Oklahoma’s teacher walk out in April resulted in the first substantial raising of taxes in the state since the last push to fund education, HB1017, passed in 1990. Now it appears more history will be repeated, as a group of citizens have voiced their intention to file a petition to stop all tax raises, and let the people decide. In 1991, State Question(SQ) 639, designed to stop all new revenue that was to be focused on education, was defeated at the polls.
Now, after reaching the ¾ threshold of legislators voting on tax increases, there is much uncertainty about the raises for teachers, for support personnel, and for state workers, all of which rely on HB1010xx, which raised $447 million in new revenue for these salary hikes, and earmarked $33 million for classrooms. Hailed as ‘historic’, the new revenue does reverse the decades-old cuts to schools and public service agencies, but still falls short of the needs of these groups.
Former US Senator Tom Coburn, known for his fiscal conservatism, and Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, which bills itself as a grassroots effort, are beginning the process to overturn the new revenue by collecting signatures for a new State Question to be voted upon in November. They appeared to be poised for action, even before the actual walk out, which began on April 2. He gave a press conference at the Capitol on March 29.
Coburn, in a speech to the Tulsa Rotary, called teachers who participated in the walk out, “pawns” and underlined his intention to stop the revenue that would fund the raises.
May 2, a month after the walk out, Coburn and Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite began the official process, filing their intent, and beginning the drive to collect signatures. Only about 41,000 signatures are required for the measure to become SQ799. The deadline for collecting signatures is July 18. If that happens, SQ799 will appear on the November ballot. When the necessary number of signatures is approved, all tax collections for HB1010xx will stop until the results of the November referendum.
Understandably, responses to the effort are mixed. School districts are uncertain about negotiating teacher salary schedules during the summer, because there is no guarantee funding will be in place for raises at the beginning of the school year. Some candidates for the governorship have rushed to sign on in support of the referendum drive, and tax hikes are a hot-button topic in the GOP debates: eight of the nine GOP candidates support the referendum.
State Department of Education Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, has asked for a ruling from the Attorney General on whether school districts should begin paying teachers on the new salary schedule, which was to be funded by HB1010xx, or to wait and begin the year with the old salaries. Professional Oklahoma Educators, a teacher organization, has filed a challenge to the petition and its language. It is unsure at this time what will happen with either of these responses. But supporters of SQ799 continue to collect signatures.
Efforts are underway to educate the public about the ramifications of SQ799 passing and new revenue being blocked permanently. Into this uncertainty, Texas school districts and online charter schools continue to aggressively recruit Oklahoma teachers. There are fears that the teacher shortage in the state will deepen as educators lose patience.
In the early 1990’s, the passage of HB1017 with its funding requirements, the defeat of the SQ639, designed to strip all money from the bill, led directly to SQ640, which requires a ¾ of both houses of the Legislature in order to pass new taxes. This is the first substantial tax hike since that time, and the state appears to be following the same path to a referendum. Schools are finishing up this school year with even more questions and uncertainty than expected.