On Tuesday, voters in Oklahoma struck down a ballot initiative that would raise the state sales tax by one cent on the dollar. The tax, say supporters, was expected to raise about $600 million. Most of that money would have gone toward $5,000 teacher pay raises.
Opponents of the tax worried that it would put an unnecessary burden on families and make Oklahoma the state with the highest sales tax in the country. Many argued as well that it is the job of the legislature to find a way to increase pay for teachers.
The Oklahoman newspaper’s editorial board placed the blame squarely on the legislature. On November 3, the board wrote, “We believe Oklahoma’s K-12 teachers deserve better pay, and understand proponents’ frustration with the do-nothing legislature. Yet the permanency of this tax combined with the question’s sweeping approach, its lack of clear reform, and its potential to harm Oklahoma’s cities, towns, and businesses make [State Question] 779 a plan we can’t endorse.”
Yet at first, the tax appeared to have enough support to pass. As Emmanuel Felton reported in a Teacher Beat blog about a week ago, a poll conducted in late October showed Oklahoma voters widely supported the tax increase. The poll showed that State Question 779, also known as the penny sales tax for education, had the support of 60 percent of Oklahomans.
But the final vote tally told a different story. In the end, 59 percent of Oklahomans voted against the tax increase, compared with 41 percent who supported it.
“While the results did not come back in our favor, we’ve succeeded in starting a conversation across Oklahoma about education and the need for adequate funding,” said University of Oklahoma President David Boren in a statement. Boren, an outspoken supporter of the initiative, vowed to keep working to find a way to keep the state’s top-performing teachers in the classroom.
The advocacy group Oklahoma Deserves Better opposed the tax, but said it does not oppose a pay raise for teachers. “It is now critical that we move forward to create a comprehensive plan that will ensure that our schools, teachers, and our children receive the state funding they deserve while also protecting and diversifying the funding stream for other levels of government,” said the group’s chairman Bill Shewey, according to newson6.com.
Many Oklahoma district officials blame low pay as the reason teachers leave to work in neighboring states where teacher pay is higher.
A Look at Maine’s Ballot Measure
Maine residents voted on whether or not to add a 3 percent tax on income greater than $200,000 in order to fund K-12 schools and teacher pay. With 96 percent of the votes counted, the yes votes are leading by about 14,000, according to Politico.
In 2004, voters agreed the state should pay for 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education. Maine came close in 2009, according to the Portland Herald, when it paid 53 percent. However, the state is currently only covering about 47 percent of education costs. The hope is that funds generated from the tax would bridge the gap.
The tax would only apply to the amount of income that is above $200,000, so a person who makes $280,000 per year would be taxed an extra 3 percent on $80,000.
Stand Up for Students, an advocacy group made up of teachers, parents, students, and business owners, are behind the tax-hike effort. “Maine’s wealthiest residents had their income taxes cut twice in the last few years, while also taking advantage of other tax breaks that most of us don’t get,” the group’s website reads. The group vows to use the extra funding to bring back extracurricular activities like music and art that tax cuts forced districts to eliminate.
A poll conducted in September showed that Maine residents supported the measure. The tax is expected to raise $157 million annually, according to Ballotpedia.
Opponents fear the tax hike would drive small business owners out of the state and discourage potential investors from doing business there.
“Our tax burden is an impediment,” Dana Connors, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, told the Portland Herald. “It scares off any prospective investor because they look at that top marginal rate, it’s a signal to them that they’re going to pay more to do business in Maine.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.