OKLAHOMA CITY - In what was a monumental day with Gov. Fallin signing the first tax increase in the state since 1990, funding teacher pay raises, it wasn't without drama at the state capitol, involving a representative being rushed to the capitol to move legislation forward repealing a portion of the taxes passed days ago to fund the teacher pay raise plan.
Governor Mary Fallin signed a $447 million tax increase and itemized deduction cap legislation, along with a teacher pay scale bill, Thursday evening in the Blue Room.
"We finally have made it," said Fallin, joined by Republican and Democratic legislators, and teachers. "And I want to thank our legislative leaders for their hard work that they put in."
Under the law signed by the governor, teachers will see an average of $6,000 increase, varying on a teacher's tenure. The events come days before a planned teacher and public employee walkout on April 2.
"This is a very historic moment in Oklahoma's time. We achieved something we thought might be impossible, took many different tries, putting packages together in many different ways to have sufficient revenue to be able to take care of core government services and pay for a teacher pay raise in the state of Oklahoma, and also to put Oklahoma on a more solid foundation for the future."
The $447 million tax package included an increase of the oil and gas production tax to five percent, tax increases on cigarettes, motor fuel, and a hotel/motel tax.
But a portion of that tax increase is already on track to be repealed. The house approved eliminating the hotel/motel tax Thursday afternoon, prior to the governor signing the tax increase legislation.
A $5.00 hotel/motel occupancy tax, estimated at bringing in $50 million annually, caused legislative heartburn prior to the senate hearing the tax increase package Wednesday night. Thursday, the house began the process to repeal the tax, which involved Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, being rushed back to the capitol by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to cast a decisive vote to allow the legislation to move forward.
"The beauty of the building, love it or hate it, it takes both chambers to pass a bill," said Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, who voted to repeal the tax. "So as you compromise and negotiate, and do what's right for the state of Oklahoma."
Both chambers have been unable to pass tax increases in the state since a 1992 ballot initiative was approved, requiring a 3/4 majority in both chambers to increase taxes. Removing taxes requires a majority vote.
The house passed the tax increases package 79-10 on Monday; the senate approved the measure 36-10 Wednesday night, sending it to the governor. However senators voiced concerns about levying a tax on people staying in hotels and motels in the state, leading to plans to eliminate the tax completely.
"Number one we wouldn't have had the votes to pass revenue last night had we not made the commitment to do that," said Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. "Once we got that commitment to repeal then we were able to pass and fulfill our promises to deliver on a teacher pay raise."
Treat says repealing the tax won't impact teacher pay and that "We just have to use some other funding streams to fill the $47 million dollars that was expected from the hotel/motel tax."
But house democrats called foul of the senate's use of a trailer bill to modify the tax increase package just days after it passed off the house floor.
"It took us nearly 30 years in this building to raise taxes, and about 72 hours to turn around and cut them again," said Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, while debating a motion after the tax repeal's passage Thursday afternoon. "And we wonder why the public doesn’t trust us and we wonder why the public’s frustrated with us. Why they’re unsure if they want to send us back again for another term."
A procedural vote was held open for hours Thursday to allow Rep. Enns to return to the capitol to cast a vote which allowed the tax repeal legislation to move forward. It eventually passed 69-26. Questions and debate was limited, leading Democrats to use motions after the bill's passage to voice their frustrations about cutting taxes without having a replacement funding source in place.
"That is not an emergency. What is an emergency is the lack of text books in my kids schools. The lack of pay for the teachers in the state of Oklahoma. That’s an emergency," said Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City. "If you think cutting taxes is an emergency, then you clearly don’t know what that word means."
"You must be meaning it in the (music artist) Alanis Morissette “Ironic” sense of the word."
School staff, public employee pay raise bills advance
As the culmination of the day's events mostly surrounded the eventual signing of the tax increase to fund teacher pay raises, the senate advanced two bills that would set the pay scales for school support staff and public employee pay raises. Those now go to the governor's desk for signing.
While some districts have announced that they will not be walking out to protest a lack of proper education funding and teacher pay raises, other districts, teacher and public employee groups say the walkout is still on come Monday.