At The Breaking Point: Lawmakers Discuss Difficulties in Helping TeachersAug 11, 2017
The past few years haven’t been good for education in Oklahoma in general, but for teachers, it has been especially rough. Oklahoma is currently ranked 49 in teacher pay. While many believe that little is being done to fix the problem since there hasn’t been a change, State Representative Mark McBride, R-District 5, says it’s not due to a lack of effort.
“As far as legislature, we passed three bills out of the house,” said McBride. “The senate killed two of them and didn’t hear the third.”
State Representative Chris Kannady- R-District 91 insists that no matter how things appear to those outside the state house, education is one the top priorities on the legislative agenda. It even has the largest allocation of money in the budget.
“I voted for three different measures for teacher pay raise, and we also sent two different budgets to the Senate,” said Kannady. “We continue to make education the number one priority.”
A look at the budget numbers show that in the 2015 fiscal year, 39.9% of Oklahoma’s total expenditures were for education, 16.1% for K-12 and 23.8% for higher education. That was more than any other category. In fact, cumulatively, education has accounted for the majority of expenditures for the Oklahoma budget: 38.9% in 2014 and 2013, 39.6% in 2012, 20.8% in 2011, and 33% in 2010. (source Ballotpedia)
The numbers do validate Kannady’s assertion about the percentage of the education budget. But McBride and Kannady both agree that more needs to be done to help compensate teachers and keep them in Oklahoma. The Republican legislators recognize the public’s cries to raise taxes on the oil and gas industry to help fund teacher pay raises, but insist that the media isn’t telling the full story about what’s being done in that specific area.
“The gross production tax (GPT) was doubled in 2002,” said McBride. “And this year 6,000 wells went from a 1% GPT to a 4% GPT. So taxes have been raised.”
Kannady pointed out another attempt by some to enact a “retroactive” tax on oil and gas production.
“The idea is to go back and rest the tax and you can’t put the industry in that type of bind,” said Kannady. “It would be on the verge of doing some real damage to an industry that is so vital to our state.”
The legislators both point to another, often overlooked danger that comes with drawing more budget money from the oil and gas industry.
“The state is 25% dependent on the oil and gas industry revenue,” said McBride. “we’ve all seen the ups and downs in the industry so we have to ask, ‘Do we really want to increase that percentage and risk catastrophic problems in the event of another downturn.’”
“They (the oil and gas industry) has put a lot of skin in the game,” said Kannady. “But the numbers you hear are really misleading. With a $7 billion budget, the GPT increase being discussed would only generate $6 million to $10 million, so it doesn’t resolve the problem.”
“Teachers do need a pay raise,” said McBride at a local town hall meeting. “But in a period of time where revenue is hard to come by we need to be responsible making sure we find the money for those raises in places where it won’t create more problems in other areas of our state’s budget and economy.
One of the most common complaints heard from the public is that the oil and gas industry isn’t pulling a fair share of the burden in Oklahoma. Kannaday understands those complaints but says the industry is participating in a fair way.
McBride says there’s another area that could generate significant tax revenue and he plans to address that in the coming legislative session.
“Wind energy pays no GPT,” said McBride. “Wind turbines pay no sales tax to the state and the state pays about $45 million a year in an ad valorem reimbursement for the first five years after wind turbines are built. It’s basically a big giveaway.”
For that reason McBride plans to introduce legislation in 2018 to address that area, proposing a $5 per megawatt hour fee or tax on wind energy production.
“Today’s rate produces 20 million megawatt hours a year, so this would bring in $100 million dollars,” said McBride, “And since Oklahoma is the third windiest state in the nation wind turbines will continue to be built. That means the opportunity for revenue is going to rise.”
McBride expects stiff opposition from an army of lobbyists for the wind industry, but he intends to make this a showdown issue.
“I’m gonna dare people to vote against this bill,” said McBride.
Kannady believes the state could seriously begin to consider funding from sources like taxation on marijuana, especially medical marijuana. But he says that’s an issue that is going to have to go to voters.
“We can’t shy away from dealing with this, but if the state of Oklahoma wants to pass a marijuana initiative we’re going to have to justify ways to make sure it’s taxed and managed effectively,” said Kannady, “I spent two weeks on military duty in Colorado after their law passed and I can tell you that there were a lot of issues that came up, especially in terms of state and federal jurisdiction. We can learn lessons from that.”