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Capitol Insider: Legislators Scramble To Avoid Teacher Walkout As Election Filing Nears

Oklahoma state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, speaks during a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017.
Sue Ogracki
AP Photo
Oklahoma state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, speaks during a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. Griffin is the latest legislator to announce she won't seek re-election.

Teachers are preparing to walk out of the classroom starting April 2, and several legislators have proposed plans to avoid the work stoppage. One in particular, proposed by former teacher Sen. Michael Bergstrom, R-Adair, would raise pay for both teachers and state employees.

Senator Bergstrom's proposal would raise teacher pay by $6,000 over three years— $4,000 less than what the Oklahoma Education Association is demanding. State employees making less than $50,000 would get a pay raise of $2,500 over three years, and the bill would also restore state aid formula funding for education in 2019.

“House Majority Leader John Echols indicated… there's a difference between a teacher pay raise proposal and then the funding for those proposals,” Ashley told KGOU’s Dick Pryor.

That’s exactly how Bergstrom’s plan is designed. It doesn’t include a revenue measure. Instead, it’s contingent on the passage of other bills in the Senate and tax increases, which would have to be approved by three-fourths majorities in both chambers. It’s unclear if the Oklahoma Education Association would accept such a bill.

While legislators grapple with revenue increases, they’re also trying to cut costs by trimming Oklahoma’s prison population. Several sentencing reform bills have been revived from the 2017 legislative session after Gov. Mary Fallin made a push for criminal justice changes earlier this month.

“We need to stop warehousing moms and dads, sons and daughters in prison for long sentences compared to other states,” Fallin said in a March 5 press release.

Election filing commences one week after the teacher walkout is scheduled to take effect. Ashley says a total of five Republicans have said they will not run in 2018, despite being eligible to seek another term. Sen. AJ Griffin of Guthrie is the latest of the bunch.

No Democrats have indicated they will not seek reelection. During the 2017 special elections, Democrats won four out of seven open seats. Two of those Democrats were educators. One, Jacob Rosencrantz, ran on the slogan, “Elect a Teacher.”


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider. Your weekly look inside Oklahoma Politics and Policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, work at the legislature slowed during spring break but it's about to pick up again with a teacher walkout expected in just a few days. Now the Oklahoma Education Association says teachers will begin the work stoppage on April 2nd if their demands for a pay raise, state employee pay raise and more are not met. Through your reporting you found there may be some movement toward a proposal intended to prevent the walkout. Tell us about that.

Shawn Ashley: That's right Senator Michael Bergstrom, Republican from Adair, outlined a proposal that would give teachers a $6,000 dollar pay raise over a series of steps, as well as in pay raises for state employees and additional funding for common education, which has been reduced over the year. The first year of his plan relies upon legislation that's already moving through the process: A cut in the capital gains tax deduction, the implementation or the allowance of balls and dice in state casinos for roulette and craps type games, and changes to the Medicaid program that would require, that would reduce the number of able bodied caretakers who are currently receiving benefits.

Senator Bergstrom said that likely would pay for the first year of the plan, and then in additional years, tax increases would be needed to fund them. And he proposed some of the things we've heard in the past such as increasing the cigarette tax and making changes to the gross production tax. Senator Bergstrom, however, said each one of those tax increases should be considered by the legislature individually, and if they fail to receive the three-fourths necessary to be passed by lawmakers, they should be put to a vote of the people on the November ballot, setting the stage for additional revenue to come in in future years to help fund those increases.

Pryor: That's one plan. There are other ideas. What's gaining traction if anything?

Ashley: Well it's hard to say at this point. House Majority Leader John Echols indicated that one thing needs to be kept in mind as some of these discussions do take place. And that is there's a difference between a teacher pay raise proposal and then the funding for those proposals. That has led some to ask whether or not we might see a new pay raise proposal in the days leading up to the April 1st deadline that looks only at the pay side of the issue, the teacher pay raise itself, and not at the funding side which could be addressed later in the legislative process.

Pryor: On another topic, it appears some criminal justice measures are starting to move.

Ashley: Yes at the end of the 2017 regular session we saw a number of criminal justice measures get held up. Those bills never made it out of committee even at the urging of Governor Mary Fallin. Now we are beginning to see some of those bills move forward as part of the new criminal justice reform efforts and the push to get those bills moving through the process. One of those bills, for example, which looks like it will be signed out and go to the floor, deals with penalties for burglary. It eliminates the minimum two year penalty for second degree burglary, and imposes a new series of penalties for what is now being classified as third degree burglary, a more serious type of offense that would have a longer prison sentence. That may be the first bill which makes it to the floor out of this latest push. Senate Majority Leader Greg Treat has pointed out in a number of the bills on which he has been working dealing with various sentencing reforms are also about to move and we should be seeing those on the floor in the coming weeks according to Senator Treat.

Pryor: This is a statewide election year and candidate filing begins on April 11th, so we'll be watching who's in and who's out. And one who is out is State Senator A.J. Griffin, Republican from Guthrie. She could run again and serve for up to another six years but she will not seek re-election. Clearly the frustration level is rising at the State Capitol. Are other legislators heading in the same direction?

Ashley: I believe that there are a number headed in that direction. We have already heard from a number in the House...Up to about five Republicans, in fact, who have indicated that although they are eligible for re-election they will not seek re-election in November's general election. Among the Democrats we're not hearing as much talk of incumbents not seeking re-election. But time and time again what we do hear from those who have decided not to run, even though they're eligible to do so, is that the legislative process itself has worn on them, particularly the last year when lawmakers essentially had a session and a half in 2017 and continued this year in a in a special session while also meeting in regular session.

Pryor: Alright Shawn, thanks.

Ashley: You're very welcome.

Pryor: That's Capitol Insider if you have questions, email us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter, @kgounews. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.

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Dick Pryor has more than 30 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November 2016.
Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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