Bryce Covert’s new piece in The Nation, Will Red-State Protests Spark Electoral Change?, is a must read. The focus is Oklahoma, a state where, until this spring, taxes had not risen since 1990 and where the legislature cannot pass a tax increase of any kind without a three-fourths supermajority.
Covert introduces us to Scott Helton, a high school English teacher whose school opted to save money with online textbooks instead of buying the printed copies. But the school hasn’t enough computers and its Wi-Fi is inadequate. He has been forced to spend his own money to provide readings for his students. Ten years ago, his classes averaged 20 students; today they are packed with 35, and in once case 40 students, many of whom sit on the floor. We also learn about underpaid workers in other government agencies including Gail DeLashaw, a family-support worker in the Department of Human Services, whose salary is $30,000, 60 percent of the national average for someone like DeLashaw with an advanced degree. Her case load—once 500 or 600—has risen to 1,200 families.
A high school Advanced-Placement government teacher in Moore, Oklahoma, Chuck Burks describes the plain truth: “I point out to my kids a whole lot of times that, as Americans, we are really, really on top of cutting taxes… But a lot of people are kind of ignorant as to what those tax cuts… take away from. The thing that frustrates me about (the funding fight) is that it’s so easy to fix… Restore the the things you cut.”
After depicting the deplorable impact of Oklahoma’s tax slashing, Covert summarizes the history: “Oklahoma’s statehouse wasn’t the only one that changed after the Democrats took a midterm ‘shellacking’ in 2010. In North Carolina, where Democrats had held the governorship and both houses of the Legislature since 1999, Republicans gained control of all three. Likewise, they took complete control in Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin, installing Tea Party darlings like Paul LePage, John Kasich, and Scott Walker in the governor’s mansion… Arizona, Indiana, and Ohio all reduced individual and business taxes after 2011. Maine enacted a slew of personal tax cuts skewed to the wealthy. North Carolina’s new Republican triumvirate began reducing taxes after state elections in 2012—including big reductions in corporate and personal rates, the elimination of the estate tax, and a gradual move to a regressive flat tax—and today the state is bringing in $2.6 billion less in revenue. Republicans gained control of Kentucky’s government in 2017, and this year made deep cuts to individual and corporate taxes. Wisconsin’s Legislature has passed more than 50 tax cuts since Republican took full control in 2011.”
Why did the same thing happen across so many states? “There’s a reason that so many of these tax-cut plans looked similar. (Arthur) Laffer, the conservative economist, personally worked on the proposals in Kansas and North Carolina, on top of crafting the plan to do away with the income tax in Oklahoma. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, also took advantage of newly sympathetic ears in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country, pushing an agenda of dramatically lowering taxes. Of all the proposals, Kansas’s was perhaps the boldest.” Covert describes what Governor Sam Brownback called his ‘real live experiment’ in supply-side economics: “The package included a ‘March to Zero’ plan to gradually eliminate income and corporate taxes. Lawmakers reduced taxes again in 2013.” However: “The promised economic boom never materialized.”
Covert continues: “As the country emerged from the great Recession, some states decided to use their recovering revenues to restore education spending, but others chose to double down on tax cuts. By 2016, most states controlled by Democrats had restored their per-pupil spending, but only five of those in Republican hands had done likewise. Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma are among the state that passed income-tax cuts rather than restore spending on classrooms, despite all four seeing huge drops in per-pupil spending over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2015, state K-12 funding fell noticeably, sometimes drastically: by nearly 37 percent in Arizona; nearly 16 percent in Oklahoma; just over 12 percent in North Carolina; nearly 11 percent in Wisconsin; 9 percent in Maine; almost 6 percent in Kentucky; and 1.4 percent in Ohio.” In Kansas, under pressure when a long-running school funding case reached the Kansas Supreme Court, lawmakers finally raised taxes in 2017.
This spring we watched public schoolteachers in many of these states walk out of school to protest their flat salaries and the conditions their students face at school. And in Arizona, among the states with the lowest public education spending, teachers followed up their walkout by gathering signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to increase taxes to pay for upgrading schools. It looks as though teachers have collected enough signatures. The Arizona Republic’s Richard Ruelas reports that last week supporters of the referendum submitted 270,000 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State. Only 150,642 valid signatures are required to get the measure on the ballot.
Ruelas describes the ballot measure: “The proposed ballot initiative, called the Invest in Education Act, would raise the income-tax rate to 8 percent on individual income above $250,000 or household income above $500,000, and to 9 percent on individual income above $500,000 or household income above $1 million. Currently, both incomes are taxed at 4.54 percent.”
Ruelas describes ultra-conservative Governor Doug Ducey’s response after teachers submitted more than a quarter of a million signatures for the Invest in Education Act: “For the activists, for the government union, it was never about teacher pay… What it was truly about… is what will likely be on the ballot this November, which is a tax increase.”
With their walkout this spring and their dogged effort to get a tax increase on the ballot, Arizona schoolteachers have succeeded in framing one of our society’s biggest ideological battles around core values. It is about the rights of wealthy individuals versus the public good.