As most of you are aware, an agreement was reached last week to find additional revenue to fund pay raises for educators and state employees. Last Monday (3/26), the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted on a series of tax provisions, including an increase from 2 percent to 5 percent on the Gross Production Taxes (GPT), a $1 cigar/pack of cigarettes tax increase, a 3 cent fuel and 6 cent diesel tax increase, a $5 increase in hotel/motel taxes, and a few other revenue raising provisions. These not only provided the funding for teacher pay raises of approximately $6,000, they also funded smaller raises for education support staff and other state employees. On top of this, an extra $50 million was allocated for other education funding needs.
The Senate passed the plan with some alterations – calling, for instance, for the hotel/motel tax to be removed – but most of the package was passed more or less intact and signed into law by Friday.
Whether you supported or opposed the tax package, it was historic, as it was the first tax increase passed by the Legislature in almost 30 years. This is because Article 5, Section 33 of the Oklahoma Constitution, also known as State Question 640, requires a ¾ vote of both legislative bodies and approval by the Oklahoma Governor for tax increases. Neither has happened since SQ 640 was passed, until last week.
Clearly, as this week’s teacher walkout has indicated, no one is ready to declare “mission accomplished.” Although teachers did receive a raise, it was slightly more than half of the $10,000 they requested. Just as importantly, very few steps were taken to address other educational priorities, including growing class sizes, out-of-date text books and other classroom needs.
While educators, the Legislature and a highly engaged public work through these issues, the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy is working around the clock to assist with efforts to support kids across the state during the teacher walkout. OICA has compiled and posted a list of the various programs which are offering services on our website (OICA.org) and we cannot thank those enough who are providing services during this time.
In addition, OICA was present at the State Capitol on Monday, April 2, the first day of the walkout, to operate a voter registration drive. This allowed those who were not registered or those who needed to update their registration to have the opportunity to submit forms with their current information. We also saw quite a few students who had or will soon turn eighteen fill out forms. We were proud to partner with Let’s Fix This and the Oklahoma Academy to help turn-in almost 70 forms to the State Election Board on that first day.
The level of enthusiasm and engagement on Day 1 of the walkout was impressive, but it remains to be seen what will happen as time marches on. Remember, it is important that you voice your concerns to policymakers so they can best represent you, their constituents. Please reach out to policymakers and let them know your views.
Joe Dorman is CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. OICA was established in 1983 by a group of citizens to create a strong advocacy network that would provide a voice for the needs of children and youth in Oklahoma.