COMMENTARY: Don’t Spend That $6,000 Raise Just Yet

I absolutely love teaching and approach each day with enthusiasm to share with my students (although, by seventh hour some of that enthusiasm has waned). As I write this, I am in my classroom without students to teach, for a third day! There is a statewide walkout in Oklahoma that is not really statewide…all districts did not participate.

Recently, the House and Senate voted for an average $6,000 pay raise for teachers and a $1,250 pay raise for support staff, which should have been higher. This bill was passed on to the Governor for her signature, which she, enthusiastically, signed. It turns out to be the largest tax increase in the history of the state of Oklahoma. Did I mention, this was done by a super majority House and Senate made up of Republicans? I’ll come back to that later.

It is always better to do things “right” rather than “rushed.” The simple version is the rules were suspended in the House, and the Representatives were given one hour to read the bills involved with the teachers’ pay raise; then they were asked to vote on it. It passed with more than the 76 votes needed on Monday night (March 26). The bill then went to the Senate for approval. But two significant things happened on Monday night after the bill was passed in the House and before the Senate was to address it on Wednesday (March 28).

First, enough people had contacted their Representatives that there no longer would be the 76 votes needed to pass the bill if it went back to the House. The Senate was not happy with the five dollar hotel fee (tax) per night (this was to bring in $50 million per year) and they were not thrilled about the ball and dice section either (this was to bring in $25 million additional per year). 
Just a little side note — when has any estimate done by the legislatures actually produced that amount of money for education? I’ll just use one of the vice taxes, and that is the Lottery. It was sold to Oklahomans that it would bring in $300 million a year for education. Do you remember that? The average yearly income from the lottery for education is $68 million. (So much for education dollars, it is a good thing they estimated correctly.)

The House contacted the Senate and informed them that they did not have the votes to pass it again. They assured the Senate that they would amend the bill and take out the five dollar hotel tax if they would pass it “as is.” So…the Senate did pass the bill and Mary Fallin, gleefully, signed it. The ink wasn’t dry on Mary’s signature before the bill’s funding was being depleted by 50 million dollars when the five dollar hotel tax was removed. Some referred to it as a “bait and switch.” It is not a bait and switch. If the Senate would have changed anything, it would have been necessary for it to go back to the House, and they did not have the votes to pass it a second time!

Secondly, what occurred that Monday night is by far the most significant, yet, is flying under the radar. Overnight the group called Oklahoman Taxpayers Unite! (OTU) was started, and they held a press conference last Wednesday (March 28) announcing their opposition to the vote. OTU is not opposed to raises for teachers; they are opposed to raising taxes to do it! They announced they are starting a “Veto Petition” to be placed on the November 6th ballot. Senator Tom Coburn was the spokesperson for the group. Do not underestimate what potentially could happen!

OTU will need approximately 42,000 signatures to place this on the November Ballot. I have talked with fellow teachers about this, and they don’t think OTU will get the needed signatures. With all due respect, that is delusional. They could stand in front of a smoke shop and say, “Do you want to pay $1.00 more for a pack of cigarettes or sign this petition to stop it?” I’m pretty sure there are more than 42,000 smokers in this state. OTU will have 90 days to gather the necessary signatures. They will have no problems getting this on the ballot, and that is not even considering oil and gas moguls putting in their two cents.

You say, “Big deal, this veto petition is on the ballot.” Here is the potential for what that means. Once the signatures are gathered, there will be a stay of implementation on HB1010XX until the people vote to confirm it or Veto it. That means the raises (which were due to go into effect in August) will be on hold until the November 6 election. The people will decide whether we teachers get pay raises by raising taxes. If the people approve it, the pay would be retroactive.

I hope teachers are listening to talk radio; it doesn’t matter what station; it is all the same. The calls are running 10 to 1 against the teachers! Some Legislators have publicly stated they are not going to vote on education bills again because of the way some teachers have responded to the legislators. Since then, those legislators have publicly apologized. Some of the Capitol staff stayed home because of death threats. Tuesday, teachers were kicked out of the House gallery because of being too disruptive. Does this behavior, from some teachers, make it more likely or less likely that we teachers will get more funding from our state Legislators?

You might think, well, the people will vote for keeping HB1010XX. We have very short memories. It was only two years ago that a teacher pay raise went to the people for a vote with the Boren Penny Tax Bill. It was struck down with 59 percent of the vote! The precedent for the people voting against the raising of taxes for paying teacher raises has been set. There are no guarantees that the people will confirm HB1010XX in November.

Thursday, our school is scheduled to start the State testing in Science. Here is a dirty little secret. If we miss the Federal testing for our students, we think we have financial problems now,..they will just be getting started. The Federal government can withhold funds to our State!

It appears the longer this walk out goes, the less public opinion is on the teachers’ side. The Legislators do not have the votes to add additional money for what we teachers are asking. Some have publically stated that, others privately.

There has been the comparison to West Virginia and to follow their example. In fact, people from West Virginia are here to help us in our efforts. Thank you for your help! West Virginia asked for a 5 percent pay raise and was given a 4 percent pay raise. They said, “No, we will continue to strike!” They got the 5 percent pay raise for which they were asking. Oklahoma teachers were originally asking for a $5,000 pay raise, and we did not get it. We then asked for a $10,000 pay raise and got an average pay raise of $6,000. Depending upon one’s longevity in teaching, that works out to be a 15-19 percent pay raise. With all due respect to my fellow teachers, there is a huge difference between 5 percent and 15 percent! Also, West Virginia did not have a group of taxpayers who formed a group to fight the way the raises are funded.

I am not one to just see potential problems, but I, also, want to give suggested solutions as well. I mentioned the Republicans voted for the largest tax hike in Oklahoma history. In full disclosure, I am a Republican who is running for office. Almost all of the Republicans ran on being fiscally responsible and most, if not all, signed a pledge to not raise taxes. So much for that pledge. I am friends with many of the Legislators and in fact, have had some of them speak to my Pre AP History Class. The following link will take you to our website:

Having said all of that, the legislators did not have to do a rush job to get HB1010XX passed. There were other ways that could have been utilized to accomplish the same thing. There would have been even better results and no teacher walk out. So what do we do?

• The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) has some brilliant financial minds working for them. I want to specially thank Trent England and Jonathan Small for their help. I contacted them and asked them where money could be saved? This is what they provided me: “This was our “First Steps” list of ways to save money last session: One item here was just signed by the governor (Medicaid enrollment audits—those savings should begin to occur next year) and another was cut by $1 million (filmmaker subsidies), but the rest of this savings is still available. This more detailed budget plan is partly specific to last year — some of this is one-time funds, and some is included in the First Steps list — but many of these items are also still available: 
This is a slimmer version of that document, created for the first special session:” As you can see, this information was provided to the Legislators, and they would not have had to compromise their integrity on their pledge not to raise taxes. This would provide $1.359 billion. The Legislators can still implement this proposal.

• Governor, Mary Fallin, should call for audits in the State’s agencies. We know the Health Department has “mismanaged” at least $30 million. Could that be the tip of the iceberg? You cannot know what the problem is without an examination of where the money is going.

• School districts should submit to an audit to see if there is any wasteful spending within themselves.
• Some of the State agencies can be merged together to eliminate duplicate services, excessive overhead, and streamline the government.

• Many of our school districts can be merge together to eliminate duplicate services and excessive overhead.
• Zero-based Budgeting should begin immediately. Every agency or board that gets money from the state should justify EVERY expense each year.

I, finally, respectfully, suggest that you join me back in the classroom to educate the students of the GREAT State of Oklahoma.

NOTE:  A teacher, James Taylor is running for Congress in Oklahoma’s Fourth Congressional District. This commentary first appeared at his Facebook page. It was lightly edited to clarify dates of some events, and for style.