For nearly a decade, Republican officials have been treating ordinary Oklahomans like the colonial subjects of an extractive empire. On Governor Mary Fallin’s watch, fracking companies have turned the Sooner State into the earthquake capital of the world; (literally) dictated policy to her attorney general; and strong-armed legislators into giving them a $470 million tax break — in a year when Oklahoma faced a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.
To protect Harold Hamm’s god-given right to pay infinitesimal tax rates on his gas profits (while externalizing the environmental costs of fracking onto Oklahoma taxpayers), tea party Republicans raided the state’s rainy-day funds, and strip-mined its public-school system.
Between 2008 and 2015, Oklahoma’s slashed its per-student education spending by 23.6 percent, more than any other state in the country. Some rural school districts were forced to adopt four-day weeks; others struggled to find competent teachers, as the GOP’s refusal to pay competitive salaries chased talented educators across the border into Texas. Students who were lucky enough to have both five-day weeks and qualified instructors still had to tolerate decaying textbooks. Polls showed overwhelming public support for raising taxes on the wealthy and oil companies to increase investment in education. GOP lawmakers showed no interest in those polls.
And, for a while there, it really looked like they didn’t have to.
Mary Fallin rode a wave of fracking dollars to reelection in 2014, while her GOP allies retained large majorities in both chambers of the legislature. With no organized opposition to counter the deep pockets of extractive industry, Republican officials could reasonably conclude that working-class Sooners had no material interests that their party was bound to respect.
But then, Oklahoma teachers decided to give their state a civics lesson. Inspired by their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers went on strike to demand long-overdue raises for themselves, more education funding for their students, and much higher taxes on the wealthy and energy companies — to ensure that those first two demands would be honored indefinitely.
They won one out of three. Despite the fact the teachers had no legal right to strike — and that the Oklahoma state legislature requires a three-fourths majority to pass tax increases of any kind — the teachers galvanized enough public support to force Fallin to give an inch. As energy billionaire (and GOP mega-donor) Harold Hamm glowered from the gallery, Oklahoma state lawmakers passed a tiny increase in the tax on fracking production (one small enough to leave Oklahoma with the lowest such tax rate in the nation), so as to fund $6,100 raises for the state’s teachers.
The strikers were pleased, but unappeased. They promised to make lawmakers pay for refusing to finance broader investments in education with larger tax hikes. “We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told the New York Times in April. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.” Hamm and his fellow gas giants (almost certainly) made an equal and opposite vow — that those few Republicans who held the line against tax hikes of any kind would not regret their bravery.
Last night, Oklahoma’s GOP primary season came to an end — and the teachers beat the billionaires in a rout. Nineteen Republicans voted against raising taxes to increase teacher pay last spring; only four will be on the ballot this November. As Tulsa World reports:
Republican voters handed out more pink slips to House members Tuesday.
Six of 10 GOP incumbents involved in runoffs were turned out and a seventh narrowly survived, as perhaps the most extraordinary primary season in state history drew to a riotous conclusion.
Between the first round on June 26 and Tuesday’s final results, a dozen incumbents — all Republicans, and all but one of them House members — lost primary or runoff races.
Such turnover is unprecedented for any recent decade, let alone year, and seemed to mark a dramatic shift in the Oklahoma Republican Party.
Each of those defeated Tuesday had, in some manner, earned the wrath of public education supporters during last spring’s occupation of the state Capitol.
Last spring, state representative Jeff Coody told students in his districts that their teachers’ demands were “akin to extortion.” On Tuesday night, GOP voters returned Coody to the private sector. His colleague, Bobby Cleveland — who scolded teachers for whining at the Capitol instead of teaching in their classrooms — will now be taking a hiatus from politics. In May 2017, State Representative Tess Teague mocked the ignorance of protesters who were demanding tax hikes on fracking companies — in a Snapchat video that made heavy use of animal filters.
Sooner voters just gave Teague a lot more time to spend with her social media accounts.
Representative George Faught of Muskogee had won five terms in the statehouse on the strength of his unwavering support for minimizing Harold Hamm’s tax bills. He lost his bid for a sixth to a political neophyte who credited the teachers’ strike for inspiring his campaign. “I walked with the teachers every day during the walkout — I worked to find out what issues they faced,” the new GOP nominee for House District 14 told the Muskogee Phoenix Tuesday night. “I think if you want to fix issues, you have to talk to the people on the front lines.”
Oklahoma’s historic primary season was no aberration. Last year, Democrats in the Sooner State won a series of special election upsets by speaking to popular outrage over disinvestment in education. In Kentucky this past May, a public school teacher defeated the state’s Republican House Majority Leader Jonathan Snell in a GOP primary. Snell had been considered a rising star in his party, and a protegé of Mitch McConnell. But he decided to spearhead a push to slash teachers’ pensions. So Kentucky teachers expelled him from office.
In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is facing the toughest challenge of his tenure — from the Democratic superintendent of the state’s schools. As the Koch brothers’ favorite governor falls behind in the polls, Walker has rebranded himself as “the pro-education” candidate. Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma, Mary Fallin’s 19 percent approval rating is giving Democrats a serious chance of reclaiming the Sooner State’s governor’s mansion this fall.
One could attribute these developments to the demonstrable failure of “the red state model.” The GOP promised voters in states like Kansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma that “small government” would bring them extraordinary economic growth, and effortlessly balanced budgets; instead they delivered four-day school weeks, crumbling roads, and slightly larger McMansions in the gated-off parts of town. Over the past four decades, conservatives succeeded at whittling away voters’ expectations of what the government owes them as citizens. But the post-Reagan Republicans couldn’t quite convince voters that their children weren’t entitled to a quality K–12 education — and have proven equally incapable of reconciling that entitlement with their movement’s theological commitment to ever-lower taxes. Eventually, something was going to give.
But it was never certain that red-state voters’ most rudimentary expectations of the public sector wouldn’t be that something — and it still isn’t. Karma is not an operative force in American politics; on most occasions, the democratic will isn’t either. The tea party’s governing failures don’t guarantee its imminent collapse — but they do create an opportunity for the conservative movement’s enemies to launch a few wrecking balls in its direction.
And last night in Oklahoma, teachers left the GOP’s House caucus covered in debris.