Ray Carter | April 27, 2022

House votes to bar union freeloading on state system

Ray Carter

Teacher-union employees—who do not work in a school classroom—could no longer be counted as state school-district employees under a bill passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

The legislation would prevent those union employees from accruing increased state retirement benefits and state teacher pay raises for their private-sector work

“It’s a simple bill: Someone not doing business for the state shouldn’t receive state benefits,” said state Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow. “It’s really simple. And that’s what it boils down to. Someone could teach for a couple of years, five years, and then go work for an association for 25 years, then retire and be on the teacher retirement system for a career of ‘teaching’ when actually they were only teaching a limited number of years.”

Senate Bill 1579 states that when a school district employee is granted a leave of absence to serve as an employee of a national, statewide, or school district employee association, the former school-district employee shall not receive pay from the school district or any benefits from the school district.

In addition, the former school employee will not receive any salary-schedule increase based on time spent working for a teachers’ union if they later return to public-school employment. Only actual years of service in public schools would be counted.

Furthermore, time spent as a union employee would not be used in any calculation of state retirement benefits.

The legislation was advanced after officials became aware some school districts have allowed teachers to leave the district to work for a labor union yet retained the former teacher on the school’s official payroll. Although the union reportedly reimbursed the district for the former employee’s salary, the arrangement inflates the former school employee’s state retirement benefits without taxpayers receiving any work in return and can also inflate their salary.

Most of those who spoke against the bill were Democrats, but state Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, joined them.

McBride noted that his district has “the largest membership” of teacher-union members and declared it “a problem” that “we’re running this bill in an election year.”

McBride noted the teachers’ union reimburses districts for the union employee’s pay.

“What’s the problem here?” McBride said.

“They’re still in the Teachers’ Retirement System, and so we still fund that,” Hilbert said.

The Annual Financial Report of the Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma, issued on June 30, 2021, showed that the system will not eliminate its funded liability for another 17 years, based on current trends.

Although opponents of SB 1579 argued that only a small number of union employees are currently benefiting from agreements that keep them in the state retirement system, which is funded in part with state funds, supporters of SB 1579 noted there is nothing to prevent the practice from becoming widespread and that similar arrangements are not allowed elsewhere in government.

“It would be inappropriate if you had, say, a third-party entity that’s lobbying ODOT (Oklahoma Department of Transportation) for road contracts to have an office under the Department of Transportation and working as a Department of Transportation employee with insider knowledge because they work in the Department of Transportation,” Hilbert said. “That would be inappropriate even if the third-party contractor was paying ODOT for that person’s salary. It’s an improper use of taxpayer dollars and taxpayer use for them to be classified as an ODOT employee.”

Hilbert noted teachers can take jobs with a union and be paid by the union under his bill. But they cannot work for the union and do no work for a school district while still receiving state benefits and credit that increases their salary under the state’s teacher-pay schedule.

McBride argued union employees should be allowed to receive those taxpayer-funded benefits despite providing no service to Oklahoma taxpayers.

“Don’t we have better things to do than get heartburn over nine people in this state?” McBride said.

“If it’s even one individual, it’s too many,” Hilbert said.

McBride was joined by several Democrats in speaking against the bill.

State Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, echoed McBride’s argument.

“The districts have entered into these contracts with these nine employees and are okay with it,” Provenzano said.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, said the legislation was “punishing” union representatives. State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, called the bill a “slap in the face to teachers.” State Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, called the legislation “retaliation against an industry.”

Opponents conceded that the affected union employees are not working in school classrooms and are nonetheless accruing increased state-funded benefits. But Goodwin dismissed such concerns, calling it “nonsense about our taxpayer dollars.”

But supporters countered that the union arrangements are similar to actions that would result in fraud prosecutions in other settings.

“They’re receiving benefits, but not being employed by the school district,” said state Rep. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton. “Can you explain what the difference is with that versus a ghost employee that’s receiving a salary and they’re not working? Isn’t that a similar situation?”

“That’s a large part of the reason I’m running this legislation,” Hilbert said.

SB 1579 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 53-37 vote. It previously passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 35-9 vote.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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