By Justin Wingerter
As the chants of thousands of education supporters echoed through the halls outside his office, Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat said Thursday that the Oklahoma Senate will not drastically change education spending, casting uncertainty over the Legislature's ability to end a days-long teacher strike.
"I don't anticipate any modifications to the education budget going forward," Treat told reporters in his office Thursday morning.
The Senate's second-most powerful Republican said he doesn't know what is necessary to end the teacher walkout, which reached its fourth day Thursday.
"I'm not the one who started the walkout so I'm not the person to ask," he said. "Teachers tell me that they want to see action on our part. We showed action last week with passing nearly half a billion dollars in revenue and funding education at a higher degree than the 2009 high water mark that included stimulus dollars that you've always pointed to in wanting to get back to."
"The budget for education was passed pre-April 1 and that's the budget we intend to keep," he added.
The Oklahoma House passed legislation late Wednesday that would raise $19.5 million for education by amending the sales tax on purchases through Amazon and other online retailers. The Senate can take up that bill and a gambling bill estimated to raise $22 million as early as Friday.
"Friday will be an important day. There will be substantive legislation," Treat said.
The question on the minds of many in the Capitol is whether the House sales tax legislation and gambling bill will be enough to end the teacher walkout, assuming they pass the Senate in the coming days. The state's largest teachers' union, the Oklahoma Education Association, has not set a firm dollar amount but the head of the union said minor spending measures may be enough.
Alicia Priest told The Oklahoman that teachers and lawmakers are "very close" to ending the strike but first must pass several spending measures, including the sales tax and gambling bills before the Senate, and ensure they are signed by Gov. Mary Fallin.
"We're really close," the OEA president said.
After the sales tax bill passed the House on Wednesday, House leaders indicated it would be taken up by the Senate the following day. Treat was frustrated by that claim, calling it "misinformation" in a speech on the Senate floor and telling reporters he was "very concerned" it would breed distrust in the Legislature at a time when thousands of people are marching inside and outside the Capitol.
"There's a level of uncertainty that they need to put to rest," Treat said of the teachers' demands. "We'll see if us passing the Amazon (tax)...and other items assuages those concerns or not. I'm not in their shoes so I don't know."
When asked by a reporter Thursday whether ending the teacher strike is a goal of his, Treat said, "Our goal is to deliver fully on a teacher pay raise. We did that last week and we're going to come through again this week on making sure we replace money we had to take out in order to pass the package."
The Senate took no action Thursday morning, to the frustration of many of the education supporters who had filled the Senate gallery to capacity and quietly looked on.
(c)2018 The Oklahoman