Teacher raises remain a priority in Oklahoma

Staff Writer
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The sixth week has drawn to a close. We were able to meet the deadline to have bills reported out of the Senate by working long days even working past midnight on Wednesday. It has been another extremely difficult session. Even though revenues are rising, we’re still working to pay off past obligations while helping our state agencies.

Our biggest concern has been trying to find a funding source for a teacher pay raise. We do not currently have the revenue to pay for a raise of any kind. We have to have some source of new revenue or we have to free up money that can be diverted for a pay raise.

We need $60 million for every $1,000 teacher pay raise so for a $5,000 raise we must have a $300 million revenue source.

Senate Republicans voted strongly (85 percent) in favor of the revenue package presented Thursday night through HB 1033. It would have created more than enough revenue for a $5,000 teacher pay raise as well as a $2,500 for our hardworking state employees.

The plan called for increasing the GPT from 2-4 percent on all wells ($126 million); increasing the gas/diesel tax by 6 cents ($170 million) and increase the cigarette tax by $1 per pack ($152 million). The GPT until recently was set at 7 percent so this small increase is nothing compared to what companies paid for years. Even with the gas/diesel tax increase, Oklahoma still has one of the lowest taxes in the country and it hasn’t been changed to keep up with more fuel efficient vehicles.

As for the cigarette tax, smoking and second-hand smoke cost Oklahoma taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year in health related expenses so this tax seems reasonable given the dangerous and sometimes deadly side effects of tobacco. Did you know that smoking costs the state $1.62 billion a year in medical and healthcare expenses? Each year in Oklahoma, 7,500 adults die from smoking; 3,300 kids become smokers; and $181 million is spent by the tobacco industry to market tobacco to Oklahomans.

The 12.7 percent teacher pay raise would have put Oklahoma at No. 2 in our region behind Texas for average teacher pay. It was 2.5 times more than the raise given West Virginia teachers.

Unfortunately, while they supported a plan with even higher taxes in November, every Senate Democrat voted against this plan.

We were so close, only two votes away from the constitutionally-required three-fourths majority. But we’re not done. We will keep working to find a solution to create revenue that our Democratic colleagues can agree with. While the bill to pay for the raise failed, the actual bill creating the raise passed overwhelmingly so as soon as we find a revenue source, the vehicle is there ready to move forward.

Oklahoma has the highest legislative voting requirement for revenue increases in the nation. It is the ONLY state in the U.S with a tax restraint on its legislature. Any revenue raising measure must receive 75 percent support in the House and Senate. SQ 640, enacted by voters in 1992, has led to the current gridlock and made it virtually impossible to approve reasonable revenue plans to shore up the state budget and provide teacher and state employee pay raises.

This week, the Senate approved SJR 61 to modify SQ 640 to make it difficult at the Capitol to raise revenue but not impossible. SJR 61 allows voters to decide to modify SQ 640 so that 75 percent support for tax increases is required except for increases to sales and use taxes, which would only require a 60 percent (3/5) support from the House and Senate.

This retains the extremely high threshold for an income tax income increase, but lowers the threshold and possibility for compromise on items like cigarette and fuel tax increases. It mirrors local revenue votes like school bonds, which require 60 percent support for passage.

You can contact me at the state Capitol by calling (405) 521-5581 or by email at efields@oksenate.gov.

Eddie Fields represents District 10 in the state Senate.