Oklahoma lawmakers approve education funding, teacher pay bills despite budget shortfall



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OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite facing a $600 million budget shortfall, an Oklahoma House panel on Tuesday approved legislation that would boost teacher salaries and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into classrooms over the next decade.

Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education overwhelmingly approved the measures while acknowledging the massive budget hole and the absence of a funding source. Combined, the package would cost almost $1 billion when fully implemented.

"It's a significant dilemma that we find ourselves in," the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, said as it convened just minutes after the state Board of Equalization announced the state is facing a projected budget shortfall of $611 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Martin said boosting the salaries of teachers, who have not had a raise since 2008, and improving classroom instruction for the state's 688,000 public school students are priorities but acknowledged that the budget shortfall makes the future of the legislation uncertain.

"I don't know what will happen to these bills," Martin said. "The hurdle we have to get over is extremely high."

The teacher pay raise bill, authored by Martin, tracks Superintendent of Schools Joy Hofmeister's plan to increase teacher pay by $5,000 and add five days of instruction to the school year over the next five years.

Hofmeister told committee members the bill would increase instructional days to 180, the national average, and bring teacher salaries to the regional average to help alleviate a teacher shortage in the state.

"We are at a point of crisis when it comes to a teacher shortage," Hofmesiter said.

Information provided by the Department of Education indicates average teacher salaries in the state are $44,373 a year, last in the seven-state region. A third-level apprentice at a Chipolte Mexican Grill can earn $50,000 a year — $4,000 more than an Oklahoma teacher with a doctoral degree and 25 years of experience, according to the agency.

Hofmeister urged the subcommittee to pass the bill even if there is no money to fund pay raises next year.

"What I'm asking for is a plan," she said. "There is a crisis that we cannot continue to ignore."

The classroom funding bill by House Speaker Pro Tem Lee Denney, R-Cushing, would pump $600 million into Oklahoma classrooms over a decade, similar to an appropriations method that has funneled hundreds of millions of new dollars into road and bridge construction and maintenance.

Like the road funds, the new education money would be automatically appropriated from a fund that serves as the primary source of discretionary spending by the Legislature — a fund that Gov. Mary Fallin's finance secretary, Preston Doerflinger, has said is shrinking because of mandatory spending plans.

"The money to fund this has not been identified," Martin said.

The subcommittee approved each of the education funding bills by 9-0 votes and sent them to the full Appropriations and Budget Committee for consideration.


Online:

House Bill 1822: http://bit.ly/17eY3rg

House Bill 1682: http://bit.ly/1zHsn8R

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