By Arnold Hamilton
As the not-so-special legislative session winds down, consider this irony: Oklahoma lawmakers’ base pay is second highest in the region – and more than five times higher than Texas.
Teachers, can you feel the love?
Don’t get the wrong idea: This isn’t a rant about an overpaid Legislature. Indeed, I could make a plausible case lawmakers’ salaries ($38,400 base) aren’t high enough to attract the best and brightest among us. But let’s leave that for another day.
The reason I mention legislative salaries now is that far too many times over the years Oklahomans have been forced to resolve issues when the Legislature could not – or would not.
This could be another of those moments – a citizen response to lawmakers’ failure to address pitifully low gross production taxes and abysmal teacher pay.
A newly formed coalition, Restore Oklahoma Now Inc., wants to give voters a chance next year to return the gross production tax on all oil and gas wells to its historic 7-percent rate and create a permanent funding source to bolster teacher salaries.
Oklahomans already are on board – even if legislative leadership isn’t.
According to a Global Strategy Group poll of 400 registered voters Sept. 28-Oct. 1, 67 percent wanted lawmakers in special session to enact a comprehensive revenue plan “that avoids further budget cuts and allows for a teacher pay raise and other investments in critical state services.”
The survey, commissioned by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, also found 55 percent of respondents supported restoring the gross production tax to its historic seven percent rate.
Taking matters into our own hands is part of our state’s DNA. When we joined the union in 1907, the Progressive movement was strong and suspicions of deep-pocketed special interests high. As a result, Oklahoma became the nation’s first state to include initiative and referendum in its original constitution.
The tool, of course, has produced both good and bad, depending on your perspective. Voters endorsed liquor by the drink and pari-mutuel gambling on horse races despite religious opposition. They also imposed term limits on legislators and a supermajority requirement in order to raise taxes – both major contributors to the quagmire at NE 23rd and Lincoln Boulevard these days.
Of course, statewide voting on specific issues doesn’t necessarily reflect the will of the people any more than the Legislature does. It’s just the will of who bothered to vote on a given day.
Moreover, the same special interests with a vice grip on Republican legislative leaders, especially in the House, could easily redirect their checkbooks to oppose Restore Oklahoma Now’s initiative.
Still, what’s particularly notable about Restore Oklahoma Now is its coalition. You would expect educators to be on board – weary of the nation’s deepest budget cuts and region’s lowest salaries. What might surprise you is the group’s driving force: small independent oil producers who believe a 7-percent GPT is vital if Oklahoma is to become all it can be.
“We think it’s a matter of fairness to Oklahomans,” said Ada oilman Mike Cantrell, “that all oil and natural gas production be taxed at a flat and competitive – with other states – rate that helps sustain essential state services, especially addressing our teacher crisis and teacher pay.”
Amid all the special session gamesmanship, Restore Oklahoma Now hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. But be advised: this isn’t windmill tilting. The group hopes to raise $3 million to help get the issues on next year’s general election ballot. By mid-October, when Restore Oklahoma Now was launched publicly, it already had $700,000 in commitments.
Legislative leaders ignore the fact a 7-percent GPT on all wells would still be the nation’s lowest. Maybe voters will force them to accept reality.