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Pleas for More Education Funding Fall Short on Election Day

Voters in two states rejected measures that would have raised taxes -- either for consumers or corporations.

oklahoma-school
(MCT/Seattle Times/Mike Siegel)
Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

Voters in two financially-struggling states have struck down proposed tax increases that would have given more much-needed funding to education.

Public education was one of the biggest casualties of the Great Recession. Nearly a decade since it started, nearly half of states are still providing less general funding for schools than they were the year the economy tanked. But the rejections on election night reflect a feeling among taxpayers that governments are punting on a problem by passing on costs to them, rather than making their own difficult decisions.

In Oregon, which is facing a $1.3 billion deficit, voters shot down a proposal to impose a tax hike on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in the state. Opponents, largely corporations, called it a sales tax in disguise because they warned businesses would pass on the costs to consumers.

Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the campaign to defeat the tax, told the The Oregonian/OregonLive that Measure 97 "fell of its own weight when people understood what it would do."

Polling in recent weeks showed voters were split on the measure, which would have raised an expected $3 billion a year. It called for (but didn't require) some of the new revenue to go toward public schools.

A proposal in Oklahoma, on the other hand, appeared ready to cruise to victory in the weeks before Election Day. The ballot measure proposed raising the state sales tax a percentage point to 5.5 percent. The state has imposed the biggest per-pupil funding cuts in the country and is facing a teacher shortage. 

The new revenue, expected to be about $600 million a year, would have gone straight into a new education fund with more than half of it paying for teachers' raises. About one-fifth was slotted for higher education and another fifth would have help fund early education. The measure was championed by University of Oklahoma President and former U.S. Sen. David Boren.  

But in an election with no shortage of surprises, Oklahoma provided another one Tuesday when voters decidedly struck down the proposal, 59 percent to 41 percent.

Opponents of the tax hike agreed that Oklahoma was facing an education funding crisis but argued that other steps should be taken to addresss it. They called the defeat a "bittersweet victory."

Meanwhile, David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, warned the state's lawmakers were in for a tough session in 2017 as pressure will increase on education funding and the state has been facing revenue shortfalls thanks to drops in oil revenue.

"It's clear that there continues to be a crisis in education funding in Oklahoma," said Blatt. "And all the opponents who said they agreed teachers need a raise but need another way to do it, will have to propose something very, very quickly."

Oklahoma has had the nation's highest drop in per-pupil funding since 2008, and it’s had devastating results for public school students. Nearly one-third of the state’s more than 500 school districts have opted for four-day school weeks; educators haven’t had a raise in nearly a decade; and the state is awarding emergency credentials to help fill teacher vacancies.

Policy experts said Oklahoma's sales take hike is frustrating because not only would it have imposed a greater burden on lower income families but the state has cut corporate and income taxes over the past decade.

Equity was a concern in Oregon as well even as the campaign broke Oregon's spending record for ballot initiatives and was mainly a bitter fight between big corporations and the state's largest public employee unions. Small business owners even rallied to join teachers and community organizations in supporting the measure.

But voters ultimately believed opponents' argument that companies would simply pass on the cost of the corporate tax hike to them.

"I am disappointed to see Oregonians value large corporate interests over that of their children's educational future and that of our seniors, people with economic insecurity and our small businesses that contribute to our local economy," said Amber Tamayo, a clothing store owner and member of the Main Street Alliance of Oregon.

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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