Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Republican legislative leaders reached a deal Wednesday on an $8.3 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year that includes an average $1,200 pay raise for public school teachers and tens of millions more dollars for public schools.
The deal also socks away $200 million, about one-third of this year’s surplus revenue, into savings, a priority for the first-year governor.
“For the first time in state history, we are setting back an additional savings account of $200 million without the law forcing it,” Stitt said. “This is going to allow us, at the end of the year, to have $1 billion in our savings account.”
The plan also includes an average pay hike of about $1,300 annually for state workers, with larger raises targeted for state prison workers.
A rebounding economy and a boom in the state’s oil patch, along with a package of tax hikes approved by the Legislature last year, has helped provide lawmakers with nearly $600 million in surplus revenue to spend during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Democrats were quick to pan Stitt’s idea to set aside $200 million when that money could be used to shore up cuts to state programs that took place after years of continuous budget shortfalls.
“This is what a budget looks like when you decide taxpayer money is better suited to sit in a bank than be invested back into state resources, like our children, state employees, and middle and low wage earners,” said House Democratic leader Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.
“We still have a lot of programs that have been cut, a lot of people who are hurting, and we still have a huge health care crisis in Oklahoma that this budget doesn’t really touch,” Virgin said.
Democrats had pushed to reverse cuts made in recent years to the state’s income tax, particularly for high-income filers, and restore the state earned income tax credit for the working poor. But unlike last year, when Democratic votes were needed to approve tax hikes, the minority party had little influence during this year’s budget negotiations.
A sticking point on this year’s budget was how to fund a pay raise for teachers. Under the deal reached on Wednesday, teachers in schools that receive funding through the state formula, which includes about 97 percent of public school teachers, will receive an average pay raise of $1,220. A smaller number of districts that are funded entirely through local property taxes would not be mandated to give their teachers a raise.
Teachers last year received an average annual salary boost of $6,100 annually, the first raise for teachers in a decade that was approved amid widespread teacher frustration that led to a two-week walkout that shuttered schools across the state.
This year’s budget for K-12 education in Oklahoma includes nearly $160 million in new funding over last year, while career and technology centers will get an $18 million boost and the state’s colleges and universities will get about $28 million in additional spending.
The budget agreement announced on Wednesday still must be written into legislation and approved by the House and Senate before the Legislature must adjourn before the last Friday in May.
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