With the final work on the state budget for the new fiscal year now complete, I am extremely pleased with the many landmark agreements that were reached and approved by both chambers of the Legislature.
It was extremely gratifying to conclude my final session in the State Legislature as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. While I do not want to underestimate the importance of critical areas such as transportation, public safety, health and more, I firmly believe that when examining ways to improve Oklahoma’s economy, education must be a top priority.
Throughout my tenure as President Pro Tempore of the Senate and in my remaining years, I have urged my fellow lawmakers and all Oklahomans to address the ongoing “brain drain” occurring as the result of surrounding states luring our best and brightest teachers away because the salaries we offered our teachers were not competitive with those of surrounding states. I know first hand in my own life how critical an excellent education is to an individuals success, and as a legislator, I know how critical it is to our state’s success.
That’s why I was proud to help win passage of the state’s landmark education funding and reform legislation, House Bill 1017 some sixteen years ago. It was a tremendously important first step. But much more remained to be done to raise teacher pay to the regional average—a goal we have been working towards for the past several years. This session I was principal architect of the proposal that would finally help us achieve that goal, through the passage of a $3,000 across the board pay increase for teachers.
The final budget also provides an increase of $130 million for higher education. I think it is important to point out how critical investing in public educations systems is for the future of this state. The earning difference for someone who completes a high school diploma versus a student who drops out of school is an estimated $260,000 over a lifetime. The earning difference for an individual who then goes on to earn a college degree versus someone who only completes high school is estimated to be approximately $1 million over a lifetime. The economic impact of education—for individuals, their families and our entire state—is huge. That’s why these resources allocated within the fiscal 2007 budget are so important to all of Oklahoma.
The new budget also includes a 5 percent pay increase for state employees, as well as a cost of living increase for retired state employees, members of law enforcement, firefighters and others in state pension systems. These adjustments were especially important this year, as many of our seniors on fixed incomes have been especially hard-hit by rising energy costs.
The budget also includes significant investments in our roads and bridges, funding for rural fire departments and for corrections.
Combined with the significant legislation passed in the regular session to strengthen laws aimed at protecting law-abiding citizens, increase penalties for the state’s most dangerous criminals and help our schools do an even better job of preparing students for college or the work-force, we have achieved much on behalf of our state that will continue to benefit our citizens for years to come.