Step Up plan

OKLAHOMA CITY — As a standing-room only audience of teachers and medical workers looked on, House lawmakers seemed poised to defeat a more than $580 million tax increase proposal that would have funded roads, health care and $5,000 teacher pay raises.

House leadership continued to hold open the vote late Monday apparently in hopes that the measure would pass, but as of press time, the vote was failing by a double-digit margin.

Lawmakers rejected the suggested $1.50 per pack tax on cigarettes and cigars; a 10 percent tax on chewing tobacco; a 6-cent tax on fuel; a 4 percent tax on oil and gas wells; and $1 per megawatt tax on wind production.

Step Up Oklahoma plan supporters said the new revenue would have gone a long way toward fixing the state’s ailing budget, which faces annual shortfalls, while giving teachers their long-awaited pay increase.

“Today, you can do something about the situation in the state of Oklahoma,” House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, told lawmakers as he made a final plea for support. “Does this bill fix everything? No, it does not, but we’ll be here tomorrow to take up those other measures.”

Calling the plan, “our best option,” state Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, urged lawmakers to support the measure.

“A ‘no' vote on this plan, is ‘Hey, I’m for the status quo, I’m fine with being 49th in the nation for teacher pay, I’m fine with not being able to fund health care,'” he said.

“I’m not fine,” Wallace said.

As hopes for a $5,000 pay raise disintegrated before their eyes, teachers filed away quietly from the gallery. Hundreds of educators showed up the Capitol on Monday to press lawmakers to support the plan.

“Complete disappointment,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, of the vote. “Shame on them for thinking that there’s something better out there. There’s not been anything better for the 24 years that I’ve been in public education, and something needs to happen now.”

Oklahoma’s teacher pay is currently the lowest in the region, experts say. The average Oklahoma teacher made $44,921 during the 2016-17 school year, according to the state Department of Education. The regional average was $48,450, the agency reported.

A $5,000 raise would cost about $289 million, supporters said.

State Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, said he’s against taxes and believes there’s probably misspending in government, but in the meantime the state needs new revenue and teachers need a raise.

“I am against all the misappropriated funds, but we need the cash flow,” he said. “A lot of people say cut everything before you raise taxes, but if we cut everything right now — if we cut it all — we devastate our state.”

The plan proved to be a tough sell for a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who complained that Republican leaders were ramrodding through the measure without giving legislators enough time to scrutinize the proposal. Others complained it was too generous to oil and gas producers.

State Rep. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, said the complex $580 million-plus tax increase happened on the second Monday of session. That left lawmakers little time to review the funding measure.

“I do not disagree that our teachers need a pay raise, but not only our teachers, our state employees (too),” Murdock said. "We need to vet this. We need this bill to go through the process.”

State Rep. Emily Virgin, R-Norman, said it’s not fair to shift the burden for funding government and teacher pay raises to those who can’t afford it.

“I will not be a part of letting those at the top and the wealthiest industry in the state off the hook,” Virgin said. “They have to pay their fair share, and if we approve this bill, they never will.”

She said Oklahomans deserve a better and more equitable plan. She said the measure won’t put one more dollar into the classroom, help lower tuition or give public employees a raise. It’s been 10 years since many public employees last received a pay increase, she said.

“Folks, I ask that you demand better for this state that we all love,” Virgin said. “This has not been an easy decision for me or any other legislator in this body.”

But before voting for the measure, state Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Broken Arrow, said the state was at a crossroads.

“Some of the decisions we make today on this floor will affect us for years and years down the road,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers.