Education funding schemes no substitute for dealing with taxes

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Steve Lewis
Steve Lewis

Sen. Brian Crain said this week he will introduce two $2.5 billion bond issues to generate funds for common and higher education.  The proposals would have to pass the legislature and a vote of the people.  Apparently the idea is to invest the borrowed money to earn enough to pay the interest on the bonds.  If there’s more earned than owed the money would go to education, and when the bonds are paid off all the earnings would go to education. 

Theoretically this could work because the state could get a low interest rate and should be able to earn a decent return.  But nothing is without risk.  And it’s hard to see Oklahomans being willing to go along with the idea.  It requires a lot of debt for a long period of time.   The bonds wouldn’t be fully paid for 30 years, and no one knows what will be the ups and downs of the economy over such a long period.  And there’s always the thought that if it were that easy everyone would do it.       

But give the Senator credit for trying to do something.  At least he’s willing to voice the obvious which is that we are starving Oklahoma education.  In doing so, we’re running off our teachers and cheating our children out of the education they deserve.  I know Sen. Crain heard a lot about education funding in his 2012 election.  He’s trying to respond.

One wonders if forces will ever align to finally provide more funding for Oklahoma education.  We’ve had some misfires.  In 2010 the Oklahoma Education Association proposed and circulated State Question 744, a constitutional amendment requiring the legislature to fund teacher’s salaries at the regional average.  The people voted it down in flames after nearly every state leader and many citizens actually supportive of education opposed the effort.  Most felt that tying education funding to a regional average beyond our own control was a bad idea.  In addition, SQ 744 found opposition from all the other functions of state government who knew that if there was no additional funding their own funding would have to go down. 

Then last year Rep. Lee Denney and Sen. Jim Halligan proposed a bill to earmark a certain amount of money “off the top” of state revenue for education.  Over a period of time about $600 million in new funding would have flowed into education.  The bill finally died in conference committee.  The idea of earmarking “off the top” has fallen from favor.  In fact the bill would not have guaranteed much, if any more for education than would go there if the legislature just continues to appropriate the percentage of the general revenue fund it usually does.

Thanks to Sen. Crain for raising the issue.  But people are smart enough to realize that if Oklahoma wants to dramatically increase education funding — which it should — it will take more money, not just re-arranging the money we already have.  That means dealing with taxes.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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