OKC, Tulsa mayors oppose education sales tax initiative

October 28, 2016 GMT

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The mayors of Oklahoma’s two largest cities are opposing a proposed 1 percent sales tax to support public education, saying the increase is too costly to residents and could hamper their chances of passing future municipal bond packages.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett joined mayors from more than three dozen cities this week in opposing State Question 779, which would generate an estimated $550 million annually for public education — including a $5,000 across-the-board pay hike for teachers.

Supporters say the tax is needed because education has been critically underfunded in Oklahoma, a state where the average teacher salary in 2014-2015 ranked 48th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Dwindling revenues from the natural gas and oil industry have contributed to the funding shortfall.

But opponents believe the tax would be too burdensome on residents and could jeopardize efforts to pass bond packages such as the successful MAPS program in Oklahoma City and Vision Tulsa. They either want lawmakers to address how to better fund public education or for educators to craft a sales tax proposal that would spend more on teacher salaries and less on other things.

“You don’t just throw money irrationally at a problem, and this is what that seems to be,” Cornett said Friday. “Municipalities feel like we’re being stepped on at this point.”

A one-cent increase would bring Oklahoma’s combined state and average local sales tax rate to 9.82 percent, the highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that advocates for low-rate tax policies.

Educators argued Friday that money spent on public education will ensure the continued success of municipal bond programs, not hinder it.

“If we don’t invest in education, we won’t have any citizens left in the state to pay for things like MAPS,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “When you look at a teacher getting a $5,000 raise, they’re not going to cut their mattress open and save it. What this is going to do is allow them to go out and buy new tires for their car.

“And where are they going to be able to do it? In their communities.”