On the third day of Oklahoma teachers flooding the Capitol to advocate for additional education funding, the House of Representatives voted 92-7 to advance a bill to collect sales taxes on third-party Amazon sales.
HB 1019XX now heads to the Oklahoma State Senate.
While lawmakers spent much of Wednesday’s House floor session taking shots at their opposing party, debate for the measure also included appreciation for educators in the gallery.
“The gallery is full of people who deal with immense pressure every day,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-OKC). “With all due respect to everyone here who has felt a lot of pressure, we pale in comparison.
“This is not an end-all be-all, but this is a step in the right direction.”
Teachers in the House gallery followed instructions not to cheer or boo lawmakers Wednesday, instead wiggling their hands in approval when they heard comments they appreciated. Lawmakers, meanwhile, held a contentious question-and-answer session followed by debates from Democrats and Republicans who criticized one another.
Rep. Scott Fetgatter (R-Okmulgee) condemned “games” being played on the House floor in front of educators who are lawmakers’ “friends”.
“The theatrics all week long have just been shocking to me,” Fetgatter said. “It’s all a big show. It’s just absurd (…) give me a break.”
State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said prior to Wednesday’s vote that she was “trying to bring people together.”
“I am actually optimistic,” Hofmeister said. “We had some good meetings yesterday, and we are seeing some fruit from those meetings, and I think that we are hearing the message is getting to teachers that the legislators are listening, both in the House and the Senate. And I think we will have some good news later today. If not today, tomorrow.”
HB 1019XX is estimated by the Oklahoma Tax Commission to generate $20.5 million, which will be dedicated to an existing education fund after Rep. Scott Inman (D-Del City) filed an amendment on the House floor. Inman met with GOP leaders about the amendment, who emerged after a recess to accept it without challenge.
Hofmeister: ‘What we want to see is the movement’
Educators and, specifically, the Oklahoma Education Association have requested that the Senate hear one of three versions of a bill to allow “ball and dice” gaming at casinos. But the Senate concluded its floor work Wednesday without taking up the measure.
Asked her position on whether the Legislature should pass the “ball and dice” expansion that is supported by Native American tribes that operate casinos, Hofmeister said she and teachers want to support bills “where you have the votes to get something accomplished.”
“I’m not going to weigh in. That’s for the Legislature to decide. We’re not pushing one measure over the other,” Hofmeister said. “We’re just hoping that the Legislature can see some movement on any variety of revenue measures.”
Hofmeister said she does not have an opinion about some lawmakers’ belief that retaining “ball and dice” expansion for potential renegotiation of gaming compacts in 2020, “but I definitely know that’s being discussed.”
She said educators are anxious for legislative action in one form or another.
“What we want to see is the movement occur out of the House or out of the Senate so these teachers have the confidence that their stories have been heard, that they are respected for the work they have been doing tirelessly with eroded funds over a decade,” Hofmeister said. “It’s important they go home knowing this is something that will be sustained. It is very important that the teachers who are advocating continue to tell their stories of the children in their classrooms. Everyone here wants what’s best for their students.”
Moments after HB 1019XX passed the House, Majority Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) said he had received a text message alerting him that the Senate would be hearing the “ball and dice” bill Thursday morning.
Hofmeister added that the length of the teacher walkout is being monitored by educators on a day-by-day basis.
“Of course as this goes on, there will come a point where it is balance. It has to be balanced by the needs of our students as well,” Hofmeister said. “But where we are today, it’s hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and we are going to continue to speak for the children who are not here in the building but who are represented by the teachers who are here today.”
DPS: ‘The situation is being closely monitored’
Wednesday’s vote came as teachers once again rallied at the Capitol and chanted for lawmakers to fund education. Attendees waited for hours outside of room 432A for a meeting that never occurred, some eating lunch on the floor and growing slightly exasperated as they waited for the House’s 3 p.m. floor session. One group of teachers that had been waiting in line to enter the House gallery complained to highway patrolmen that another group of teachers had cut them in line.
Numerous rumors spread through the Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday, which appeared to be unfounded. Most lawmakers said their encounters with teachers had been almost entirely positive.
However, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety issued a statement warning that “a growing number of outside protest groups” had been identified at the Capitol.
From OKDPS’s website:
The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety has identified a growing number of outside protest groups, not involved with the ongoing teachers’ rally, present at the State Capitol. The situation is being closely monitored for the safety of educators, elected officials and others at the Capitol and the surrounding area.
In the past, some of these groups have been known to show violent behavior during non-violent rallies. There have been reports of threats made towards members of the Legislature and the Governor’s office.
The Department of Public Safety is consistently utilizing resources to identify and monitor these outside groups, investigate threats made, and to provide safety and security for all attendees.