The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

April 2, 2014

Senate panel OKs bill for Okla. education funding

OKLAHOMA CITY —  A new plan to divert hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue from transportation directly to public schools in Oklahoma over the next several years passed a key Senate committee on Wednesday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 20-3 for the bill, which next goes to the full Senate before returning to the House.

The latest version of the bill by Rep. Lee Denney and Sen. Jim Halligan, both Stillwater Republicans, would divert half the “off-the-top” money currently dedicated to fund road and bridge projects across the state and redirect it to the common education funding formula for K-12 public schools.

Transportation is slated to receive $59 million in funding this year, and an increasing amount every year until the road and bridge fund receives $575 million. The bill would instead direct half that revenue to education, starting with $29.8 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“Kids are just as important as roads and bridges,” said Halligan, a former president of Oklahoma State University.

The bill further provides that for every $60 million provided to education, schools must add one instructional day, up to a total of 10 additional days.

The measure targets state revenues before they reach the General Revenue Fund, the primary fund used to pay for state government programs. That diversion leads to less available money for the Legislature to appropriate to other areas of state government that may have more pressing immediate needs, said Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, who opposed the measure.

“Education needs to be a priority for funding. There’s no question about that, and I appreciate Sen. Halligan’s efforts,” said Jolley, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a key negotiator on the budget. “But we have to allow for the Legislature to prioritize spending, and taking money off the top reduces the ability of the Legislature to meet the needs that are being cried out for in all areas of state government.”

The bill comes just two days after educators staged one of the largest rallies at the state Capitol in the last 20 years, with an estimated crowd of 25,000 who lobbied for increased funding for education.

The measure drew swift criticism from officials connected to the transportation industry, a powerful lobbying force at the state Capitol.

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, SpiritBank CEO Kell Kelly and former Transportation Director Neal McCaleb sent a memo to senators on Tuesday expressing “great concern” and urging them to oppose the bill. McCaleb is the president of the group Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Education, or TRUST.

“TRUST is adamantly opposed to any legislation that weakens the (Oklahoma Department of Transportation) eight-year highway and bridge construction plan,” the memo stated. “Any retreat from the eight-year plan will adversely impact economic expansion and public safety in Oklahoma.”

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