These are the prepared remarks delivered by David Blatt at the Oklahoma Education Rally on March 31st
It’s amazing to see such a huge crowd standing up for public education and Oklahoma’s children. Thank you all for being here.
My name is David Blatt. I’m the Executive Director of Oklahoma Policy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank that works on education and other state policy issues. We lead a coalition called Together Oklahoma, and if you want to find our information and join with us in the work that we do, please visit TogetherOk.org and okpolicy.org
When you leave the rally this morning to go talk to legislators, many of them will express sympathy for boosting funding for education, but they may tell you that the money just isn’t there. Don’t believe them. We have options, and I’m going to tell you what they are.
Now it’s true that state tax collections here in Oklahoma are struggling. Last month, we found out there is $188 million less available for next year’s budget. In her budget proposal, the Governor offered an increase for common education that’s not even enough to pay for the higher cost of health benefits for teachers and support staff, much less make up for the huge cuts of the past few years. Most state agencies, including higher education and Medicaid, would be cut 5 percent under her budget plan.
But even if the budget outlook is grim, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. The last time Oklahoma had a budget shortfall, we were in a national recession. This time we have a shortfall of our own creation, due to the choices made by our own elected officials.
We can make better choices. The first thing we can do is to follow the advice of Will Rogers: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. For years we’ve been cutting taxes and our taxes are the lowest they’ve been for decades. Yet this year, the Governor and legislators are again proposing income tax cuts. If we cut the top income tax rate a quarter-point, the average Oklahoma family would save $29 and many of you would get nothing at all. Yet we’d have some $120 million less to take care of our schools, public safety, and other critical needs.
Some of the plans in the legislature would tie a tax cut to a trigger, so that whenever revenues grow, there will be automatic tax cuts. But that’s the wrong trigger. How about we decide that we won’t cut our income tax until per pupil funding climbs back to where it was in 2008? How about no tax cut until our teacher salaries are no longer among the lowest and teachers no longer have to dig into their own empty pockets to buy school supplies for their students? How about no tax cut until our college graduation rate reaches the national average? The message that legislators need to hear loud and clear from every one of you is: “Don’t cut our taxes until you fund the services we need.”
The second thing our legislators must do is curb wasteful tax breaks. The solution is under our feet. In the 1990s, Oklahoma created a generous tax break for horizontal drilling of oil and gas, back when this was a new and experimental technology. Today it is commonplace and highly profitable. But this tax break will cost us $250 million this year alone – money that could be used to invest in our schools and other vital needs. In North Dakota, horizontal wells are taxed at three times the rate they are here. Guess what? They’re drilling like mad in North Dakota, they have lower unemployment than we do, and over the same time that we’ve cut school funding by the most in the nation, they’ve increased it 27 percent!
We have other options as well. If you go to okpolicy.org, you’ll find more ideas for how lawmakers can find the money to fill this budget hole. If legislators tell you there’s nothing they can do, you tell them there are options, and it’s their job to find them.
To conclude, why is Oklahoma now facing budget shortfalls when most states have surpluses? Why have we cut per pupil education funding more than any other state? Is it because we have a weak economy or because we’re lacking in natural resources or hard-working people? No! It’s because of the wrong choices we have made to constantly cut taxes and let tax breaks expand. If we can start making the right choices, the money will be there to do the things that we know will strengthen our schools and ensure the next generation has even greater opportunities than this one.