When the Oklahoma Legislature declined to give the state's teachers raises this session, it didn't seem to make much news.
After all, the mantra went, everyone must make sacrifices. Revenues are down, the overall economy is flat and many parts of the country are in recession. So the politicos passed a disingenuously named "maintenance-of-effort" or "standstill" budget that broke an earlier promise to raise teacher salaries to regional averages.
On the surface, it seems fair enough. The money just isn't there. But the larger implications of this decision " the state does have money in "rainy day" funds it could have used for raises " point once again to the systemic Oklahoma problem of underfunding education.
Oklahoma was recently ranked 47th in teachers' salaries by the National Education Association. Teachers here make approximately $1,200 a year below the regional average. No one gets rich teaching school, true, but the quality of education is directly related to classroom teaching. The state has not only broken a promise to its chronically underpaid teachers, but it has also failed its students, who must deal with the ensuing podium turnover.
Somehow, though, the Legislature was able to cough up sweet tax cuts for some of the state's millionaires. Legislators decided the NBA team coming to Oklahoma City qualified for a rebate on a portion of its payroll taxes under Oklahoma's Quality Jobs Program. This will amount to about $4 million a year. The state's fascination with its multimillionaires seems boundless.
These corporate tax cuts come after income tax cuts in recent years here that will likely prevent the state from adequately funding education for years to come. At this point, a major slowdown in the state economy, along with funding mandates, could devastate Oklahoma's educational systems.
The state is in treacherous waters. It has made it virtually impossible to raise taxes, and now it whittles itself to nothing year by year, buying off ordinary people with meaningless token tax cuts while providing lavish cuts for the rich set. Perhaps after the last tax cut is enacted, the Legislature will mercifully vote to dissolve itself, and Oklahoma can become a territory again.
Do Oklahomans really want to trade in their schools for the equivalent of a few jumbo fireworks packs? It's an understatement to say conservative propaganda about tax cuts has won the day in Oklahoma. Few politicians here have the courage to stand up against the right-wing propagandists, who are on a seek-and-destroy mission when it comes to education. No one seems to have the time or energy to explain how people benefit from good schools, infrastructure and projects.
The terms "maintenance-of-effort" and "standstill" are euphemisms when it comes to describing the state's $7.1 billion budget. Rising transportation, energy and product costs are almost certain to result in budget cuts that will affect education. College students will undoubtedly face staggering tuition increases this fall.
So, yes, it's a good time to be a millionaire in Oklahoma. This is an old story by now, but it's one that bears repeating: A government cannot sustain itself for long by shifting wealth to a relatively few rich people while allowing its infrastructure " and education is included in this " to deteriorate because of neglect and foolish economic decisions. Will it take a major crisis to wake up Oklahomans to this fact?
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the progressive political blog "Okie Funk: Notes From the Outback," www.okiefunk.com.