| October 1, 2010

Many Voices, One Message in Opposition to State Question 744

Policy analysts with ties to OCPA have raised the alarm about State Question 744 for several months. No surprise, there. Conservatives who have examined the proposal are unified in opposition to it.

Something else is notable, if not totally surprising. Liberal and moderate leaders are speaking bluntly about what they consider a poorly devised, disastrously timed, and woefully constructed ballot initiative from the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest labor union.

Three top labor union leaders say the initiative is a bad idea. Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO) says, “If passed, 744 will hurt all of education including our nationally recognized early education programs. The most alarming concern for our teachers is that 744 has zero guarantee any additional money will be spent in the classroom or for teacher pay. To not expressly protect and prioritize the two most vital components of education is simply the wrong way to advance funding.”

Jimmy Curry, president of the state AFL-CIO, comments, “State Question 744 is estimated to be a tax increase of about $1,200 for a family of four, which when combined with the anticipated cuts to state services, makes 744 a job killer for our members and the state of Oklahoma as a whole.”

Reno Hammond with the Southwest Laborers’ Union reflects, “Oklahoma needs to work together and not divisively. SQ 744 pits one area of state government against another to the detriment of the entire state.”

In a press conference at the state Capitol last month, Dr. Larkin Warner, a regents professor emeritus of economics at Oklahoma State University, told reporters, “It is a mathematical certainty passage of SQ 744 will take tax dollars away from vital state services, such as Medicaid spending and road and bridge repairs, to satisfy the spending mandate.”

Warner, an architect of the “MAPS for Kids” program in Oklahoma City, is an author of a recently published monograph on the subject. He is a self-described advocate of public education, and has a lifetime record to prove it.

In response to a question from this writer, Dr. Warner said he was not aware of any private-sector advocate of

MAPS for Kids who is also a supporter of SQ 744. MAPS for Kids was a combination of sales and property tax measures, enacted by voters in Oklahoma City and county in fall 2001. It amounted to the largest local-level tax hike for public education in Oklahoma history, with every district in Oklahoma City gaining revenue as a result. It flowed out of the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project, a collaborative process sponsored by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation.

Some readers may quarrel with MAPS for Kids, but this much is beyond quarrel: It was the direct result of years of local collaboration that stretched from neighborhood associations to the highest echelons of the community’s business and civic leadership. It was a product of hard work and consensus.

Talking about that program, Warner noted, “I spent two years of my life working on the committee that designed MAPS for Kids.” He is “a supporter of the need for more revenue for education,” saying, “when properly managed, more resources make a difference.”

But SQ 744 provides no formula for management, identifies no funding source, and makes absolutely no pretense of flowing from consensus. It’s a power play by the OEA and the NEA.

Warner said the measure has “enough unintended consequences that if you are a supporter of more revenue for public education, you should still oppose this initiative.” He predicted negative pushback will be massive.

Further, Warner said, assertions that Oklahomans don’t care about education and must prove they cherish it by passing a mandate to meet or exceed the regional average for per pupil spending are hogwash.

As he put it, “Passage of HB 1017 and of MAPS for Kids is not evidence that Oklahomans do not support public education.” In proportional terms, more than one-half of all government spending is going to education, most of that to K-12. So in percentage terms, he asked, “How much more do they want?”

Dr. Alexander Holmes—chairman of the department of economics at the University of Oklahoma, former state secretary of finance, and former revenue and budget director of the Office of State Finance—said SQ 744 is “bad budget policy, bad constitutional construction, and bad democracy.”

Holmes was a key advisor to former Governor Henry Bellmon. In a discussion with reporters, he outlined the lengthy process of collaboration and debate that led to enactment of HB 1017, a teacher pay hike measure which was later ratified by voters.

Holmes aid that SQ 744 had “no notion of restructuring the management of education.” He compared the ballot measure to the federal banking bailout as “a bad way to run the government.”

In a press release circulated after the press event, Dr. Holmes added: “This is an irresponsible measure at best, with catastrophic results at worst. Because Oklahoma law doesn’t allow an increase in taxes without a vote of the people or three-fourths majority of the legislature, it is impossible to fund this spending increase without cutting other government services.”

Holmes also said it would be “very difficult to meet the requirements of this initiative.” It’s hard to meet mandates in the best of circumstances, but he cautioned: “You never know what’s going to happen in budget policy.” As a prime example of unforeseen circumstances, Holmes pointed to the McAlester prison riot, which happened on Bellmon’s watch and cost $15 million.

Dr. Holmes made it clear he opposed “letting other states determine what we’re going to spend.” He opposes this measure because he believes it will cause, for the Legislature, “dislocation from responsibility, from an accountability for the outcome.”

David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, OCPA’s mirror on the philosophical left, emphasized his longstanding support for additional public education resources. Still, he said, “We have run a detailed analysis of what the anticipated cost of SQ 744 will be. Our best guess is initially we are looking at spending increases of $1.7 billion for common education over three years with no source identified to pay for it. We believe that we must boost funding for our schools, but not at the expense of services for children with mental-health issues or kids in foster care or students in our colleges and universities.”

Blatt observed, “Tax revenue comes from one place and one place alone: the taxpayer. So whether we cut other state services or increase taxes, we must face the reality those are our only two options.”

During his exchange with reporters, and in response to my question, Blatt said he understood the frustrations of public school funding advocates. Some of them have decided, he said, “the only way to fix the structure is to blow up the building.” Continuing the analogy, he insisted, “blowing up the building and running away with the loot is not the answer.”

Blatt also said: “It’s a fundamental fallacy to treat any part of the budget in isolation from the other parts.” He explained that the initiative’s regional average funding benchmark “is a moving target, and this proposal is likely to consume all or most of any growth revenue in the next several years.”

Advocates of 744 are claiming the bill for SQ 744 can be paid with growth revenue, but that assumes a hefty growth rate. Blatt reflected, “A 10 to 10.5 percent growth rate might be realistic, but even with that sort of robust growth, SQ 744 presents an ominous scenario.”

Theoretical growth rates aside, Blatt said that under the state’s school funding formula, if SQ 744 had been in effect this year, it would have required several hundred million dollars more in government spending.

So, are all the reasons to oppose this ballot initiative coming from liberals? Not at all.

Michael Carnuccio, OCPA’s president, said: “In addition to the alarming consequences of SQ 744, there are two facts that prove such a measure is dangerous. More money does not correlate to increased student performance, and if Oklahoma calculated our education spending the same as the states we are compared to, we would already be spending more than the regional average.”

OCPA and Carnuccio note that Oklahoma’s per pupil spending figures cited by many government sources range from $8,006 to $8,814, but that such analyses don’t tell the whole story. OCPA research fellow Steve Anderson, taking into consideration all factors in the accounting, puts Oklahoma’s per pupil expenditures at $10,257.

Carnuccio showed reporters charts [below] which document the disconnect—both in the United States and in Oklahoma—between increased spending and actual student performance. The charts show a steady rise in education expenditures in public schools, but flat student performance on standardized tests measuring achievement.

To sum up, the state’s two best multi-issue policy analysis groups, OCPA on the right and OK Policy on the left, agree. The state Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agree. The author of the definitive history on MAPS for Kids and the Republican legislative leadership agree on the necessity for a no vote.

It’s not time for a chorus of “Kumbaya,” but left-center-right convergence looks a lot like news to this veteran observer of the passing scene. It might only be good for this one policy joust, but it is still worth noting.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of

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