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Vote Yes, or Else #SQ779

October 2, 2016 1 comment

I’m not sure that I’ve come out and said it, but will be voting yes on State Question 779. Right now, this is the best solution on the table to help public education. It has an upside, and it has limitations. It also has context.

As David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute wrote back in January, we have spent a decade digging this hole:

Repeated cuts to the state income tax made since the mid-2000s are one of the most significant reasons for an ongoing financial crisis that is eroding important public services and threatening Oklahoma’s economic well-being.

Acute teacher shortages, college tuition and fee hikes, critically understaffed correctional facilities, longer waiting lists for services, and lower reimbursement rates for medical and social service providers are among the harmful consequences of chronic budget shortfalls.

Prior to 2004, the top income tax rate in Oklahoma was 6.65 percent. That’s not what the average household paid. It was the top rate.

Various state revenue triggers have since lowered the rate to 5.00 percent. Additional triggers will continue lowering the rate to 4.85 percent by 2018. Again, those are the top rates. Most Oklahoma households were unaffected by these cuts. The later cuts have barely affected the majority of Oklahomans.

What’s the big deal? It will have taken 14 years to complete this slide.

Again, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Hemingway quotes:

gradually-then-suddenly

He was either describing the Oklahoma economy or exponential curves. Maybe both.

The political premise for cutting taxes is that doing so will stimulate the economy. I’m still looking for the evidence of that. Meanwhile, the median household in Oklahoma, making about $50,000, has seen a tax cut of about $230 annually. It’s something – not a game changer, but it’s something.

In addition to cutting income taxes, our state has also in recent years cut taxes on new oil and gas production. This is why Oklahoma has seen continued declines in public education funding. Prior to the industry downturn of the last few years, other energy-producing states, such as Texas and North Dakota, were increasing their investment in public education.

Not Oklahoma. Not even when oil was booming a few years ago. We missed our opportunity. Missed badly.

Last Wednesday, I attended a town hall meeting moderated by Fox 25 in Oklahoma City. The topic was SQ 779.

Panelists for the state question were Amber England of Oklahoma Stand for Children and Shawn Hime of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. Panelists against it were Steve Agee, Dean of the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University and Dave Bond with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

England and Hime reiterated the fact that our state leaders have had the chance to raise teachers’ salaries and have failed miserably. Agee made the point that the tax is regressive because it hits poor families harder than it impacts the wealthy. Bond made the point that passing the state question may falsely tell the Legislature that the job is done, sort of like establishing the lottery has. These are all good points. I don’t disagree with any of them.

I won’t repeat all talking points from the town hall, but I do want to respond to one thing said by Agee and one thing said by Bond.

What I will never understand is how Fallin has failed to make this a legacy issue for the first six years of her administration. The governor is Republican. The Senate has a Republican super majority. The House has a Republican super majority. Every single elected statewide office is held by Republicans. When I hear any of our state leaders talk, they say teachers deserve raises. Yet nothing happens.

By the way, I’m not blaming the Republican Party. Teachers were underpaid when Democrats controlled the various branches of government, however you want to enumerate them. Maybe they didn’t go 10 years without seeing raises, but they were still among the lowest-paid educators in the country.

I don’t doubt that Governor Fallin wants to raise teacher salaries. I would also agree that if she could do so, it would punctuate her time in public office. Unfortunately, that punctuation mark would be a question mark, rather than an exclamation mark.

Regardless of what she accomplishes in the next two years, our state, and more specifically, our education system, will take years to recover from the hole we’ve dug. How many teachers have quit the profession or left the state? Do you think they’ll all come storming back because of a raise? Many are settled into the next phase of their lives and won’t look back.

According to the OSSBA, school districts in Oklahoma eliminated over 1,500 teaching positions in 2016 because of the state budget collapse. In spite of this fact, 53% of the superintendents who responded to their survey said the teacher shortage is now worse than it was a year ago. Last year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education approved over 1,000 emergency teaching certificates. This year, the state is on pace to fly past that number.

Not to be overly-dramatic, but if SQ 779 fails, we’re going to see the problem get exponentially worse. I know too many people who see this as their last hope for staying in education to believe otherwise.

While I see Agee’s point and don’t entirely fault him for wanting the governor to find an alternate solution, that’s no reason for me to have hope. Going into the 2016 legislative session, we all knew that momentum for the penny sales tax was building. If Fallin and the Legislature weren’t motivated enough by this knowledge to find an answer in February or May, I have my doubts about whether they can agree to one now. Hope is a good thing. It’s not a blind thing, though.

Bond, on the other hand, kept making the case for how the state already has plenty of revenue to raise teachers’ salaries. He predictably blamed administrative bloat. He said we have too many non-classroom positions. He even threw out the fact that the University of Oklahoma owns property in Tuscany. Twice. When Hime mentioned to him that it was a gift, he went on some strange rant about a Corvette.

None of that really shocked me. This did:

Yes, he really said that. He also said that nobody is going to sue a school district for using bond money to pay teachers just because it’s unconstitutional.

Side note: this is why I never approached the moderator. I pictured myself going off on a rant rather than forming a question. Nobody was there to hear me.

My guess is that one of the OCPA’s many tentacles would be the first to sue a school district misusing money. I also can imagine the headlines in the Oklahoman. No doubt they’d be full of compassion and understanding for our plight.

Along with hosting the town hall, Fox 25 also ran a Twitter poll asking how followers planned to vote on SQ 779. Only 145 people responded, but 59% of those said yes.

Hopefully we’ll see a similar result on November 8th. Whatever Oklahoma decides will send a strong message to our leaders about what this state values. It’ll send one to our teachers too.


If you missed the town hall and would like to watch it in its entirety, Fox 25 has it online.

 

 

 

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