A record breaking initiative petition drive will almost certainly place a measure on the November ballot that, if approved, would raise the state sales tax by one cent to generate money exclusively for education on an annual basis.
— KOKH FOX 25 (@OKCFOX) April 21, 2016
The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office will start going through the more than 300,000 signatures—a record number for a statewide initiative petition drive—today, according to news reports, and then State Question 779 can officially be placed on the ballot.
SQ 779 is an important, history-making and education-saving measure that deserves support. It will raise $615 million annually for schools and ensure teachers receive a $5,000 raise. Some of the money will be allocated for higher education and vocational schools as well. Oklahoma has cut education more than any state in the nation since 2008, and SQ 779 will mitigate some but not all of the damage.
Before I get into why Oklahomans should vote for SQ 779, I want to address two arguments made against it: (1) Sales taxes are regressive because low-income people spend a larger percentage of their money on taxed purchases, and (2) sales taxes are already too high in Oklahoma.
Those who champion SQ 779, which include University of Oklahoma President David Boren, absolutely know that sales taxes are regressive, but the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin have failed miserably to find the money to fund our education systems. It’s highly unlikely, even unfathomable, they will act to roll back recent income tax cuts implemented over the last decade or so. The only alternative to SQ 779 is to do nothing. Among states, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation in per pupil spending rates. Teacher salaries here rank 48th in nation. Cuts made to education in recent years and anticipated cuts this coming fiscal year mean hundreds of teaching positions will be cut.
The one penny will also benefit low-income school children the most and future legislation could offer an education tax rebate to low-income families and completely eliminate sales taxes on groceries.
Oklahoma does have a high sales tax rate if you combine state and local taxes, but the state sales tax is only 4.5 percent, which ranks 36th in the nation and way below the national average. Local taxes do bring the rate up to an average of 8.77 percent, which makes Oklahoma rank sixth overall in combined sales taxes, but that’s a structural problem that needs to be addressed locally by municipalities. Nebraska, for example, has a state sales tax rate of 5.50 percent, which would be Oklahoma’s rate if SQ 779 passes.
As I mentioned earlier, the primary reason to support SQ 779 is because Oklahoma faces a huge educational funding crisis even as it faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year. It would truly save education here.
Here are some other reasons:
(1) Education is foundational to any society, and it greatly impacts other areas of government funding, such as social services, health, mental health and corrections. An educated society spends less money in these areas.
(2) Voters here can send a message to legislators that they want better funded schools and higher-paid and more teachers. This might spur other legislative action to provide more funding to education.
(3) The measure is a comprehensive approach to all of the state’s main educational systems from early childhood education to university-level education.
The money generated by the one penny sales tax increase would be allocated by these percentages: 69.5 percent for teachers and schools; 19.25 percent for college affordability; 8 percent for early childhood education; and 3.25 for career training. Click here to read in-depth about the proposal.
The fact the petition drive collected more than 300,000 signatures is a hopeful sign for the question’s success and just for education in general in Oklahoma, but its opponents on the left and the right are sure to mount a vigorous campaign to oppose it. What these various camps also share in common is the lack of a realistic plan to improve funding for education, give teachers meaningful raises or balance the state budget without draconian cuts to other government operations as well.
SQ 779 is an answer, perhaps not a perfect one, but a realistic answer nonetheless.
Ongoing Oklahoma higher education budget cuts called 'morally wrong,' 'not smart' https://t.co/l2EzSzi0Ak
— Noel Radomski (@noelradomski) April 22, 2016