A legal protest by an offshoot group of the ultra-conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs against the initiative petition drive to raise the sales tax here by one penny to raise money for our education systems will go down in the annals of state political history as an extremist, mean-spirited cheap shot, but then what can we really expect from the right-wingers these days? Crazy on top of crazy with a side order of crazy, please, no thank you. Take a look at and listen to their presidential candidates.
OCPA Impact, a lobbying arm of the Republican-supported think tank, has filed a legal challenge with the Oklahoma Supreme Court, arguing the petition drive’s measure violates the state’s single subject rule in the state’s constitution. That rule requires that proposed laws or measures only be about a single subject. OCPA Impact argues the proposal is really about several issues, including the tax itself, teacher raises and other money for education funding. But that’s a false and narrow view of the constitutional requirement, and OCPA knows it, which I will address later.
Supporters of the measure can’t begin collecting signatures to get the measure on the ballot until the court decides on the issue. That’s what make this extremist and a cheap shot. OCPA simply wants to make this a hassle for well-intended people trying to do something about our terribly underfunded education systems and to address the state’s teacher shortage crisis. Let the people decide. The people rejected a 2010 proposal to raise educational funding to the regional average. Maybe they will reject this proposal as well. The point is this: Whether the proposal passes or fails, the state needs to address that fact its educational systems are chronically underfunded, which overall hurts the state economically and lowers the quality of life here.
University of Oklahoma president David Boren has spearheaded the drive to collect enough signatures to get the measure on the general election ballot in 2016 that would raise the state’s sales tax by one penny. The estimated $615 million generated annually would go exclusively to education. Teachers would receive $5,000 annual raises and some of the money would go to higher education as well. This would lower or stop tuition increases. Boren’s coalition is called Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future. Oklahoma currently ranks 49th in the nation in per pupil spending in public common education and is dead last in the region when it comes to teacher salaries. That has led to a teacher shortage here because college students educated and trained to be teachers here can go to a neighboring state, such as Texas, and make a lot more money than they can here. Who wouldn’t go to a big city in Texas to make $18,000 more a year while enjoying more cultural opportunities?
For detailed information about the proposal, go here.
I argue that OCPA has to know the proposal doesn’t violate the single subject rule. The measure simply spells out how the one-penny increase will be spent on various educational funding components. By contrast, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a legislative law that cut the income tax for wealthy people and also funded improvements and repairs to the Oklahoma Capitol building DID violate the constitution’s single subject requirement. That ruling was expected, clear and obvious. It was a tax cut along with a spending dimension, which are diametrically opposed. The proposed one-penny measure is only about education funding. It’s not as if the measure is asking voters to fund education and also to, say, cut funding to the maintenance of the governor’s mansion.
Let me take it a step further. The OCPA effort is ridiculous, and if the Supreme Court does rule in favor if it, then it may well be impossible to pass basically any legislation or state question in Oklahoma that deals with revenue unless it’s on an extremely narrow basis. It would mean that any law, bill or state question that passes which funds a variety of components in any given area—corrections, the Department of Human Services (DHS), health agencies—would be unconstitutional. It means more paperwork and more wasted time. The intent of the requirement is to avoid pressuring lawmakers or people to vote against their interests in one area to serve their interests in another area. Some reasonable people in this state even oppose that intent because such measures can lead to compromise, but that’s beside the point.
Let’s say the legislature next session passed a bill that would give more money to DHS to bolster its foster-parent programs, and it contained funding for a variety of components, such as an increase in monthly stipends, a transitional plan for children turning 18 and new money for mental health services for foster children. Let’s say the bill, or act, was called “All Children.” Under the reasoning provided by OCPA, that would be unconstitutional, too, even though it would be clear the overall aim would be to improve foster care in Oklahoma.
I’m not surprised that the effort to improve educational funding here would generate an ugly counter attack by the state’s power structure, but I didn’t think it would come this quickly or be based on such silly, sloppy reasoning. Once again we must remind ourselves how mean-spirited and extreme the right-wing has become in Oklahoma now that they completely dominate state government. It’s important to note even some liberals here oppose the proposed sales tax increase because it’s regressive, which means it will impact lower income people the most. Other people are against the measure because they believe our sales taxes are too high already.
I support the measure, but I can understand the argument that sales taxes are regressive or that they are too high here once local taxes are tacked on by cities. What else can we do, though? The state faces a potential $1 billion shortfall next fiscal year and might even have to begin cutting agency funding this year. The legislature is dominated by anti-government, anti-tax, anti-education extremists, who have a track record of privileging tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations over school children and impoverished people in need of health care. Where’s the increase in education funding in that morass of immoral mediocrity? It’s just one penny, and it goes exclusively to education while protecting baseline state funding. School-age children from lower income families would benefit the most under the proposal.
We need to debate the issue of raising the sales tax to improve funding for education, and then let the people decide, not OCPA.