By Rep. Mike Sanders
I hear every week about how our schools are struggling – struggling to pay teachers and struggling to buy new textbooks and other classroom materials to improve student learning.
Last week, the House approved several bills that would help K-12 schools. First was a measure to raise teacher pay by $6,000 over the next three years. This would make Oklahoma’s average teacher pay among the highest in the region and move us from 48th to 13th nationally when cost-of-living is factored. We still have to find funding for this raise; I believe we will.
A measure that could help is a bill to increase the Oklahoma Lottery’s contribution to education by $110 million over the next five years. Many public schools and education associations statewide supported the bill.
House Bill 1837 will allow bigger lottery prizes, which is hoped to increase lottery sales, which would send more money to public schools. We’ve long heard the lottery has not benefitted education as much as first promised. While the lottery has sent more than $750 million to education since it began in 2005, funding has declined in recent years and is expected be about 30 percent lower than 10 years ago. Part of the reason is thought to be low prize payouts. Other states have used this mechanism to successfully increase education funding.
Without this bill, education is projected to lose $25 million in lottery funding over the next five years. This would end the mandate that 35 percent of profits go to education. Instead, the bill guarantees common education would receive at least $50 million in lottery revenue each year as well as profits above $50 million for specific K-12 public school programs. Initiatives in reading, science, technology, engineering and math would receive $85 million over the next five years.
This funding comes without having to raise taxes. With our current budget conditions – a recent revenue failure and a gap in the amount appropriated last year vs. the amount available for fiscal year 2018 – such revenue raising measures are welcome.
There are other measures like this one that will help us close our budget gap and fund core government services in addition to education.
Lastly, I have received many phone calls regarding our state parks. Let me state this: I support our state parks and our tourism department. A memo was sent by our appropriations chairwoman to all state agencies, including the Department of Tourism, asking for opinions on potential cuts to agency budgets. As everyone is fully aware, we have our budget issues. We are trying to scrub and find ways to meet our state constitutionally mandated law to balance the books by the end of the fiscal year. The Department of Tourism responded that cuts might force it to close parks. I don’t believe any state parks will close. But, as I’m sure all of you would understand, we have to look at everything, even as families have to look at everything in their household budgets during tight times. I will point out that the Legislature does not line item spending for parks; that is a decision left to tourism. They must decide whether to keep parks open or cut services in Oklahoma City.
I want to thank everyone for their concern and their phone calls. I hear you, and I fully believe at the end of the day all state parks will remain open.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or(405) 557-7407.