“I am cautiously optimistic.”
Those are the words that Sen. Stephanie Bice used Monday when asked if she anticipates the state Legislature finding a solution that would prevent a planned April 2 teacher walkout.
But Bice’s hopes are tempered by another statement: “There’s nothing out there.”
Bice’s comments came as lawmakers continue to search for a way to fund a $10,000 pay increase that has been demanded by the Oklahoma Education Association.
Bice said she is hopeful that as the OEA’s deadline nears, lawmakers will feel the pressure to resolve the issue.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Bice said. “We have cut virtually every state agencies, some as much as 40 percent. If we make more cuts to other agencies, the impact to those agencies will be significant.”
Bice said the department of higher education, the department of health and the department of mental health have had cuts of more than 20 percent in the last three years.
“This a much bigger conversation than pay raises. This is about having an educated workforce in Oklahoma,” she said.
Bice said lawmakers are looking for funding options that might be more palatable for state Democrats. Among the revenue-raising options being considered are an increase in the tobacco tax, but at a lower level than previously proposed.
She said the new proposal is $1 per pack, which is 50 cents below the previous suggestion. In addition, there are proposals to increase the gross production tax on all oil and gas wells from 2 to 4 percent.
“There are other things we are doing,” she said.
Bice said some of her constituents have suggested she vote against these proposals because they don’t raise enough money.
“$435 million is a significant increases; and there are other measure that can help us fund our core agencies,” she said.
Bice pointed to a change in the capital gains measure, which provided more than $100 million in savings to businesses, but only generated about $9 million in offsets.
“It will help us fund core services, but it doesn’t cover teacher pay,” she said.
But finding any type of revenue-raising bill that will garner the required 76 votes in the Oklahoma House is unlikely.
“You cannot find 76 members of the House who will agree on a revenue measure,” she said.
“We’re at a point where we are relying on the House to make a determination on what they can negotiate and get 76 votes on revenues. It is a very daunting situation,” Bice said.
Meanwhile, Rep. J.P. Jordan said there is nothing currently in the House that can meet the demands of the OEA.
“We are working on the House side on any way to prevent the walkout from happening. We are looking at what are our options, what can we do,” he said. “Given the current situation, it’s very difficult to find a path to a $10,000 teacher pay raise,” Jordan said.
The lawmaker also said he doesn’t blame teachers for being frustrated.
“I’m frustrated myself. I think we’ve had good options and not so good options presented in the Legislature. When you have members who are not willing to yield, it puts us in the position we are currently in. To me, I’m concerned about the kids and what happens to the kids and what happens going forward,” Jordan said.