HD 39 debate
House District 39 candidates Erick Harris, Regan Raff and Richard Prawdzienski participate in a debate Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Michael Duncan)

Republican Erick Harris, Democrat Regan Raff and Libertarian Richard Prawdzienski disagreed on tax policy and education funding in a House District 39 debate presented by NonDoc and News 9 on Wednesday night at Edmond Santa Fe High School.

The three candidates are wooing voters ahead of a Feb. 13 special election to succeed former Rep. Ryan Martinez, who resigned in September. The winner will be seated shortly after the Oklahoma Legislature convenes for its 2024 regular session Monday, and they would file again in April and run for a full term in November, should they choose to seek re-election.

House District 39’s boundaries stretch as far north as Waterloo Road and as far south as 15th Street in Edmond. Historically Republican but subject to changing demographics, the district has Bryant Avenue as an eastern boundary and Western Avenue as the western boundary.

Candidates: Ryan Walters’s rhetoric ‘not bringing us together’

Following the Legislature’s massive education package passed last year and ongoing conversations about teacher recruitment and graduation pathways for 2024, candidates were asked about education policy, workforce development and Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters.

The candidates were asked what they believe Walters has done right and what he has done wrong since his election in 2022. All three candidates agreed Walters has created conflict during his time in office.

“He’s not bringing us together,” Prawdzienski said., “I would rather have him go out there and give us real details, historical data, rather than giving us rhetoric. He’s constantly doing that. I want to live in harmony, and I want my children to be educated. I’m willing to teach him 5,000 years of history. I’m not just giving one purpose. We are a big huge world. We have society. We will have different opinions. We have to know what their opinions are. I want the students to know that their fellow student is a wonderful child of God, rather than somebody who deserves to be in hell.”

One of Walters’ key talking points since his election has been accountability for Oklahoma’s public schools. Harris praised that aspect of Walters’ work while suggesting he could go about it in a manner that would be more productive.

“I would say the best thing the superintendent has done is encouraging accountability in schools. Now, that might look different to people, depending on who you are, what your background is, or what you want to focus on. But accountability, I think, is important in schools,” Harris said. “If I were to say that there’s a thing that he hasn’t done a good job (on), I’d say everyone has room for improvement — and I would remind Mr. Walters an adage that my grandmother often told me: ‘It’s always easier to get more bees with honey than vinegar.’ (…) That’s what I would say would be an area that I would identify for improvement. You know, just being a little bit more encouraging through honey.”

Raff said Walters’ best contribution has gotten people engaged on issues affecting public education, but she added that she doesn’t think he has been very good at the job on the whole.

“The best thing is that he has gotten us talking,” Raff said. “He has driven emotion and passion of parents that know that he is not doing a good job. The worst thing is he is constantly attacking us for the wrong things. He is not leading. He has aspirations for a higher national stage, and he does not have Oklahomans in his best interests.”

Raff, Harris support more teacher pay raises

House District 39 candidates Erick Harris and Regan Raff participate in a debate Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Michael Duncan)

For years, teacher pay scales and workforce morale have been ongoing issues in Oklahoma public schools. In 2018, thousands of teachers walked out of classrooms around the state days after legislators approved a historic teacher pay raise and education funding package. Subsequent teacher pay raises followed in 2019 and, most recently, following the 2023 session.

Raff said teachers suffer from low pay and should receive another increase. Each of the candidates declined to attach a specific dollar figure to their comments until they knew more details about state budget numbers.

“I absolutely believe that teachers are not where they should be financially, and I think that their profession should see another growth in salaries,” Raff said. “Obviously our economy is in a different place now than it was last session, or in many years prior to this. So I think constant COLA increases and additional salary increases are very important.”

Prawdzienski said the job of educating kids begins in their homes.

“Education is the parents’ responsibility,” he said. “Rather than giving teachers more money, I’d rather give the parents more money. Education is being done by TV ads and TV shows. Rather than giving teachers more money, maybe we should spend more money doing PR and teaching the kids how to be better citizens by watching their TV shows and listen to their songs. Let’s do something radical. We’ve been here, everybody’s saying schools are failing, schools are failing, we keep on throwing more money. We need to do something radically change. Let’s be creative. Take some risks. Do something different. That’s what I would recommend.”

Harris, whose father taught for 33 years, said he often saw him working multiple jobs during summer breaks because of the low pay. Harris said teachers need a pay increase, but he also expressed support for cutting government appropriations and tax rates, underscoring the balancing act facing Republican legislative leaders.

“We need to make sure that we pay teachers a good wage,” Harris said. “Now, if our budget can support it, I always want to make sure we look at the numbers when we figure out exactly what that sweet spot will be. But, I, of course, would support number one, never cutting funding for public education, while also making sure that we have a good amount of funding to pay teachers a competitive salary to keep them here. I’m tired of them going to Texas and other states. We need to do whatever we need to do to make sure that we are able to pay teachers a good and fair salary.”

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Candidate potpourri: Harris calls for action on domestic violence

All of the candidates had their moments of emphasis during the debate. Harris spoke passionately about domestic violence and why current systems could be improved for victims.

“The Legislature can take a more proactive approach to addressing domestic violence and making more services available to women that are victims of domestic abuse. No. 1, we have to break the stigma and tell people, remind folks, it’s not OK to engage in that,” Harris said. “Yes, men are victims of domestic violence, but the statistics show that women are more likely to deal with domestic violence than men. The Legislature can take concrete steps today to ensure that women have the opportunity to get out of a domestic abuse situation more quickly and receive the resources that they need in order to start their lives over.”

Asked to identify examples of concrete steps, Harris referenced judicial backlogs, particularly in rural counties, where women can face longer waits for hearings about things like emergency child custody.

Meanwhile, Prawdzienski addressed his perennial candidacy, acknowledging he has run for office many times without success.

“This year, I might get lucky,” Prawdzienski said

Then he channeled Peter Finch as the troubled TV newsman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. Sort of.

“This year, I might be lucky, because people are so frustrated with Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I’m hoping that they’ll say, ‘Hell is Hell, I’m not gonna take it any longer. Open your windows. Yell I’m not gonna take any longer.'”

Raff said the number of women legislators at the Capitol doesn’t reflect the state’s population as a whole.

“Statewide, 21 percent of our legislative body is made up of women,” she said. “But the state of Oklahoma, more than half of the population is made up of women. So, I believe that a Legislature that is better representative of Oklahoma speaks to all Oklahomans, and I believe that electing a woman and promoting female leadership and bringing women to the table of conversation can always benefit Oklahomans. You know, certainly moms can relate to each other in many ways. We’re great multitaskers, and moms in urban areas are very similar to moms in rural areas, I would assume.”

Tax cuts on the table, in one form or another

From left, House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) stands and listens to House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) during the first day of a special session regarding income tax cuts Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (Tres Savage)

The candidates were asked to name a key bill they would try to run after being elected. Prawdzienski said he believes there’s already too much legislation making its way through the halls of the Capitol.

“I would want to have the legislators stop sending in so many bills,” he said. “They’re sending in a thousand bills to go out there and waste your time. Most of the bills will not be done. Everybody’s arguing. I think we should take one or two years and say, every legislator, you represent your state, give me one bill, and let’s go out there and get into the details. Spend a week or two weeks on a bill read in 30 seconds. Stop going out there throwing a thousand bills in the state House, another thousand in the Senate, and what they’re doing is they’re creating conflict for citizens. They know they’re introducing bills, and they’re never gonna get out of committee.”

On taxes, Harris said state residents are due for a tax cut because the state has positioned itself well with its rainy day fund that exceeds $1.5 billion. Gov. Kevin Stitt has also pushed for a tax cut, calling a thus-far performative special session to demand a vote on a 0.25 percent income tax rate reduction.

The House approved such a bill Wednesday, but Senate leaders have said it’s too early to make that decision. Asked to raise their hands if they would have voted for House Speaker Charles McCall’s income tax cut debated Wednesday, Harris and Prawdzienski said they would have. Raff kept her hand down.

“Well, I have 1.6 billion reasons why I think that the state of Oklahoma or citizens deserve an income tax cut,” Harris said. “It’s a .25 percent income tax reduction. Our emergency fund, our state rainy day fund has $1.6 billion sitting in it right now. We have done a really good job of making sure that Oklahoma is prepared if we hit a rainy day. At the same time though, that one keeps getting added to, added to, added to. Yet, inflation keeps rising nonstop. I think Oklahomans deserve — and I think Oklahomans want — a good, modest tax cut. A .25 percent income tax (cut) means that we’re able to provide some relief while continuing to provide good core government services.”=

Raff said it’s time for the legislators to take a different swing at tax relief, including the elimination of the state portion of sale tax on grocery items. That issue has come up several times in recent years with little progress.

“For income tax, I will welcome the conversation of tax reform,” she said. “The problem with income tax relief is that it’s not an immediate relief for Oklahomans. Something like the grocery tax that Democrats and Republicans both typically agree on — that would provide immediate relief for all Oklahomans. It would put more money in our pockets for groceries and rising costs.”