Superintendents across Oklahoma are begging lawmakers to do something about school funding. Ultimately, school officials want more money, but that requires raising taxes, which is a tough thing to do in Oklahoma—for many reasons. However, this year, solutions are popping up in unexpected places.
The Superintendent of Ponca City Public Schools, David Pennington, said if education funding is cut next year he is going to have to drastically change the way his school functions.
“It’s hard for me to put in to words, or to contemplate, what those cuts will look like,” he said.
Schools have lost $86 million dollars in funding since January due to lower than expected state revenue, and could face up to 10 percent in cuts next year.
But according to Pennington there’s not a lot he can do about it.
“The legislature is the only entity that can address this issue.”
In order to fend off those dire cuts, and increase school funding in general, Pennington wants lawmakers to raise taxes. But in Oklahoma, that’s almost impossible. First of all, there’s State Question 640, which voters approved in 1992. It requires any tax raising measure to get three-fourths of the legislature’s support. Not just 51 percent.
Furthermore, some politicians worry they won’t get re-elected if they vote to raise a tax.
So, Pennington wrote the parents in his district and asked them to show support for those legislators who are willing to make the tough choices.
“We want our patrons to let our locally elected officials know… that they care about this. That they understand that this is a big issue, and they understand that the people they’ve elected are going to have to make some difficult decisions,” he said.
State Auditor, Gary Jones, is a little more blunt.
“If they can’t make the tough decisions up here at this building [the Capitol] then maybe they shouldn’t be up here,” he said.
Jones is a conservative Republican, but he recently released a plan to raise oil and gas taxes to five percent, cap the income tax at five percent, and tax wind generation at five percent.
His plan also includes cutting non-essential services, but Jones says there’s really no way lawmakers can solve the state’s budget problem without new revenue.
“We’ve got to make some reasonable changes in order to fix what’s going on,” he said.
Jones might run for Governor in 2018 and said if he doesn’t win because he proposed a tax increase, then so be it.
“Losing an election’s not that bad,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is, I don’t want to look back ten years from now and say I had the opportunity to straighten this mess out and I didn’t because I was a political coward and I was a scared to death this was going to hurt me in a campaign.”
He hopes others feel the same way.
And as it turns out, some do.
Republican Representative Scott Fetgatter of Okmulgee said the freshman class of lawmakers, including himself, were elected to make tough choices and fix the state’s budget.
“I knocked on 3,500 door steps during the campaign, I didn’t have one person say, ‘go up there and change the gun laws.’ Those conversations weren’t happening,” he said. “It was constantly over and over and over again: fix the budget, help diversify our economy, and fix education.”
Fetgatter said he cares if he doesn’t get re-elected, but he’ll be ok if he doesn’t.
But, Fetgatter said, even though a few Republican lawmakers are willing to raise taxes doesn't mean the problem's solved. There’s still negotiations between the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, and there are some lawmakers who’ve signed a pledge to never ever raise a tax. Plus, there are others who think schools don’t need more money.
He said the lawmakers in leadership positions have the biggest challenge because they have to do all the negotiating.
“Because not only do we have to put out a budget to the people in the state of Oklahoma, we have to make sure that that budget will pass," he said.
Fetgatter said he’s excited because he thinks leaders in the House like Speaker Charles McCall are listening to freshman lawmakers who want a chance to take the tough votes.
A couple revenue raising measures have already passed, but there’s still a large budget hole to fill.
Some of the more contentious proposals like raising oil and gas taxes, the income tax, and a cigarette tax are being kicked around.
Meanwhile, the Superintendent of Ponca City Public Schools, David Pennington, is crossing his fingers.
“I just hope,” he said, “I just hope they’ll be brave.”