Sunday, September 07, 2008

More Reasons for HOPE

This is a recent editorial by Ken Neal of the Tulsa World. While not addressing the HOPE campaign, his rational and reasons are why Oklahomans are supporting HOPE and signing the petitions.

Education and money by: Ken Neal

City leaders playing a mournful tune

Members of the Tulsa Metro Chamber gathered for the usual rubber-chicken luncheon last week to hear state education leaders report on the "State of Education."

There were even a few legislators present to hear of the progress and problems of education in Oklahoma from leaders in common education, higher education and Career Tech. The problem? In every instance, not enough money.

All face steadily rising costs, largely fueled by soaring energy prices. Schools are curtailing bus service and sacrificing classroom needs to meet those costs.

Universities are raising tuition to make up for funding that was not provided by the Legislature. Career Tech, funded mostly by property taxes, is in jeopardy from still another movement to limit values on property. The Tulsa Chamber has certainly backed education through the years.

This city, thanks to the chamber, was the birthplace of early childhood education in Oklahoma. Today, Oklahoma is recognized as one of the leaders in the nation in early childhood education. Early childhood education was passed in Oklahoma only because Tulsans insisted on it.

Remember how then-Gov. Frank Keating was virtually bullied by Tulsans into naming an early childhood task force? Or, how he vetoed his own legislation when the Legislature finally passed it?

Chamber leaders last week bragged about Tulsa's role in passing the landmark House Bill 1017 reform of nearly 20 years ago. It was a reform that was opposed and nearly stopped by several Tulsa-area senators.

Everyone on the dais appeared to be boosters of education, but no one mentioned the 900-pound gorilla lurking in the room, the failure of the Legislature to properly fund the education that the Chamber and others say is vital to Oklahoma's future.

At a previous Chamber event, the Legislative Forum, hardly anything was mentioned to a dozen or more lawmakers who have gleefully cut the income tax rate to the tune of about $700 million. Instead of patting those lawmakers on the back, Chamber leaders should have been raising Cain over the failure to support state services, primarily education.

Because of another oil boom, the lawmakers were able to whack the tax rates and still have a "steady state" budget. Steady state budget, in the face of rising costs, means schools and other agencies in reality face budget cuts. The $700 million could have been used to boost the education services the Chamber says are so vital to the welfare of the state.

It could be that the worst is still to come. If oil and gas prices should fall, the Legislature will be presiding over actual income declines. High oil and gas prices not only boost the gross production tax but feed income and sales tax income.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren apparently foresees a rough year ahead. He has ordered a freeze on OU salaries and expenses because he knows this Legislature will have hardly any new money and no way to get any.

Under the ill-advised tax limitation law called State Question 640, the Legislature must pass a tax increase by 75 percent or submit it to a vote of the people at general election. Those requirements mean that once a tax is lost, it most likely will never be restored. Tulsa's Chamber has been named the finest chamber in the U.S., raising the question:

How can the finest Chamber in the nation sit idly by while lawmakers starve education and most other state services? The suspicion here is that a number of Chamber leaders would rather have the tax cuts than finance education, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

Remember, Oklahoma is hardly a high-tax state despite what some unknowing, unthinking lawmakers claim.

Nor will cutting taxes at the state level boom the economy as some of the same ilk contend. It is the high price of oil and gas, not tax cuts, that have fueled a strong Oklahoma economy. Many studies show that tax cuts have a minimal effect on economic growth.

The Oklahoma Legislature is controlled by a bloc of lawmakers who believe state education agencies spend too much money; that if leaders of education would only become efficient, they would have enough money.

Still others are enamored by the idea that the only way to reduce the size of government is to "starve the beast." That theory holds that if education funding is cut, if teacher pay is held below that of most other states, that administrators and teachers will work harder. We all know how well that works in other pursuits. Cut a CEO's pay and watch him work harder!

The Chamber luncheon got a lot of information about common schools, efforts to increase the workforce and improvements to higher education. Most everyone appeared to be impressed. It was a sweetness and light meeting. But no one dared mention that 900-pound gorilla.

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