently pregnant or those families who will soon need the financial help who are about to have to figure out a way to do without.

Baylea Brown is a single mom in the Oklahoma City area.

She relies on the state subsidy to help pay for child care for her 9-year-old son, Gavin, who has special needs.

“Because of the subsidy, I can pay my rent. I can pay for food,” she said.

It’s a subsidy that helps low-income Oklahoma families.

But, starting June 1, 2016, the program will be frozen.

“The agency has run out of money this year,” said Sheree Powell, spokesperson for DHS.

NewsChannel 4 obtained an internal memo from DHS.

The memo was sent out earlier this week, alerting employees to the changes that are coming.

The memo states “Due to the ongoing state budget shortfall, DHS will freeze enrollment for the child care subsidy program effective June 1, 2016.”

It goes on to say “Although new applications will not be approved, applicants still have the right to apply for the program and should not be prevented from doing so. However, applicants should be informed that all new applications will be denied. Notice of denial will be mailed to all who apply after the deadline. This decision cannot be appealed. However, if a client requests a hearing on this decision the request should be accepted and forwarded to the DHS Appeals Unit. The Appeals Unit will notify the applicant that the decision cannot be appealed.”

DHS also has concerns.

“Some of the things we’re concerned about is that families won’t be able to find quality child care, or they’ll start leaving their children in unsafe situations, maybe with relatives or friends who really aren’t qualified to care for their children,” Powell said.

Brown’s glad her subsidy is safe, but she knows just how hard life will potentially be for the families who will soon be denied the help.

“That just sounds kind of impossible – to work and to pay bills and to have daycare,” she said.

This is reality for families below the poverty line. Society at-large (me included) wants parents to be able to work. Often the cost of child care is an obstacle. Freezing the subsidy will keep thousands of parents out of the workforce. Remember that the next time you stumble across a conversation in which your friends and neighbors are talking about poor people just wanting handouts. The state has just frozen a program that would help people who are trying to find a place in the workforce.

Another non-education cut from April also has stayed with me. From the Tulsa World:

A state association of health-care providers claims up to 93 percent of Oklahoma nursing homes will cease operating if a 25 percent cut in the Medicaid rate goes into effect, creating a crisis for Oklahoma families and jeopardizing 16,900 jobs.

This could place about 16,800 elderly and disabled patients at risk of being displaced from their nursing homes.

The decision by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to slash the rate came last week as the state slips into a deepening revenue failure, estimated to reach at least $1.3 billion by next fiscal year.

In the past five years, almost $500 million has been cut from the Medicaid program, mostly by reducing rates to health-care providers and restricting services available to SoonerCare members. The past decade has seen about $1 billion in cuts.

The recent rate decrease comes from agency officials anticipating cuts of $64 million in the program needed by the end of June.

This reduces federal matching funds, which will total a loss of $164 million in total state and federal funding for Oklahoma Medicaid. The reduced rate goes into effect June 1.

It may get worse. Agency officials have stated another $100 million reduction may be in store for next fiscal year’s budget.

This story alarmed me mostly because I had no idea how reliant our nursing homes were on state funding. I knew they weren’t get rich schemes for their operators, but I didn’t realize they were functioning that close to the margin between making a small profit and having to close.

I also didn’t realize that SoonerCare had scaled back services so much. My own kids were on SoonerCare when I was a classroom teacher. We also qualified for WIC. Even though this cut is not directly an educational issue, it is probably worth noting that state programs subsidize a number of public employees – education and otherwise.

I mention all of this now because of Governor Fallin’s announcement that she’s interested in having the Legislature return to the Capitol for a special session to discuss teacher raises.

Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday said she is considering calling a special session to ask lawmakers to use excess state funds on teacher raises.

The state recently closed out the fiscal year and had $140.8 million left. The action comes after a revenue failure that resulted in two cuts to state-appropriated agencies.

The cuts were deeper than were needed, said John Estus, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

“I’ve begun discussions with legislative leaders to consider calling lawmakers to return in special session to address the issue of teacher pay raises,” Fallin said. “I continue to support a pay raise for teachers, having called on lawmakers at the beginning of this year’s session to approve a teacher pay raise.”

In other words, state agencies received cuts that were bigger than what they needed to be. The timing of the announcement, with run-off elections around the corner, and with momentum building for State Question 779 (penny sales tax), is one thing that concerns me. That’s just one thing, though.

The Tulsa World included a graphic with their story showing the amount that would be returned to different state agencies, if the Legislature does nothing.

Agency Rebates.png

Look at that list. Yes, public education would receive $40 million back. Fallin is proposing that our legislators return to the Capitol to make that happen. She’s also asking them to give us the $23 million from health care, $20 million from higher education, $16 million from DHS, and every other penny.. I have a problem with that. Each of those entities serves our students too. Everything on this list is a core function of state government.

There is nothing prudent or conservative about trying to give teacher raises on the backs of these other agencies. Unfortunately, some of our state leaders are pathologically committed to trying to convince us that teacher salaries can increase significantly without generating new revenue.

That brings me to a third objection: this isn’t recurring revenue. In that sense, this idea is nothing more serious than Janet Barresi’s ill-fated 2K4T scheme three years ago. I’m pretty sure we can’t guarantee that the state will more or less forget to allocate $140 million next year too, can we?

Again, this isn’t new money. It’s money that OMES cut in excess of what they had to. According to CCOSA, the cuts were in fact illegal.

“We believe the director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services did not have the legal authority to reduce allotments to state agencies based on estimates that the state general revenue fund might fail,” wrote Owens, an attorney. “We respectfully request that the allocations that were unlawfully reduced from the state general revenue fund be immediately returned to the agencies from which they were cut.”

Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, who oversees the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said the allegation that the cut was illegal is “as laughable as it is totally wrong.”

“These reductions were made using the same statutory authority and procedures as all other revenue failure reductions in prior years, many of which also wound up being deeper than necessary and also resulted in excess funds being allocated either administratively by this agency or at the discretion of the Legislature,” Doerflinger said. “When this year’s midyear cuts were made, OMES pursued the only lawful avenue given that revenues and oil prices were in a freefall.”

I don’t know about you, but Doerflinger’s defense seems to be that the state budget was in a freefall and they made a guess at how much to cut. I can live with that explanation. Seriously, as someone whose leadership team made a menu of misery not knowing how deeply we needed to cut, I get it.

What I don’t get is the idea that we can somehow get a teacher raise out of this. Governor Fallin has been calling for one since her State of the State address in February, but there has been no movement on any of her revenue-generating ideas (that she somehow doesn’t think are the same thing as tax increases. Her logic pretty much boils down to:

“The Legislature is still being paid and is still on the state payroll now, even those who are term limited out,” Fallin said. “I think they should come back and do their job.”

Based on the quotes I’ve seen in articles and on social media from various legislators, most aren’t thrilled at the idea of returning to the Capitol. Even if they were, they’d have to get that bus off of them first.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoman thinks Fallin’s plan is adequate, and the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs think teachers in Oklahoma are doing pretty well already. I’m not quoting either of them, but the links are there. Look if you want.

My gut tells me there won’t be a special session. The people running for re-election this fall probably don’t want to take money from all the other state agencies and give it to public schools right now. Meanwhile, this will be a small speed bump for the SQ 779 supporters. Unless a genuine and sustainable plan appears from the people who’ve had years to write one, the penny sales tax is still the best option available.

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