My decision to take vacation over the final week of July and first week of August allowed me to avoid not only some of the worst of the summer heat wave here in Oklahoma but also much of the heated controversy that followed the release of OK Policy’s issue brief on State Question 744, the ballot measure that would peg education funding in Oklahoma to per pupil expenditures in neighboring states. We set out four main arguments that have led us to take a position opposing the measure, the most compelling of which is the strong likelihood that mandating an estimated $1.7 billion increase in funding for common education over three years without a new revenue source would set the state even further behind in our other areas of public investment that all Oklahomans, including our schoolchildren and teachers, depend on.
Our position was strongly praised by the Oklahoman in a written editorial and this video editorial by editor Ed Kelly (you’ll first get a short commercial for an investment company):
The Yes on 744 campaign was less enamored by our position, putting out a press release that accused us of having “decided to push a special interest agenda and further their own interests at the expense of Oklahoma’s kids.” On his Okonomics blog, UCO Economics Professor Mickey Hepner both defended the integrity of our analysis and called out the Yes on 744 spokespersons for their unwillingness to engage on the substance of our arguments:
The Oklahoma Policy Institute has a long record of advocating for public policies that benefit Oklahoma’s children. To say that they are now throwing kids under the school bus is intellectually disingenuous. Oklahoma’s voters deserve better.
I urge the “Yes on 744” campaign to release a thoughtful response to the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s report. The response should acknowledge the concerns being raised by the Oklahoma Policy Institute (and others across the state), but make a compelling case for why Oklahoma voters need to make this commitment to public education. If, as the ballot measure’s supporters claim, the passage of SQ 744 would be good for our state…such a report should not be too hard to write, and would make the task facing Oklahoma voters much easier.
The best attempt so far to make the substantive case for SQ 744 has come from Prof. Hepner’s colleague over in the English Department at UCO, Kurt Hochenauer, who maintains both the OkieFunk and BlueOklahoma blogs. In this post, Hochenauer provides an honest acknowledgment of what voter approval of SQ 744 might involve:
But will the initiative require tax increases? That remains to be seen, but I think it’s possible, and yes, it might force a major re-thinking of how the state creates an annual budget. Recent tax cuts have mostly benefited the state’s wealthiest citizens, and State Question 640, passed in 1992, has made it virtually impossible to raise any type of taxes. The state also recently went through an extended period of declining revenues.
But how about this: It’s also entirely possible the measure would force the Oklahoma Legislature and the then-Governor to reconsider the state’s overall tax structure and SQ 640 in particular. SQ 744 could be a positive catalyst for change in how government gets funded here, and it could benefit all agencies, not just education.
We have made a similar argument in our discussions of SQ 744, that whatever the outcome at the polls on November 2nd, the state must get serious about addressing the chronic and growing imbalance between the cost of providing the services the public expects and the revenues available to pay for them:
The real and ongoing challenge Oklahoma faces is to get our revenues aligned with the cost of providing core public services. If we fail at this more fundamental task, the result is likely to be continued efforts like SQ 744 that try an isolated approach through earmarked funding and spending formulas.
If passage of SQ 744 would leave the state budget in dire and unmanageable condition, defeat of SQ 744 should initiate a serious and urgent discussion of what we must do to ensure an adequate investment in a quality education for our children and our other state priorities in a fiscally responsible manner.
This is a crucial debate, and one that we continue to hope can be conducted in a respectful, civil fashion. As our Board Chair, Vince LoVoi, stated in an e-mail sent out in response to the Yes on 744’s press release:
We encourage you to please visit our website and review our issue brief on SQ 744. Then draw your own conclusions….on the merits, not on the basis of name-calling. We hope you’ll agree with us, but if you think we’re wrong or if you find errors or weaknesses in our analysis, let us know. Let’s have a discussion.