OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Gov. Mary Fallin's suggestion that Oklahoma lawmakers return for a special session before November to consider ways to increase teacher salaries faced bipartisan criticism Thursday from legislators, state employees and even some teachers who called the idea short-sighted.
Fallin mentioned the possibility of a special session on Wednesday after state finance officials confirmed there was $140.8 million available after the fiscal year that ended June 30. The money was left over after mid-year cuts in allocations to state agency budgets were deeper than necessary.
Fallin's chief budget negotiator, Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger, suggested the revenue could be combined with other new funding sources to develop a teacher pay plan as an alternative to a state question on the November ballot for a one-cent sales tax to fund public education, including a $5,000 teacher pay raise.
Republican House Speaker Jeff Hickman said Fallin mentioned to him the idea of a special session this week, but that he hasn't had any in-depth conversations with the governor or seen a detailed plan for how the pay raise would be funded.
"I would be open to hearing any new ideas the governor may have, but I think we probably need to be very cautious in a long-term teacher pay plan that's funded by one-time money, particularly when we don't know what our fiscal position is going to be next year," said Hickman.
Hickman said the timing of Fallin's proposal also could be problematic, with more than 70 members in the middle of campaigns to keep their legislative seats.
State Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, a Republican from Moore, said he strongly opposed a special session and believes the additional revenue should be reallocated to state agencies whose budgets were cut in the middle of the fiscal year. Wesselhoft said he thinks Fallin is looking for political cover in case the penny sales tax proposal, spearheaded by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, passes in November.
"If the Boren initiative passes, she can say she called for a special session and then blame the legislators," Wesselhoft said. "She's thrown the Republican caucus under the bus before, and I'm afraid she'll do it again if this ploy works."
Wesselhoft said he spent Thursday morning urging his GOP colleagues to reject Fallin's proposal.
Several teachers said Thursday they were skeptical of the governor's plan, even as they acknowledge the need for a pay raise.
"It's difficult to look at an offer like this and see it as having anything but unintended consequences later on," said Kevin McDonald, a high school English teacher in Edmond and a Democratic candidate for state Senate. "Obviously we would like a pay increase ... but at the same time I could use a reduction in my student load so that I can make sure I'm using best practices in my classroom."
A 20-year teaching veteran, McDonald said he's seen his class sizes grow from about 25 students when he started his career to as many as 36 or 37 in recent years.
Some Republicans, though, welcomed Fallin's suggestion and supported her call for a special session.
"I'm glad the surplus funds are giving us a reason to revisit the issue," said GOP Sen. David Holt. "We need to address teacher pay, and we need to do it in the best manner possible, and I think the governor's proposal is a good starting point."
Without a special session, Doerflinger said the money will be reallocated to state agencies based on their current appropriation levels.
(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)