The community had the chance to talk politics with state legislators over breakfast Friday morning.
While each of three local legislators were given a few minutes to provide updates on the goings-on at the state capitol, it quickly became evident that education, and education funding, was at the forefront of everyone's mind.
Senator Marty Quinn and Representatives Terry O'Donnell and Mark Lepak, all representing Rogers County, were the guest speakers.
Representative O'Donnell, kicked the discussion of.
In regards to the recent teacher walkout, O'Donnell said, "The resources in the classroom, and class sizes, seemed to be the major concern of the teachers, not the pay. This was a new dialogue to me because I'd always heard 'pay, pay, pay.'"
He said this was the dialogue they addressed at the capitol.
"Certainly it's not a finished product," he said. "but it's a historic pay raise for teachers. It's very difficult to get 76 percent of any body of people to agree on anything. So, having achieved that there were a lot of compromises by a lot of different people. I know I wasn't thrilled with every component of the plan—but the three of us are about solutions. We're trying to get things done. There are obstructionists in the capitol…but there's a big body of us that really do want to make the right decisions and improve our state."
In regards to education, he said, "they got the highest, biggest budget they've ever had."
He said many people make reference to 2008 funding levels. At that time, he said, "oil was about $100 per barrel and we had stimulus money coming from the White House, so we had extra money. That year the education budget was about $2.5 billion. This year it will be $2.9 billion. So, it's $485 million extra into common education."
Senator Marty Quinn addressed the gathering next, adding to the discussion on education.
"My approach for the last number of years has been to take a balanced structure to our tax policy. I'm not going to raise income taxes on the average citizens of Rogers and Mayes County while we continue to write out the billions of dollars in checks to companies that the net profit for the last three years has averaged almost $3 billion, that the federal and state tax credits that have built up on their balance sheet exceed $3 billion," Quinn said. "You can yell and scream at me. You can get on social media and talk about what a sorry piece of slime I am, but I'm not going to raise those kinds of taxes so long as we're giving away that kind of money."
Quinn said this isn't stubbornness, it's common sense.
"Why should I take money out of your pocket and write a check to somebody out of state or out of country to that magnitude. It's wrong. It was wrong long ago when it was instituted. As you've seen over the years, special interest has its claws deep enough into the process that it takes a long time to make that change," he said.
Overall, he said, "the environment we've been in has changed for the better."
Quinn said the state's highway infrastructure is in better shape than it's ever been.
"Less than 10 years ago we had about 1,200 deficient bridges, we're now under 200," he said.
Quinn added, "We passed a gas tax. A gas tax that had not been changed in 31 years. We increased gas by three cents and diesel by six cents. Forty percent of that tax will be paid by people coming in and out of this state. They're using our infrastructures and they're going to help pay for our infrastructure. We took that $150 million and we're going to give that to the transportation department."
To the early-morning group, Quinn said, "I've never been a part of session, in the eight years that I've been here, that was as productive as this session was."
In regards to the education spending of over 19 percent, Quinn said, "…but you're not hearing the positives from that. You're just hearing the negatives. That it's not enough. That irritates me. It irritates me that we do something to that magnitude and all people want to talk about is what we didn't do."
Quinn said not one state agency took a cut.
"The first time in my eight years that we've not had agency cuts. And do you hear people talking about that?" he said.
Lepak talked about the number of educators, and supporters that filled the capitol during the state-wide teacher walkout.
During this time, he said he spent extra efforts explaining the funding mechanism behind education.
Due to the influx of people he said "a lot of bills that needed to did not make it out of committee."
"There was an impact that had nothing to do with education," he said.
Of all the teachers present, he said everyone was professional and he had no “conflict situation.”
He said one takeaway he had from the walkout was that teachers were frustrated and needed to talk to someone.
“Another takeaway was that fundamentally there’s a lack of understanding of where all the funding for education comes from and how it moves and flows,” he said. “You can have talking points on gross production tax, motor vehicle fees or capital gains exemptions, but not know the rest of the story.”
Lepak said there was a desire for continuing dialogue after the walkout ended.
Lepak, during audience questioning, discussed the state question regarding medical marijuana.
“We’re going to have a really interesting election cycle this year...,” he said. “We have the medical marijuana bill on the primary ballot that will really bring out a different kind of voter and we don’t know how that’s going to shape things.”
Lepak said, “even the people that wrote it think it is a flawed state question so it’s going to need legislative attention.”
He said if the state question passes, there may be a special session to deal with that decision.
“Because there’s a couple problems. If it goes into effect real fast the state government is not ready for it and the tax rate that’s going to be passed won’t cover the cost to the state to administer that,” he said. “This means the money has to come from some place else.