The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over raising the state sales tax by one cent to give teachers $5,000 dollars more each year in hopes of attracting and retaining teachers in the midst of an historic teacher shortage.
“Let's be clear improving education is not an unpalatable choice to Oklahoma voters. They overwhelmingly support education and they want the opportunity to vote to improve education in this state,” Executive Director of Stand for Children – Oklahoma Amber England.
Estimates say the tax would raise just over $615 million annually. The majority of those funds would go toward raising teacher pay; the rest would fund other aspects of education. As a result, the state sales tax would increase to 9.7 percent, the highest in the U.S.
The tax would also mean changing the Oklahoma Constitution which can only be decided by a statewide vote. Justices and lead pro-tax lawyer D. Kent Meyers agreed during arguments the push to amend a state constitution to pay public employees this way was unprecedented nationwide
“There's a whole lot more in [Oklahoma University President David] Boren's proposal than just a teacher pay raise, a whole lot more. And exactly what makes it unconstitutional,” said Dave Bond of the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs Impact said. OCPA Impact is the anti-tax group’s legislative arm that is challenging the tax. Bond later called the tax a “threat” to Oklahomans.
At the heart of the opposition is whether voters will have to approve each piece of the tax step by step or if it's an all or nothing vote, which opponents said could mean unintended consequences to municipalities. They also argued it would give too much power to the state’s executive branch violating the constitution.
Bond said OCPA had presented an alternative to a tax that would cut funds from state agencies and sell off state assets totaling around $617 million in one-time funds. But in a state that’s facing a $900 million deficit; the funds to cut may be hard to come by.
“Every day we delay this is another opportunity for a teacher to flee to another state that pays better, it's another day an Oklahoma child has an untrained teacher in the classroom,” England said.
It wasn't clear neither how long the nine justices would take to rule nor was there an indication of which way they would rule, before adjourning Wednesday. All they said was they'd have a decision soon.