Friday, October 20, 2017

Special Session Teacher Pay Raise: Worthy Goal, but Misguided Timing


Oklahoma has budget issues. People may not agree on what exactly the problems are, or what solutions are needed to remedy them, but everyone can agree that there are things that need to be changed when it comes to the state's fiscal situation.

Some think we spend too much, and are involved in areas that government doesn't belong. Others think we tax too little, and that government needs to be more involved.

The Legislature is currently in a special session to address a $215,000,000.00 "shortfall" due to appropriations being made on the back of an unconstitutional tax increase. Once the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck the illegal measure down, it created a large hole in the budgets of four state agencies: the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Legislators have been wrangling over how to address the situation, but negotiations have not gone anywhere yet. Differences between the Republican and Democrat plans, differences in the Republican caucus, and differences between the House, Senate and Governor have played roles in the delay.

Another issue is that the Governor and some legislative leaders are actually seeking to grow the deficit, thus creating the need for deeper cuts or steeper tax hikes to fill the hole (naturally, the primary route they are exploring is tax increases). Governor Fallin and legislative leaders are hoping to get a teacher pay raise passed in this special session. This was not accomplished during the last several regular sessions due to lack of available funds.

Everybody wants to give teachers a pay raise. Contrary to what the Democrats and the education lobby constantly claim, there are no "anti-Education" members of the state legislature. There is not a single legislator that wants to harm education (ironically, the same Democrats who claim that Republican are "anti-Education" tend to fight Republican efforts to direct more dollars into the classroom - who's really harming education there?). Every legislator understands the need for top-notch education for Oklahoma's children, and one of the strategies for accomplishing that is attracting and maintaining quality teachers.

However, the time has to be right. You can't spend extra money when you're already short a significant amount. Let's illustrate this.
A family has fallen on hard times. They have no money left in their savings account, the family vehicle is about to be repossessed, they've got $25,000 in credit card debt, and they're falling behind on their utility bills. As they contemplate how best to resolve their financial situation, they decide that before doing so they will first purchase a brand-new television and some new furniture for the living areas. After they expend several thousand more dollars, they will then tackle the issue of their dire financial straits.

That's essentially what the Governor and legislature want to do by adding to the shortfall with increased spending. Leave it to them to come in for a special session to deal with a $215M shortage that they caused by unconstitutional actions, increase that shortfall by several hundred million dollars, and then raise taxes to 'fix' it.

When you have a deficit, it is not the right solution to spend more money.

A teacher pay raise is a worthy goal, and one that every legislator and sensible person would like to see happen. However, raising taxes on Oklahomans is not the way to accomplish it.

Let's not forget that in 2016, Oklahomans overwhelmingly defeated a tax that was specifically dedicated to providing education with more funds. It wasn't even close, despite the pro-SQ779 side massively outspending the anti-SQ779 side $7,116,573.32 to $884,874.92.

Oklahoma is in the current budget situation for a host of issues, but one of the primary reasons is that bad economic times have hurt taxpayers and businesses alike, reducing income and in turn spending, resulting in less taxes to collect. Raising taxes now adds insult to injury.

The state legislature should limit this special session to specifically dealing with the shortfall created by their unconstitutional actions. Anything else should be considered in the regular session starting in February, allowing the proper time for transparency, public input, and thorough study by legislators.

The unconstitutional passage of the Smoking Cessation Fee cigarette tax was due to haste. Things are rarely done well when hurried. Legislators should ponder that.

A teacher pay raise is a worthy goal, but doing so during this special session and through tax hikes is misguided.

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