OKLAHOMA CITY — Cash-strapped lawmakers are eyeing a plan that would ask voters next year to approve an income tax hike to pay for teacher raises and new textbooks for schools.
State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, said asking voters to approve a 0.5 percent hike to the state’s income tax rate is the only surefire way to generate enough revenue to pay for $5,000 raises for more than 40,000 public school teachers.
Sharp, who serves as vice chair of Senate’s education committee, said there probably won’t be enough legislative support to push the measure through, so it would likely end up on the ballot.
“I do not see any positive teacher pay increase unless we add 0.5 percent onto the state’s income tax,” he said. “We can’t just be providing a $500 or $1,000 or $2,000 raise. We’ve got to get it up there to at least $5,000 initially.”
Sharp pointed to a recent University of Oklahoma study that found Oklahoma’s public school teachers were able to make $19,000 more a year on average by taking a teaching job in other states.
A 0.5 percent income tax hike would raise about $340 million. About $300 million of that would fund the permanent raises, he said.
He’s not particularly optimistic that the Republican-controlled Legislature, which is struggling to agree on a plan just to fill an existing $215 million shortfall, will be able to find much additional revenue for raises during the ongoing special session.
“I don’t see it (happening),” Sharp said.
That’s despite repeated calls from Gov. Mary Fallin to increase teacher pay, which experts say is the lowest in the region and among the lowest nationally. Teachers are leaving the state or the profession for more lucrative opportunities, experts say.
Fallin ordered the Legislature back into special session last month after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled legislators violated the law by raising the state’s cigarette tax with too few votes. The new $1.50 per pack cigarette tax was supposed to raise $215 million to help pay for health care, mental health and human services.
In addition making up that shortfall, Fallin asked lawmakers to come up with a plan to fund teacher raises.
Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt said discussions are continuing.
“She’s working with the legislators to see if they could come up with a plan,” McNutt said.
In a statement, state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she couldn’t speculate whether raises would happen.
“I will say Oklahoma kids deserve a highly qualified teacher in every classroom and we can't begin to make real headway in the teacher shortage until we are offering regionally competitive compensation for teachers,” she said. “There appears to be wide consensus in the Legislature that a teacher pay increase is desperately needed, but there does not appear to be consensus on how to fund it.”
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said she wants to be optimistic that lawmakers will find a recurring revenue source to pay for raises.
“However, we’ve been paid lip service before by some of our elected officials,” she said. “I’m an eternal optimist. I think we’ve got a shot. But they’re going to have to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Last year, voters resoundingly rejected a different funding proposal. The citizen-led measure would have increased the state sales tax by a penny to raise $615 million for education. Some of the revenue would have funded $5,000 raises for teachers.
Facing pressure from constituents, lawmakers then promised they’d address the issue. But efforts stalled. They adjourned regular session with no plan.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com