Leading public education funding advocates join campaign to beat S.Q. 744

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 07-Sep-2010

Opposition to State Question 744 intensified during a press conference at the Oklahoma state Capitol today (Tuesday, September 7).

A leading advocate of House Bill 1017, the state tax hike that benefited teachers’ pay scales in 1990, joined an architect of Oklahoma City’s historic MAPS for Kids projects and the leaders of Oklahoma’s two leading public policy think tanks to assail S.Q. 744

Pulling the diverse contingent together was the One Oklahoma Coalition, the group leading the charge against State Question 744. Also at today’s event, analysis was presented which challenged the asserted link often made between increased spending and improved student performance.

Dr. Alexander Holmes chair of the department of economics at the University of Oklahoma, and former state secretary of finance and a former revenue and budget director of the Office of State Finance said S.Q. 744 is “bad budget policy, bad constitutional construction, and bad democracy.”

Holmes was a key advisor to former Governor Henry Bellmon. In discussion with reporters, he outlined the lengthy process of collaboration and debate that led to enactment of H.B. 1017, a teacher pay hike measure which was later ratified by voters.

Dr. Larkin Warner, a regents professor emeritus of economics at Oklahoma State University said, “It is a mathematical certainty passage of SQ 744 will take tax dollars away from vital state services, such as Medicaid spending and road and bridge repairs to satisfy the spending mandate.”

Warner was an architect of the “MAPS for Kids” program in Oklahoma City, and is an author of a recently published monograph on the subject. In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Dr. Warner said he was not aware of any private sector advocate of MAPS for Kids who is also a supporter of S.Q. 744.

MAPS for Kids was a combination of sales and property tax measures, enacted by voters in Oklahoma City and county in fall 2001. It amounted to the largest local-level tax hike for public education in Oklahoma history, with every district in Oklahoma City gaining revenue as a result. It flowed out of the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project, a collaborative process sponsored by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation.

Also speaking at the press conference were representatives of the state’s two leading public policy research groups. David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy), often tagged a progressive or liberal group, agreed with Michael Carnuccio of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free market policy organization. The two men, frequent foes on a range of issues, reiterated their shared position against the ballot initiative.

OCPA’s Carnuccio said: “In addition to the alarming consequences of S.Q.  744, there are two facts that prove such a measure is dangerous. More money does not correlate to increased student performance, and if Oklahoma calculated our education spending the same as the states we are compared to, we would already be spending more than the regional average.”

Carnuccio noted that Oklahoma’s per pupil spending figures cited by many sources range from $8,006 to $8,814, but that such analyses exclude capital expenditures. OCPA economist Steven Anderson, taking into consideration  all factors in the accounting, puts per pupil expenditures at $10,225. Carnuccio showed reporters charts documenting the “disconnect” between increased spending and actual student performance. The charts show a steady rise in public education expenditures, but flat student performance on standardized tests measuring achievement. 

David Blatt of OK Policy emphasized his longstanding support for additional public education resources. Still, he said, “We have run a detailed analysis of the what the anticipated cost of SQ 744 will be.  Our best guess is initially we are looking at spending increases of $1.7 billion for common education over three years with no source identified to pay for it. We believe that we must boost funding for our schools, but not at the expense of services for children with mental health issues or kids in foster care or students in our colleges and universities.”

Blatt observed, “Tax revenue comes from one place and one place alone: the taxpayer.  So whether we cut other state services or increase taxes, we must face the reality those are our only two options.”

During his exchange with reporters, and in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Blatt said he understood the frustrations of public school funding advocates. Some of them have decided, he said, “the only way to fix the structure is to blow up the building.” Continuing the analogy, he insisted, “blowing up the building and running away with the loot is not the answer.”

Holmes aid that S.Q. 744 had “no notion of restructuring the management of education.” He compared the ballot measure to the federal banking bailout as “a bad way to run the government.”

In a press release circulated after the press event, Dr. Holmes added: “This is an irresponsible measure at best with catastrophic results at worst.  Because Oklahoma law doesn’t allow an increase in taxes without a vote of the people or three-fourths majority of the legislature, it is impossible to fund this spending increase without cutting other government services.”

Each member of the group speaking up today cited massive tax increases, irresponsible cuts to vital state services and a loss of representative democracy as concerns that united them against the measure.

The economists said taxpayers will be faced with two options to pay for the estimated $1.7 billion spending increases mandated by SQ 744 – what the coalition press statement tagged “a combination of massive tax hikes in income, sales and property taxes coupled with cuts to state services outside of common education – such as Medicaid funding, road and bridge repairs and funding for state prisons.”

Jeff Wilson, campaign manager of One Oklahoma told reporters at the morning press conference: “We have heard from a diversity of economists and policy experts on the impact of SQ 744.  One Oklahoma requests an opportunity to join the Yes on 744 campaign in a public forum in order for them to provide the people of Oklahoma a detailed budget that answers two simple questions: How much will SQ 744 cost?  Where will the money come from?”

Wilson told CapitolBeatOK the One Oklahoma Coalition will “wage a competitive campaign, I assure you.”

S.Q. 744 came to the ballot after a petition drive organized by the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest labor union, and substantially funded by the National Education Association.