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Oil and gas group challenges petition to increase GPT for teacher pay raise

OKLAHOMA CITY – A local organization says it is taking matters into its own hands when it comes to a pay raise for Oklahoma teachers.

For years, teachers have been asking Oklahoma lawmakers to find a way to fund a pay raise for educators across the state.

When another legislative session came to a close without a teacher pay raise, many educators decided to leave the classroom or the Sooner State for better pay.

Shawn Sheehan, who was named Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year in 2016, announced that he made the decision to move south of the Red River to make more money in the classroom.

“At the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job- this job we love very much- by heading out of state. I’m sorry it’s come to this, but I will leave with my head held high. I poured my heart and soul into my teaching at Norman High School. I represented our state at the highest level. I tried to help find funding sources via SQ 779. I ran for state senate. I started a non-profit focused on teacher recruitment and retention that has spread nationwide. I’ve done everything I know how to do to try and make things better. We could stay, but it would cost our family – specifically our sweet baby girl. My wife and I are not willing to do that. We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children,” Sheenan wrote.

For teachers who decided to stay in Oklahoma, many are being forced to pay for supplies out of their own pockets.

Teresa Dank, a third grade teacher in Tulsa, turned to panhandling to help raise money for school supplies.

“It all adds up week after week, and month after month,” she said. “So it’s a huge need.”

After another year without a pay raise, Restore Oklahoma Now has taken matters into its own hands.

In October, the organization began drafting the language for a state ballot initiative that it says would address the state’s teacher crisis.

“It’s a shame that concerned citizens must go to the people to address the state’s various crises,” Mickey Thompson, former president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said. “Our legislature has failed to take appropriate action. We feel there is no other option.”

Last month, Thompson filed paperwork for State Question 795, which would ask voters to approve a gross production tax increase on new wells to 7% to help fund public education.

Currently, gross production taxes on new wells start at just 2% and increase to 7% after 36 months.

The Oklahoma Tax Commission estimates that it could bring in over $300 million a year. Organizers say $240 million of that would be used to fund a $4,000 pay raise for teachers.

However, the state question is facing some roadblocks before it gets the chance to be seen by voters.

The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association filed two challenges to SQ 795 with the Supreme Court on Wednesday. The group says the state question violates the state's constitutional single-subject rule.

"Singling out one industry for a constitutionally enacted tax increase is not only unprecedented, it is bad public policy," OIPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs A.J. Ferate told the Tulsa World. "By setting such a precedent, this state question could open the door to placing similar tax increases in the constitution on other Oklahoma industries like agriculture, manufacturing or aerospace."

The group also says the petition's language is biased and unclear.

Thompson was the head of OIPA for about 15 years, and says he was a key player in enacting many of the tax breaks that oil companies enjoy today.

"Hell, I wrote most of those," he told KGOU. "I didn't work at the Capitol and I wasn't a member of the Legislature, but most of the tax incentives that were enacted during the '90s- and were later reenacted in the aughts- those came from our office."

Thompson says the tax breaks were passed when it was necessary because oil was down to $15 a barrel.

"We never envisioned or intended to have permanent gross production tax breaks," he added.

Oil and gas producers says that if gross production taxes are raised, it would have a negative effect on the state's largest industry.

"We think this is really bad policy for the state of Oklahoma. One, it punishes the most important industry in the state that is really driving Oklahoma economy right now,  and then for educators, it's really bad policy as well to base a pay raise on a very cyclical commodity based revenue stream," Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, told KFOR.

Warmington says he agrees that teacher pay is a critical need in the state, but doesn't believe oil and gas companies should be the ones to pay for it.

"The state isn’t addressing some of its critical needs. Teacher pay is one of those but taxing the industry that is really driving the state’s economy is not very attractive either," says Warmington.

Thompson says he isn't surprised by the challenge, adding that oil companies have made billions because of the tax cut.

“We are disappointed, but certainly not surprised that the oil barons who control our state politics have filed a protest to our initiative petition. It’s a blatant attempt to stop the people of Oklahoma from exercising our rights to direct democracy to reshape the future of public education," Thompson said.

“Apparently, the OIPA would use any means – including legal maneuvers and blatant delay tactics – to keep this issue off the ballot, and to deny Oklahoma voters the opportunity to express their views at the ballot box. We trust the Oklahoma Supreme Court will see through the smoke screen and allow us to proceed in an expeditious manner,” he added.

In order to get SQ 795 on the Nov. 6 ballot, Restore Oklahoma Now needs almost 124,000 signatures.