By Patrick B. McGuigan, with Stacy Martin
State Question 744 was trounced in Tuesday’s Oklahoma election, a stunning setback for the Oklahoma Education Association. The National Education Association affiliate is the state’s largest labor union and, traditionally, one of the most powerful and feared lobbying groups at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City.
The pro-744 campaign’s out-of-state handlers and spokesman had frequently questioned the integrity of opponents of the measure, but in remarks at an election night watch party for anti-744 activists, Gov. Brad Henry said, “Now that the campaign is over and the dust is settled, we can all put aside our differences.”
If approved, the measure would have required the state move over a three-year phase-in toward the regional average in per-pupil expenditures for common education, grades K-12.
The election night vote count was never close, and the ballot initiative lost overwhelmingly, 81.41% against and only 18.59% in favor. Detractors of the ballot campaign, which was run by a squadron of largely out-of-state political operatives, said (not quite literally), “Amen” as the proposal went down.
A key activist in the opposition drive was Brian Downs, executive director of Oklahomans for Responsible Government. In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, he said, “We saw early on that 744 took control of half of the state’s budget and put it in control of lawmakers in surrounding states. With no way of funding it, taxpayers were giving a blank check to Common Education with no guarantees of reforms or accountability.”
In some respects, the raw votes were as impressive as the percentage of defeat. The question lost 828-499 to 189,127. A total of 1,017,626 votes cast on the measure compared to the 1,034,639 cast in the gubernatorial election, according to unofficial results which did not include scattered provisional ballots.
Normally the “drop-off” in voter participation from major candidate races to even significant ballot propositions is substantial. In this case the decline was minor. In contrast, fewer than 980,000 votes were cast on most of the other ballot questions.
A campaign that began with strong popular support declined steadily as voters focused on its actual provisions, and after Governor Brad Henry began to speak aggressively against the measure.
Currently common education, CareerTech and higher education command about half of the state’s budget, though common education receives the lion’s share of that. The pro-744 camp failed to convince voters that raising education spending an estimated $1.7 billion over three years was a bright idea.
With Oklahoma’s budget in crisis and is projected to be so again in Fiscal Year 2012, the measure didn’t sell. Among all state agencies, the Department of Education’s $200 million hit was among the smaller ones. As opponents informed Oklahomans that passage of S.Q. 744 would feed new double-digit budget cuts, the floor fell out from under the support campaign.
Informed speculation had the measure losing by a 70 percent margin just days before Tuesday’s historic vote, but that was just a hint of what was to come. S.Q. 744 was one of 11 state questions and by far the most controversial. It was the only question that arose from citizen initiative. The others were referred by the Legislature.
The One Oklahoma Coalition, of which OFRG was part, said it worked to save the state’s taxpayers from an unfunded mandate which could have caused massive state budget problems.
Anti-744 forces spent months touring the state, educating voters that the only choices if it passed would be a massive tax increase or estimated draconian cuts of about 20 percent among state agencies, including prisons, colleges, roads, among other key functions.
Arguments from proponents that growth revenue could fund the measure’s controversial mandates were countered by state Treasurer Scott Meacham, and assertions that eliminating tax exemptions or tax credits would be sufficient were undercut.
Jeff Wilson, campaign chairman for the One Oklahoma Coalition, became a familiar face as he built an unprecedented opposition campaign with Gov. Henry’s help.
Both the pro and anti factions have been working vigorously for their respective positions for months. The pro campaign’s acceptance of PAC-to-PAC contributions remained controversial through election day.
Highly-regarded state as well as architects of past education funding initiatives got on board against the measure, including both Gov. Henry and his wife Kim.
OFRG officials said they were glad SQ 744 spawned a discourse on public education. A closer examination of current spending is needed, Downs said, as well as reforms that will make a difference in education quality, they added.
Note: McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK. Stacy Martin is associate editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City.