When Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, said her office had discovered an extra $140 million in the state’s coffers to spend on teacher pay raises last month, teachers en mass said it was a “conspiracy” to defeat a ballot measure that would do as much by raising the state’s sales tax.
Well, on Thursday, Gov. Fallin changed her mind and decided instead to distribute the money evenly amongst the state’s departments instead of giving teachers raises, according to the Associated Press.
The battle now turns to a state ballot initiative backed by several of the state’s teachers.
Teachers in the state have long griped that, at $44,921, they have the lowest average teacher salary in the region. They blame that low pay, along with a series of school accountability shifts in recent years, on a teaching shortage that’s racked the state.
The state’s tax revenue is strongly dependent on the oil industry so when barrel prices started dropping, the state’s legislature started slashing away at its spending.
Earlier this year, an initiative led by University of Oklahoma’s president David L. Boren and the state’s Stand for Children chapter was placed on the ballot to raise the state’s sales tax by 1 percent to fund a number of thems things, including a $5,000 pay raise for all of the state’s teachers.
Gov. Fallin’s proposal to raise cigarette taxes in order to pay for teacher raises failed during the legislature’s session this year.
Shortly after a judge allowed for the question to be placed on the ballot, Gov. Fallin announced that the state cut way too much out of the budget and now, coincidentally, had enough money to provide those raises teachers had been asking for. She just needed the state’s legislature to reconvene in a special session and approve her proposal (it’d cost the state $30,000 a week to hold a special session).
In response to Gov. Fallin’s special session proposal, the state’s teachers union said it didn’t want the money. It wouldn’t be fair to put all of the state’s limited funds in the teachers’ pockets while other departments, such as Public Safety and Human Services, suffered from similar financial restraints, union leaders said. And, while the state would be able to afford the pay raise this year with the extra funds, those funds would be absent in future years, they said.
Legislators, the vast majority of whom are up for reelection, were lukewarm about the proposal (last month, I wrote about dozens of teachers who decided to run for office after a Facebook post inspired them to do so).
In making Thursday’s announcement, Fallin said she’d do as the teachers suggested and divvy up the extra funds between all the departments. But her spokesman didn’t let the opportunity pass without signalling to voters that approving the ballot measure is a bad idea. She’s previously pointed out that the ballot measure would raise Oklahoma’s sales tax 9 percent, one of the highest rates in the nation.
“With so many legislators terming out and a large number of new legislators who will be elected and sworn into office in mid-November, it was decided to continue to develop a teacher pay raise plan with reform that will be introduced at the beginning of the next legislative session,” Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt said in a statement, according to the AP.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.