OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday said she is considering calling a special session to ask lawmakers to use excess state funds on teacher raises.
The state recently closed out the fiscal year and had $140.8 million left. The action comes after a revenue failure that resulted in two cuts to state-appropriated agencies.
The cuts were deeper than were needed, said John Estus, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
“I’ve begun discussions with legislative leaders to consider calling lawmakers to return in special session to address the issue of teacher pay raises,” Fallin said. “I continue to support a pay raise for teachers, having called on lawmakers at the beginning of this year’s session to approve a teacher pay raise.”
Because it was a difficult budget year, an agreement could not be reached, Fallin said. Officials had $1.3 billion less to spend in crafting a fiscal year 2017 budget due to tax cuts, depressed energy prices and an inability to reduce ineffective tax credits and incentives given to generate economic activity.
“With this available money, I am again asking lawmakers to act on this important issue of providing a raise for every teacher of this state,” Fallin said.
Fallin’s comments come as a state question to increase the state sales tax by a cent to fund education, including a $5,000 teacher pay raise, heads to the Nov. 8 ballot in the form of State Question 779.
Oklahomans will also cast their picks for legislative candidates who are currently campaigning.
Without a special session, the funds would be returned to 62 state-appropriated agencies, Estus said.
“Many agencies have needs, but the fact is this money would do more good for Oklahoma in the form of a teacher pay raise than it would equally distributed to agencies,” said Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger said. “A lot of agencies — mine, for one — simply don’t have as compelling a case for the money as education, particularly our teachers.”
Doerflinger said the state could use the excess funding and combine it with yet to be determined other sources of money to come up with a raise that would be more than the $5,000 proposed in the state question.
Doerflinger said that while State Question 779 is noble, it is concerning because it would make the state sales tax the highest in the nation.
Doerflinger could not provide specifics on a date for the special session, but it would be before Nov. 8.
Oklahoma State School Boards Association Executive Director Shawn Hime said there is no bigger need than to pay teachers competitively, but Fallin’s proposal would not be the way to do it.
“The $140.8 million that is available was cut out of state agency budgets, including over $40 million from schools, that should be returned to those agencies and schools to pay for operations and personnel that they were budgeted for,” Hime said. “I see it as a political ploy to try to defeat State Question 779 that has proven to have Oklahoma voter support.”
Championed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, supporters of the measure collected more than 300,000 signatures, well more than the 123,725 needed to get the issue on the ballot. It withstood two legal challenges.
Passage of SQ 779 is expected to generate about $615 million annually that would be used for teacher pay raises in K-12 public schools, for early childhood education, to help make college education more affordable, and to assist in providing training for students in Career Tech.
Boren said the Fallin proposal would not provide enough money for a comprehensive solution to the education crisis.
“State Question 779 is clearly better for education long term than this Band-Aid approach,” Boren said.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said Fallin and the Republican majority are “playing games” with teachers by considering a special session three months before voters go to the polls.
“If the Republicans truly cared about teachers, they would have used their legislative supermajorities to pass a teacher pay raise at any time during the past eight years — when teachers last had a pay raise,” Inman said.
He said Republicans are considering using one-time dollars for long-term, reoccurring costs.
“We look forward to hearing more details,” said Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It is too early to comment at this time.”
Of the $140.8 million, slightly more than $10 million could be returned to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
“I believe it would be inappropriate to comment at this time,” said Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh.
Likewise, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson declined to comment until he had more information. Thompson recently said his agency is considering furloughs and a reduction in force to cope with the budget cuts.