Each day that passes brings us one day closer to election day — the day Oklahoma voters will decide the fate of State Question 744, which would dramatically boost education spending.
Opponents to the measure are complaining that the state cannot afford the nearly $1 billion of additional funding. But don’t let them fool you. State Question 744 is easily affordable…we just have to have the will to do it.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma ranks 48th nationally (49th if you include the District of Columbia) and last regionally, in per-pupil education expenditures. SQ 744 would fix this disparity by requiring the Legislature to fund common education to at least the regional average.
According to the nonpartisan Oklahoma Policy Institute, the measure would require state officials to boost education spending by $889 million annually once it is fully implemented.
However, the language of SQ 744 does not specify from where the funds for this additional spending will come. This, justifiably, causes a great deal of concern for state policymakers.
This concern has led many of our state’s leaders, including Gov. Brad Henry, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, OU President David Boren, OSU President Burns Hargis and even News 9 anchor Kelly Ogle to announce their opposition. Mr. Ogle even recently editorialized on the air that it was “irresponsible” for SQ 744’s supporters to not specify a funding source, and challenged the measure’s supporters to find one.
Now, saying that it is “irresponsible” to not specify a funding source is much too harsh. After all, the potential sources of funding are obvious. In fact, a few seconds before Mr. Ogle issued his challenge on the air, he mentioned the only two possible funding sources — higher tax collections or cuts in other government programs. SQ 744 just leaves it up to our state’s elected officials to determine which one (or both) it will be. That is hardly irresponsible.
Then again, it won’t be easy to come up with another $1 billion to spend on education. Or would it?
Of course, we should start with eliminating wasteful spending. State Sen. Tom Adelson opined in The Oklahoman recently that we should eliminate corporate welfare spending which costs taxpayers several hundred million dollars annually without providing significant benefits to Oklahoma.
Furthermore, we can look to spend money more efficiently. I suggested in a recent column that the implementation of a school voucher program could close as much as 15 percent of the per-pupil funding gap.
We should look at taxes too. The fact is that Oklahomans pay less in taxes than most other states. Based on data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, I estimate that Oklahoma’s state and local tax burden in fiscal year 2008 (the last year for which all data is available) was 9.45 percent — which ranked 42nd nationally and fourth in the seven-state region (which includes the six surrounding states plus Oklahoma).
Even if SQ 744 was funded entirely through tax increases, Oklahoma would still have a tax burden well below the national average (ranking 36th nationally and still fourth in the region). Instead if only one-half of the additional education spending came from taxes, then Oklahoma’s tax burden would still rank 41st nationally.
Furthermore, this could give us an opportunity to tax more efficiently. For example, economists generally believe that highway and road maintenance should be funded by a gasoline tax instead of general revenues. This ensures that those who receive the benefit of the improved roads are the people who pay for their improvement.
In Oklahoma though, we divert more than $200 million annually (eventually it will be $300 million) in general revenue funds to fix our roads and bridges, while we have the lowest motor fuels tax in the region. A more efficient system would raise the motor fuels tax, thereby eventually freeing up $300 million more for education.
Of course, our state Constitution requires Oklahoma voters to approve any tax increase. It is possible, as they have in the past, that Oklahoma voters would reject any increase in their taxes. However, this does not detract from the fact that State Question 744 is affordable…we just have to have the will to pay for it.
MICKEY HEPNER is an associate professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.