Growing up in a poor family in northeast Oklahoma, Scott Helton decided what he wanted to be while still in high school. “I had a slew of really, really, really good teachers that loved me and took care of me like I was their own kid,” said Helton, whose boyish face could still be mistaken for that of a student. He recalled one English teacher in particular who would stay late and talk to him. “That was the moment when I realized: ‘I want to do this—forever. I want to do for kids what she’s doing for me right now.’”
He also wanted to teach in his home state. Now, perhaps, that decision seems foolhardy.
When Helton started teaching high-school English 10 years ago, his biggest classes had about 20 students. This year, they had from 30 to 35 students, with one that nearly reached 40. And yet his classroom is designed for only 30 students. “If everybody’s there on the same day, they’re either sitting in stand-alone chairs, or they’re going to lean against the wall, or they’re going to sit on the ground,” he said. Many of the desks are already broken.
To save money, Helton’s school recently opted to use online textbooks instead of buying individual copies. But the school doesn’t have enough computers, or even decent Wi-Fi, so he has to print the pages out. Yet there’s not enough copy paper. “It’s just this constant cycle,” he said.
Helton is clear about what started the cycle: Oklahoma’s rock-bottom education funding, the result of tax cuts that ate into the state’s revenue. “This is year eight of the Fallin regime,” he noted, referring to the current Republican governor, Mary Fallin, “and every year it’s gotten worse and worse and worse.”
Oklahoma isn’t typically a big-spending state, even under Democratic governors. But until eight years ago, Democrats held most statewide offices and maintained some power in the Legislature. Then, in 2010, a number of Tea Party candidates were elected to office. The GOP increased its majorities in the Legislature and, after winning the governor’s race, controlled the entire statehouse for the first time in Sooner history.
Oklahoma wasn’t the only state that got a fresh coat of red paint. Republicans had full control of just 14 state legislatures in 2010, while Democrats held power in 27. After the November elections that year, Republicans held majority power in 25, including Oklahoma.
The newly empowered Republicans didn’t sit on their hands; they got to work implementing an extreme anti-tax Tea Party agenda. But now the damage those decisions have wreaked is becoming abundantly clear—not just in underfunded schools and crumbling infrastructure, but in lagging economies and angry constituents. States are supposed to be the “laboratories of democracy,” in the famous phrase of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, putting new ideas to the test. But the Tea Party experiment of drastically cutting taxes in the hopes of sparking economic growth has blown up in lawmakers’ faces.
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Oklahoma legislators had already reduced income taxes back in the mid-2000s, and an amendment added to the state constitution in 1992 makes it all but impossible to raise taxes, requiring approval from a three-quarters supermajority of lawmakers. Lowering them requires only a simple majority.
But the politics after 2011 were different. “The Republicans swept,” said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “We never had a Republican governor with a Republican legislature.”
State lawmakers came “out of the gate in 2011 with a pretty regressive, large-scale tax-cut plan,” said Meg Wiehe, deputy director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a nonprofit, tax-focused research group. Led by Governor Fallin, the Oklahoma GOP wanted to scrap the income tax entirely—a plan that was the brainchild of conservative economist Arthur Laffer, the self-described “father of supply-side economics.”
The effort failed. But “after that, [Fallin] said, ‘I need a tax cut,’” Blatt continued. “She forced the next tax cut through.” In 2014, Fallin signed a reduction in the top income-tax bracket that went into effect two years later—which, combined with the cuts from the 2000s, has cost the state more than $1 billion in revenue per year, according to ITEP. “This tax cut will make Oklahoma a better place to do business, meaning more opportunities and jobs for Oklahoma families and more revenue for core government services,” Fallin had promised. The state also slashed taxes on the oil and gas industry.
But when oil prices fell in 2014, the tax cuts exacerbated the fiscal pain in the deeply energy-dependent state. “Had they [not] cut income taxes again after the recession, they would have been somewhat better positioned to handle this energy bust,” Wiehe said.
Deborah Hill, who retired two years ago after teaching science in the public-school system of Norman, Oklahoma, for three decades, said the double whammy of Fallin’s election and the downturn in oil prices actually intensified the budget slashing. Sitting in the State Capitol in April wearing a sweatshirt that vowed to Outwit, Outlast, Outplay This Legislature, Hill lamented: “It’s gone from a cut to a hemorrhage.”
Oklahoma has faced budget gaps of several hundred million dollars for three years in a row. Education funding has taken an enormous hit, falling more than 28 percent between 2008 and 2018. (Without the income-tax cuts implemented between 2009 and 2016, there would have been $356 million more available in 2016.) Nearly a fifth of the state’s school districts switched to a four-day week. Some have had to ration paper and cut classes like music and French. Teachers, who hadn’t seen a raise in a decade, now have the second-lowest average salary in the nation.
Hill and Helton were part of protests in Oklahoma City in early April, during a massive teacher walkout across the state. Classrooms closed for nine days, and in a state of fewer than 4 million people, as many as 80,000 gathered at the Capitol building.
Catherine Wilson, an Oklahoma native who also went on strike, has taught ninth-grade science classes in Norman’s public schools for 12 years. When she started teaching, she had 22 kids to a class. Today, she teaches 30 students by herself in a lab space designed for 20, which creates safety hazards and keeps her from getting through the year’s curriculum. More students means more work outside the classroom: “Date night” for Wilson and her husband consists of him watching Netflix while she grades papers.
Funding cuts have also meant that teachers are taking out the trash and vacuuming the floors, while students have to pay fees to participate in extracurricular activities like music and sports.
Wilson told me that her school’s administration has been talking about cuts since 2006, but in “the last five to six years, it’s really been noticeable.” She and her colleagues had been talking about staging a walkout since 2016. “I’m really surprised that it’s actually taken this long,” she said.
Chuck Burks teaches advanced-placement high-school government classes in Moore, Oklahoma. “I point out to my kids a whole lot of times that, as Americans, we are really, really on top of cutting taxes,” he said. “But a lot of people are kind of ignorant as to what those tax cuts…take away from.
“The thing that frustrates me about [the funding fight] is that it’s so easy to fix,” he added. “Restore the things you cut.” The teachers want to see the income tax returned to its historical rate (it was 6.65 percent in 2004, compared with 5 percent today), as well as an increase in the taxes on oil and gas production (the state’s are typically among the lowest in the country) and a broadening of the capital-gains tax (all property held in Oklahoma is currently exempt).
“We have cut taxes and we have provided tax breaks, and it hasn’t really worked,” Blatt said. “What we ended up discovering was that we were unable to pay our bills.”
Teachers weren’t the only ones to suffer. Over the past three years, many state agencies have had their budgets slashed by 40 percent. Last year, the Health Department furloughed any employee making $35,000 or more, laid off 10 percent of its workforce, and cut nine child-abuse prevention programs. There aren’t enough administrative employees to keep up with revoking the licenses of drunk drivers, while state troopers were warned last year not to fill their fuel tanks. State colleges have had to hike tuition; the waiting lists for government services have lengthened; and correctional facilities are “critically understaffed,” according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Striking teachers recognized the larger destruction. “What needs to happen is, our Legislature needs to properly fund our state, because that is their job,” declared veteran fourth-grade science and social-studies teacher Cassie Pierce when she joined the demonstrations on the Capitol steps in April. She noted that while most states cut spending during the recession, many have attempted to make up the difference in the intervening years—but not hers. “We’re not just [striking] for students and teachers; we’re doing it for everyone in our state,” Pierce said.
Gail DeLashaw has worked for Oklahoma for almost seven years and is currently a family-support worker with the Department of Human Services, making about $30,000 a year—nearly 60 percent less than the national average for her level of education. Her rent eats up nearly half of her take-home pay, and she drives a car that her grandmother left to her. “I’ve eaten a lot of ramen,” DeLashaw said. “Twenty years ago, if they told me with an advanced degree I’d be living paycheck to paycheck, I’d have made different choices.”
On top of that, the department has been eliminating positions, putting a strain on everyone who remains. DeLashaw went from a case load of 500 to 600 clients to 1,200. Everything is now done over the phone, even though face-to-face meetings allowed her to pick up on nonverbal information, like the holes in her clients’ clothes or problems that they couldn’t vocalize. “People didn’t become social workers to sit behind computers all day,” DeLashaw said. “I don’t believe we can do the best of our jobs with the cuts they’ve made.”
Shirley Mayhue works side hustles and clips coupons on top of her full-time job as a case manager in the Department of Corrections. “I got approved this week to do Postmates,” she told me. “I’m going to try to start doing Uber or Lyft.” The people in her department haven’t seen a pay raise in almost 12 years. Mayhue has been working for the state government for more than two decades; her 22-year-old son, who works at a fast-food restaurant, makes more than she does. She often has to choose between paying the fees for extracurricular activities for her kids and paying her bills. “I’m living on a wing and a prayer,” she said.
Oklahoma’s statehouse wasn’t the only one that changed after the Democrats took a midterm “shellacking” in 2010. In North Carolina, where Democrats had held the governorship and both houses of the Legislature since 1999, Republicans gained control of all three. Likewise, they took complete control in Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin, installing Tea Party darlings like Paul LePage, John Kasich, and Scott Walker in the governor’s mansion.
Not all of these states immediately slashed taxes. “It was kind of a slow buildup,” Wiehe recalled. “By 2013, 2014, you really felt the red wave in the states.” By then, they “either succeeded or tried in major ways to completely upend their tax systems.”
Arizona, Indiana, and Ohio all reduced individual and business taxes after 2011. Maine enacted a slew of personal tax cuts skewed to the wealthy. North Carolina’s new Republican triumvirate began reducing taxes after state elections in 2012—including big reductions in corporate and personal rates, the elimination of the estate tax, and a gradual move to a regressive flat tax—and today the state is bringing in $2.6 billion less in revenue. Republicans gained control of Kentucky’s government in 2017, and this year made deep cuts to individual and corporate taxes. Wisconsin’s Legislature has passed more than 50 tax cuts since Republicans took full control in 2011.
There’s a reason that so many of these tax-cut plans looked similar. Laffer, the conservative economist, personally worked on the proposals in Kansas and North Carolina, on top of crafting the plan to do away with the income tax in Oklahoma. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, also took advantage of newly sympathetic ears in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country, pushing an agenda of dramatically lowering taxes.
Of all the proposals, Kansas’s was perhaps the boldest. Shortly after Sam Brownback became governor in 2011, the state consolidated its three tax brackets into two, sharply lowered rates, and then exempted “pass through” businesses, such as LLCs or S corporations, from paying any tax at all. The package included a “March to Zero” plan to gradually eliminate income and corporate taxes. Lawmakers reduced taxes again in 2013. Brownback promised that the cuts would be “a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy” and called them a “real live experiment.”
“That adrenaline shot never came,” Wiehe said.
A study by Jason DeBacker, an assistant professor of economics at the University of South Carolina, and three co-authors found no proof of increased economic growth. What they did find was an uptick in the creation of businesses that could take advantage of the new tax exemption—but even those were mostly already existing businesses that simply changed their corporate status to reap the rewards.
The “experiment” wound up costing Kansas $500 million in 2015 alone. By last summer, the state faced a $900 million budget shortfall. Its job growth has also lagged: While the country as a whole saw 9.4 percent growth between 2012 and 2017, the state’s rate was just 4.2 percent. The same has been true of Kansas’s GDP, which grew 3.8 percent between 2013 and 2016, while the country’s was up 7 percent. And the average annual growth rate for disposable income actually dropped, from 5.5 to 2.1 percent.
In the face of its budget shortfalls, the state cut services, infrastructure projects, and education—so much so that the State Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that K–12 funding had to be increased.
The promised economic boom never materialized in the other GOP-controlled states, either. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, Wisconsin’s economy under Governor Walker underperformed neighboring Minnesota’s “by virtually every available measure,” including jobs, wages, and economic growth. In a study of Wisconsin and Kansas, Oklahoma State University economics professors Dan Rickman and Hongbo Wang found that, “[r]ather than spur growth…the experiments in fiscal austerity harmed the state economies.” In a yet-to-be-published follow-up comparing states that cut taxes between 2011 and 2016 (Kansas, Wisconsin, Maine, and Ohio) with two that raised them (California and Minnesota), Rickman and Wang found that virtually all of the tax-cutting states saw things decline. Conversely, the economies of states that raised taxes either weren’t hurt or showed improvement.
The “fairy-tale” promise of cutting taxes without decreasing revenue “just doesn’t happen,” Rickman noted. “Not even close.”
As the country emerged from the great Recession, some states decided to use their recovering revenues to restore education spending, but others chose to double down on tax cuts. By 2016, most states controlled by Democrats had restored their per-pupil spending, but only five of those in Republican hands had done likewise.
Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma are among the states that passed income-tax cuts rather than restore spending on classrooms, despite all four seeing huge drops in per-pupil spending over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2015, state K–12 funding fell noticeably, sometimes drastically: by nearly 37 percent in Arizona; nearly 16 percent in Oklahoma; just over 12 percent in North Carolina; nearly 11 percent in Wisconsin; 9 percent in Maine; almost 6 percent in Kentucky; and 1.4 percent in Ohio.
But this failure to invest appears to be fueling a backlash. In 2016, Kansas voters elected a wave of moderate Republicans, who then teamed up with Democrats to muster the two-thirds majorities in each house needed to roll back most of the tax cuts and override Brownback’s vetoes.
In other states, the blowback has now hit the streets. Two years ago, Chuck Burks went to the Oklahoma Capitol to demonstrate in favor of more school funding. “We weren’t pissed—we were still playing the nice sort of ‘Help us out’ sort of thing,” he recalled. But the walkout in April “felt different.”
Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia have also seen strikes this year. And, as in Oklahoma, teachers in other states fought not just for their own pay, but for more funding for all. “That’s an amazingly righteous fight,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
It was also a victorious one. The last time the Oklahoma Legislature raised taxes was in 1990, after teachers went on strike for four days. This year’s strike resulted in the first tax increase since then, which will fund average raises of $6,000 for teachers and $1,250 for support staff.
“We finally realized that if we’re going to do the things that Oklahomans expect to provide a safe, healthy, prosperous state, we’re going to have to raise taxes back up,” Blatt said. “Even Republicans in Oklahoma realized that they had to raise taxes.”
Teachers in other states secured similar victories: a 20 percent raise and $100 million in other funding in Arizona; record new school spending in Kentucky; and a 5 percent raise for all teachers and state employees in West Virginia. The strikes are “taking on these choices of the last 10 years…of tax cuts and austerity and privatization,” Weingarten said.
It makes sense that the fight started with education. People notice when their children’s schools are crumbling and their teachers keep leaving. “That’s one of the best things about the teacher strikes—it shows the dots connecting…investment and the public services we all rely on,” Wiehe said. “When you cut taxes for rich people primarily…you’re really disinvesting in things that make states places where people want to live and work.”
To those who demonstrated in the spring, the real proof of change will be the elections coming up later this fall. “Talk to us in November,” said AP history teacher Melinda Parks, who was at the Oklahoma Capitol in April. It will “either be the nail in the coffin or the deal-breaker. Things will either just be as they are, or they’ll change—and significantly.” Oklahoma teachers and their supporters have vowed to vote out recalcitrant lawmakers, and many are even running for office themselves.
“I keep calling these things ‘down payments,’” Weingarten said. “To make it a movement [for] enduring change, you have to win elections.”