Letter to Yukon Progress Editor by Jackie Gaston

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Dear Editor,

Please allow me to respond to a commentary by Denny Myers about being a former public school teacher back in the good old days that included criticism to the teacher walkout and labor unions. Here’s a news flash: Times have changed. Perhaps labor unions were not needed before Mr. Meyers left public schools to become a college professor, but unions are needed now.

There is a reason that as many as 50,000 Oklahoma public school teachers left their classrooms each day to go to the Capitol for two weeks this spring. Who could blame them (or us) for being fed up? We waited at least two years for our elected leaders to find the revenue needed to fund financial crises in education, health care, corrections and other essential services that led to 40% cuts in some state agencies. In 2017, the Legislature was in regular and special session – and we paid rural legislators’ daily per diem expenses – for the whole year without measurable success.

After the Step Up proposal failed, legislators rushed to pass a teacher pay raise on the eve of the teacher walk out, thinking that teachers were only advocating for themselves and would just stay home. Wrong! The Oklahoma Education Association’s budget proposal included state employees and proposed restoring the earned income tax credit that helps poor, working families, which was repealed two years ago by the state Legislature. Teachers do care about more than themselves. The unions provide a way of standing together against financial exploitation and the educational and other crises in Oklahoma.

The teachers came united to the Capitol primarily to advocate for cost of living pay raises and restoration of $170 million or 28.2 % in state aid funding cuts since 2008, according to financial data from Oklahoma Policy Institute. These cuts led to larger classes, fewer courses, outdated textbooks and unqualified, uncertified “alternative” people filling in at our schools because real teachers are being forced to leave the profession in order to provide for their families.

The Oklahoma Legislature did appropriate $50 million in new funding this year, in addition to funding for teacher and support staff salary increases. However, these funds are less than one-third of the $170 million cut from the education budget since 2008, not counting increased enrollment and higher cost of utility bills, insurance and other expenses.

And, about those pay raises…. Initially, the Legislature approved $543.3 million in total new funding for teacher, state employee and support staff pay raises, flexible benefits and school operations. However, House Bill 1012xx repealed the hotel/motel tax that was part of the initial funding package, reducing the total by $34.9 million to $530.7 million. So $543.3 minus $530.7 leaves us short by $12.6 million for year one of these new education spending commitments. The next year, the shortfall will increase to $116 million because funds generated by the cigarette tax increase must shift from education to funding health care services.

The legislators think they’re done with budget problem and are planning to go home early from this year’s session. Maybe teachers kept going back to the Capitol because they can add and subtract.

Nobody currently serving in the Legislature was in office when the majority Republican Party forced through their trickle down economic strategy by racheting down personal income taxes with a series of reductions that benefitted the wealthiest Oklahomans most. At the same time, these no-tax-for-any-reason zealots sent a ballot measure to the people asking them to ban tax increases for any reason without a supermajority of the state House and Senate or another vote of the people. The people said yes. It sounded good. The goal was for business and industry to flood the state with new jobs that would ultimately boost the economy.

Well, I ask you, how did that work out for Oklahoma? Where are the new businesses and the great jobs?

It is way past time for the Republican-led legislature and governor’s office to figure out how much the give-aways to special interests cost the state in the form of tax refunds, rebates and incentives that get them out of paying the taxes they already owe. Legislators really don’t know. Ask them. Guestimates suggest more than $1 billion, but who knows? These tax give-aways were embedded in different pieces of Republican-sponsored legislation for the past 10 years. Legislative staff and attorneys will have to go back and look. The next critical step is to make sure all special interests – not just the oil and gas industry – pay their fair share of taxes. Then we won’t need to raise taxes and will be able to fully fund education and essential services again.

Jackie Gaston