Last month, a group of Oklahomans led by University of Oklahoma President David Boren launched an effort to put an initiative petition on the ballot that would restore funding to education in Oklahoma through a 1 percent statewide sales tax increase. Even before the effort has begun gathering signatures, the ballot initiative has been challenged in court by OCPA Impact, a lobbying group associated with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. They argue that the initiative violates the single-subject rule in Oklahoma’s constitution that requires individual ballot initiatives and legislation to deal with only one main issue.
Interestingly, OCPA Impact did not try to argue that Oklahoma doesn’t need to improve teacher salaries, which are among the lowest in the nation even after adjusting for cost-of-living. Instead they suggested that a tax increase of any kind was not necessary to boost teacher salaries, because we can find the money solely by eliminating “wasteful or non-essential state government spending.” They even prepared a list that claims to show where more than $600 million in savings could be found (similar to a 1 percent sales tax increase, which is estimated to generate around $608 million annually). However, digging into the contents of OCPA’s list reveals a very different conclusion from what they claim. Their recommendations fall into four broad categories. The first is selling off state assets. By far the largest part of OCPA’s recommended savings come from selling off the Grand River Dam Authority ($300 million), an Italian monastery used for study abroad programs by the University of Oklahoma ($20 million), the University of Oklahoma’s Weitzenhoffer Art Collection ($50 million), and other miscellaneous state assets ($11 million). Whatever you may think about the merits of selling any of these items, the problem with using that revenue to fund a teacher pay increase should be obvious — it’s all one-time money. Oklahoma teachers will not be reassured if they’re promised a salary increase based on money that is gone after the first year.
In their proposal, OCPA Impact also mentions the dispute around a painting in the Weitzenhoffer Collection that was stolen from the Meyer family by Nazi Germany before it ended up in the collection. Yet if OU returns that painting to the Meyer family, they can’t also sell it for profit. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this item was included in OCPA’s plan solely to make a political attack against the University of Oklahoma and not as a serious idea for funding education.
After taking out all of the one-time funds, OCPA’s promised savings amount to $236.3 million, nearly $50 million short of what they say would be needed to fund $5,000 teacher raises. Yet that’s not the only issue. Their other savings proposals also don’t stand up to scrutiny.
After one-time funds, the next biggest source of savings they propose are providing health savings accounts in lieu of traditional health coverage for state and education employees ($42 million) and cost-saving Medicaid reforms ($100 million). Both of these ideas are controversial as to whether they would realize savings or improve health outcomes. Health Savings Accounts could shift a much greater share of the risk away from employers and onto individual workers for paying high health care costs, which is hardly a recipe for attracting more teachers to work in the state. And OCPA’s Medicaid reforms reference “Florida/Louisiana/Kansas Medicaid reform models”, which translates to an idea being pushed by a conservative think tank based in Florida, a form of privatized managed care that critics have argued left the very low-income Medicaid population with less care.
The debate over these is ideas is complicated and by no means settled. But even if you think they are promising ways to reduce health care costs without hurting health outcomes too much, they are still highly contested and largely untested ideas. We aren’t prioritizing teachers by putting funds for pay raises at the mercy of controversial experiments in health policy.
A third category finally gets to examples of “wasteful spending” that OCPA would cut to fund teacher pay raises. Most of these are quite small in comparison to the overall state education budget — less than $10 million comes out of ending state funding for tourism, quality of life, and economic development projects like space industry incentives, golf courses, rodeos, county fairs, and museums. Another $39.8 million would come from ending Oklahoma’s membership in the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and cutting travel reimbursements, advertising, and sponsorships from state agency budgets. These spending items are not obviously wasteful. The NCSL provides non-partisan expertise that can be very useful for ensuring good public policy around complicated issues. Funding state employee professional development through travel to conferences and public awareness campaigns is well within the core mission of several state agencies. Indeed, we should want to encourage policy expertise and professional development for legislators and state employees — these can be just as important as competitive salaries for attracting the most talented and effective workers. There may be room to trim spending in these categories, but after years of sustained budget cuts, there is likely little fat left in these budgets.
Finally, OCPA suggests cutting appropriations from agencies that can fund themselves through fees ($20 million), shifting the CareerTech system to using property tax revenue for general operations ($3 million), and securing additional federal funds for the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System ($20 million). Each of these may or not be good ideas, but we should still see them for what they are: avoiding general taxes by increasing our reliance on fees, property taxes, and federal funds.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and OCPA Impact are among the most dedicated groups in Oklahoma advocating for cutting taxes and reducing the size of our state government. It should tell us something when this is the best they can do for an alternative way to fund major state needs. Set aside the one-time funds, questionable reforms, and tax shifts, and we are left with no alternative to the fact that paying teachers a competitive salary can’t be done without a significant new source of recurring revenue — and that means taxes.
We can have an honest debate over whether Oklahomans should tax ourselves more to invest in education. However, we should not take seriously the false alternative presented by OCPA. Instead of a serious policy idea, it’s the return of the ice cream diet — the dubious claim that Oklahomans can have all the services we want without paying for them.