Striking Teachers In Coal And Gas Country Are Forcing States To Rethink Energy Company Giveaways

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BY: Kate Aronoff 04.13.18

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Like most billionaires, Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm is not accustomed to doing things for himself. For that, there are people: people to drill wells, people to clean up after him, people to drive him from here to there, and — almost certainly — people to write laws.

For years, those laws did well by him. Oklahoma’s gross production tax — the levy applied to fossil fuel extracted from the ground — was set at 2 percent for the first three years of a well’s production, giving it the the lowest effective tax rate on oil and gas of any major producing state as of 2017.

As teacher unrest spread from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma, educators in the Sooner State began to zero in on the tax breaks for oil and gas producers, arguing that teacher salaries and school spending could be lifted with a modest boost in the tax.

So, Hamm took matters into his own hands, showing up personally at the Capitol as the state legislature debated raising the rate from 2 to 5 percent.

Raising taxes in Oklahoma requires a three-quarters majority, yet with Hamm looking down from the gallery on his people in the Capitol, they defied him.

Hamm would have to pay up to help the teachers get a $6,000 raise — an amount the teachers themselves, among the lowest paid in the nation, deemed insufficient to solve the state’s education funding crisis. As of Wednesday, they’re in their 10th day on strike.

As in West Virginia and Kentucky, the fight over public funding for basic needs is inextricably linked to the politics of energy in Oklahoma.

Richard Ojeda, a leader of the West Virginia strike and an insurgent Democratic congressional candidate, has been explicit about the connection. “We are on the next Saudi Arabia!” he bellowed at one Capitol protest. “They’ve said that — the energy people said that! So, if we’re on the next Saudi Arabia, obviously they want it to be just like Saudi Arabia, where you have about 10 people driving around in Lamborghinis and everybody else eatin’ sand sandwiches! That’s what they want. Guess what? No!”

In Kentucky, the ties between the collapse of coal and its education funding are less direct, though public employees are no less fired up about having a government they see as more beholden to big donors and corporate interests than to funding their pensions. Following the passage of a hotly contested pension bill, they’re marching Wednesday on the Capitol in Frankfort. The Kentucky Education Association — one of the main drivers behind the recent statewide sickout — says Gov. Matt Bevin has shown a “blatant disrespect for Kentucky’s public employees.”

At the center of all of these fights are long-standing issues: Teachers in each state have, for decades, been among the most poorly paid members of their profession around the country, and face mounting costs for basic health care and retirement benefits. That all three of these strikes have happened in states that have been historically dependent on the extractive industry is also no coincidence. The automation, and then decline, of the coal industry — due largely to the rise of natural gas — has led to shrinking tax bases in West Virginia and Kentucky, and in eastern Kentucky especially. In Oklahoma, massive tax giveaways to the oil and gas industry have landed the state in a budget crisis. West Virginia public employees are calling to raise severance taxes on coal and oil to fund their health insurance, and the pretext for the battle in Oklahoma was a years-running campaign to repeal the subsidies that helped deprive their schools of necessary supplies.

“There is a clear connection between the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been siphoned off in tax breaks for oil and gas production and the state’s inability to adequately fund our teachers and school operations and public employees,” said David Blatt, Director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

West Virginia and Oklahoma are ranked 48th and 49th, respectively, in average teacher salary, according to the National Education Association, while Kentucky is doing better at 26th.

While hardly phrased as such, among the things that public employees in each of these states are fighting for is to define an economy where fossil fuels are a much smaller part of the picture, if not gone altogether. For states whose economies were built around coal, oil, and natural gas, what would it look like to fund public services — and run a functional economy — in a future without them? If progressive states like California and Washington offer one look at the future of climate policy in the United States, then Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky offer another.