Home > 744, education, Oklahoma, politics > 744 may be a bad idea part 2 – paying the piper

744 may be a bad idea part 2 – paying the piper

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Read Part 1 – my thoughts on the general concept of 744

Alright mathletes – it’s time for fun with calculators.

In sq744 we have a potential amendment to the OK Constitution that mandates an increase in education spending to the per pupil regional average. Based on current numbers, this means an increase of $1,627 per OK student. Since the full phase in is not complete until 2014, there’s no telling how much we will actually need, but for the sake of the conversation, let’s use the $1,627 figure. Last year, there were 654,511 pre-K through 12th grade students enrolled in Oklahoma common (public) schools. This comes to a total of $1,064,889, 937 additional dollars needed for education. This represents 14% of the ($6.9 billion) 2011 Oklahoma budget. In addition to the 36% of the state budget already allocated for public education. That’s a lot. So what provisions does 744 make for generating that kind of additional funding? None. The question and amendment do not contain a single word about funding the mandate.

So how are we going to pay for it? According to 744 supporters, there are two answers: 1) eliminate tax breaks and wasteful spending and 2) reduce pay and perks for legislators. They are adamant that the measure does not call for a tax increase. So far, I’m totally on board. Increase education spending dramatically, cut out waste, and keep taxes where they are. Sounds great, but let’s look at it more closely.

Let’s start with our legislature. Currently, we have the highest paid legislators in the region ($38,400/year). Since we’re big on regional averages, let’s say we lower that amount to the average of our six neighbors, bringing it down to $14,955.67 / year. A savings of $23,444.33 per legislator. Multiplied by our 149 (seriously? 149?) legislators (who, I’m certain, would be quite eager to accept this pay cut “for the kids”), this generates $3.5 million that we can now use to fund 744. Additionally, supporters of 744 are calling for an end to wasteful perks like travel spending by our legislators (and I agree). According to Newson6.com, Oklahoma lawmakers spent $1.5 million on travel in 2009. Eliminating this spending, coupled with the pay cut, gives us $5 million for 744. At $1,627 per student, this will cover 744 funding for 3,073 students – the student population of Ardmore.

Obviously, the legislature is not where the big money is. According to yeson744.com, $2 billion could be generated by ending special interest tax breaks. Two. Billion. Dollars. While I agree that there is a ton of wasteful spending and lost revenue due to crazy tax breaks, it’s really hard for me to buy that we could effectively increase state revenue by 29% simply by closing loopholes. If that really is the case, impeachment proceedings for every member of the legislature should begin immediately. When pressed, 744 supporters point to three (incredibly) wasteful projects – Rocket Plane XP, Quartz Mountain Air, and Great Planes Air – that cost the state $77 million dollars. That’s a lot, but it isn’t $1 billion, much less 2. There may very well be a billion dollars in waste out there (the definition of “waste”, of course, is quite fluid), but this conversation raises a bigger question: Do OK legislators have the political will to take on these powerful interests (and their own self-interests) to the tune of $1,000,000,000? I’m sure there are a handful who are ready to go after it with guns blazing, but a majority? We have to look at what history tells us about the willingness of this body to take on these kinds of issues. I’m not optimistic. In recent history, when the state has found itself a little short it has hit soft targets like education, corrections, health, and human services. In fact, the 2011 budget shows decreases of $45 million to human services, $58 million to higher education, and $63 million to health (p. 11-A). The budget also has a $125 million dollar hit to common education – which is why 744 looks so attractive. Our legislators demonstrate a consistent lack of value for education. But if this is the general attitude of the legislature, are they going to take on entities like the energy lobby in OK to close loopholes? I don’t see it.

The final way of funding 744 that I’ve heard is through new tax revenue that will be generated by companies coming to OK to take advantage of our better educated workforce. While better educated workers will certainly be more attractive (as employees I mean – reading isn’t that sexy), how long will it take for those benefits to be seen? 5 years? 10? I love the long-term thinking and hope it comes true. I want OK to be a magnet for great businesses that bring great jobs, but those future jobs won’t fund 744 today. How deep can the hole be dug before we can’t climb out of it?

Next up: part 3 – unintended consequences

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Categories: 744, education, Oklahoma, politics

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