Today, more than two dozen organizations delivered a message to Oklahoma lawmakers that now is the time for them to pass the revenues that are needed to fund core budget responsibilities and avert a walkout by teachers and state employees.
“The planned walkout by teachers and state employees is a symptom of years of budget cuts that have left our schools and state agencies seriously underfunded, understaffed, underpaid, and overburdened,” said David Blatt, Executive Director of Oklahoma Policy Institute. “We're here today to remind legislators of how budget cuts are holding back Oklahoma communities, and we've brought a list of balanced and sustainable revenue options that lawmakers can choose from to do better.”
Blatt presented a menu of revenue options totaling $1.4 billion, well over the $812 million in budget needs identified by Oklahoma teachers and state employees who are participating in a walkout on April 2nd. He was joined by a diverse range of groups representing non-profits, faith communities, health care providers, civic organizations, disability advocates, educators, public employees, and more.
“As pastors we know the stories of how inadequate funding of basic government functions affects our community," said Rev. Chris Moore, speaking for the ACTION-Tulsa and VOICE-OKC coalitions. "We see the impact on stressed and struggling teachers, often relying on nothing but idealism and spiritual fortitude to get them through another work week. We see students who feel the weight of classrooms where they cannot get the attention they need, and the lack of resources and opportunities for success. We know the employees who cannot make ends meet and must humble themselves to seek help from their church so they don’t have to decide between having the lights on or getting enough to eat.”
State funding has been cut deeply in recent years. Over the past decade, the budget appropriated by lawmakers has shrunk 16 percent, adjusted for inflation. More than half of all state agencies have seen their state funding cut by over 20 percent since 2009, even before accounting for inflation. These cuts have deeply affected education, health care, and nearly every other area of state government.
“We’re in a health care crisis in Oklahoma. Rural hospitals are closing or eliminating services and staff. Many hospitals are struggling to make payroll each week,” said Craig W. Jones, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. “Meanwhile, our poor health costs the state millions each year. SoonerCare provider rates have been cut by 18 percent since 2010, putting life-saving services at risk and driving physicians to other states. Further health care cuts will be catastrophic. We must invest in the well-being of all Oklahomans and in our communities.”
After inflation, the average base salary for Oklahoma teachers has shrunk more than 11 percent since 2006. Besides teacher pay, budget cuts are hitting all aspects of public education, with impacts that include growing class sizes, fewer course offerings, districts going to four-day school weeks, scarce school supplies, and the elimination of support staff like librarians and school counselors.
“Children are our top priority. If we have to walk out, we’re doing it so our students receive a quality education and have a highly qualified teacher in the classroom,” said Amber Spradlin, a sixth grade English teacher at Nicoma Park Middle School. “We have tried everything to avoid this situation, from putting state questions on the ballot, to continually lobbying for better funding, to helping get teachers elected to our legislature. We’re out of options – closing schools is our last option. The legislature needs to come together and develop a plan that funds education now, not sometime in the future.”
Most state employees have gone more than a decade without a pay increase, and turnover of state workers has spiked as their average salaries have fallen to 24 percent below the competitive labor market. The workers responsible for essential services — like caring for victims of abuse and neglect, supervising dangerous offenders, and stopping the spread of infectious diseases — have for year after year been asked to handle rising caseloads with stagnant pay.
“State agency employees expect our state’s leaders to develop long-term solutions to reverse the course Oklahoma has been on for the past few years,” said Tom Dunning, Communications Coordinator for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “They also expect to have the tools they need to serve our communities and they expect a wage sufficient to provide for their families. Despite several legislative attempts to pass new revenue measures, little progress has been made.”
“Oklahomans who rely on those services want our state’s budget fixed by implementing fair and broad-based revenue measures,” Dunning said. “Failure to take significant action now to fix our budget is not an option. If leaders fail again to address service funding , state employees, educators and those they serve across the state will have questions and will expect answers.”
In addition to educators, public employees, and faith leaders, the coalition speaking out today includes several citizens' groups who have seen first-hand the harm of unfunded services on regular Oklahomans.
“Job one for Oklahoma lawmakers is to put our tax dollars to work for the betterment and stability of families,” said Erin Taylor, an advocate for families on the waiting list for developmental disabilities services. “As a state, we aren't doing what's needed to care for our families, the elderly, children, and those with disabilities, but these revenue solutions can go a long way to filling that gap.”
“The condition of our state budget is a serious matter, with many of our members being educators and public servants," said Arnetta Williams, President of the Sigma Sigma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. “We hope that our lawmakers will make the effort to properly fund services and in turn strengthen our state.”
Participating Organizations (listed alphabetically)
- Allied Communities of Tulsa Inspiring Our Neighborhoods (ACTION)
- American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma
- American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)
- American Federation of Teachers - Oklahoma
- Community Service Council
- League of Women Voters of Oklahoma
- Let’s Fix This
- Mental Health Association Oklahoma
- National Association of Social Workers - Oklahoma
- OK Waiting List Families
- Oklahoma Conference of Churches
- Oklahoma Education Association
- Oklahoma Hospital Association
- Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association
- Oklahoma Policy Institute
- Oklahoma Primary Care Association
- Oklahoma Public Employees Association
- Oklahoma Retired Educators Association
- Oklahoma Women's Coalition
- Pastors for Oklahoma Kids
- Sigma Sigma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
- Together Oklahoma
- Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry
- Voices Organized in Civic Engagement (VOICE)
Posted on Mon, March 26, 2018
by Cassidy Heit