More U.S. states push ahead with near-bans on abortion for Supreme Court challenge

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation on Wednesday making it a crime for doctors to perform a second-trimester abortion using instruments like forceps and clamps to remove the fetus from the womb.

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

The move came the same day that Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans – outlawing the procedure if a doctor can detect a heartbeat. The bill now goes to Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who is expected to sign it.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature in March also passed a ban on abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Activists on both sides of the issue say such laws, which are commonly blocked by court injunctions, are aimed at getting a case sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-4 majority, to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The North Dakota bill, which Burgum’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, confirmed in an email that the governor signed, followed similar laws in Mississippi and West Virginia.

Known as HB 1546, it outlaws the second-trimester abortion practice known in medical terms as dilation and evacuation, but which the legislation refers to as “human dismemberment.”

Under the North Dakota legislation, doctors performing the procedure would be charged with a felony but the woman having the abortion would not face charges.

Similar legislation exists in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, but is on hold because of litigation, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

Abortion-rights groups challenging such bans argue they are unconstitutional as they obstruct private medical rights.

North Dakota has one abortion provider, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She previously said her clinic would wait for a decision in a case involving similar legislation in Arkansas before deciding on a possible legal challenge to HB 1546.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Battle for control of U.S. Congress advances in seven states

FILE PHOTO: A woman wears a sticker in multiple languages after voting in the primary election at a polling station in Venice, Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A bitterly personal matchup in New York between a convicted felon seeking to reclaim his congressional seat from a former prosecutor is among dozens of key races in seven U.S. states on Tuesday, as voters pick candidates for November elections that will determine control of Congress.

Voters in Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi will also select competitors for the Nov. 6 elections, when Democrats will seek to wrest control of Congress from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Democrats need to flip 23 of 435 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives, which would stymie much of Trump’s agenda while opening up new avenues of investigation into his administration. They would have to net two seats to take the Senate, but face longer odds there, according to analysts.

Residents of New York City’s Staten Island borough will decide whether to give Republican Michael Grimm, fresh off a prison term for tax fraud, a chance to return to his old seat in Congress, three years after he resigned following his guilty plea.

The race has seen the candidates trade personal insults and accusations of lying, with Trump’s presence looming above it all.

Grimm, a bombastic former FBI agent known for once threatening to toss a television reporter off a balcony, has attacked incumbent Republican Representative Dan Donovan, the borough’s former district attorney, for not sufficiently supporting Trump.

Donovan, who earned Trump’s endorsement in May, has responded by calling attention to Grimm’s criminal conviction.

The district is considered within reach for Democrats in November.

“They should have a reality show: ‘The Real Candidates of Staten Island,'” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “It’s nasty, it’s personal – and it’s enjoyable to watch.”

DEMOCRATIC BATTLES

Voters in upstate New York will pick among seven Democrats in one of this year’s most expensive House campaigns. Republican first-term incumbent John Faso is considered vulnerable in November, and his potential challengers have collectively raised more than $7 million.

In Colorado, an establishment-backed Democrat and a liberal insurgent are vying to take on incumbent Republican Representative Mike Coffman, whose district favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

Jason Crow, an Iraq war veteran backed by the national party, is facing Levi Tillemann, who was endorsed by Our Revolution, a group born out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. Tillemann earned attention this month with an anti-gun violence video in which he blasted himself in the face with pepper spray.

South Carolina’s Republican contest for governor is the latest test of Trump’s sway among party voters. The president campaigned on Monday alongside Governor Henry McMaster, who is in a tight nominating battle with businessman John Warren. The winner is likely to prevail in November.

Voters will also pick Senate candidates in states including Utah and Maryland. Analysts say Democrats face a steep climb trying to take that chamber, as they are defending seats in states like Indiana, Montana and North Dakota that supported Trump two years ago.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to earn his party’s Senate nomination in Utah, while Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in military prison for leaking classified data, is a long shot in Maryland’s Democratic nominating contest against incumbent Senator Ben Cardin.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Cotton makes a comeback in U.S. Plains as farmers sour on wheat

A cotton plant that was left unharvested is seen in a field near Wakita, Oklahoma, U.S., May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Michael Hirtzer

ANTHONY, Kan. (Reuters) – Farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma are planting more land with cotton than they have for decades as they ditch wheat, attracted by relatively high cotton prices and the crop’s ability to withstand drought.

A 20-percent increase from last year marks a sharp turnaround for the crop that once dominated the Mississippi Delta into Texas. Just three years ago, low prices led to U.S. farmers planting the fewest acres with cotton in over 30 years.

The switch to cotton in the southern plains of the United States could be long term as farmers move away from a global wheat market that is increasingly dominated by fast-growing supply from top exporter Russia. U.S. farmers have struggled to make a profit on wheat due to a global glut.

Cotton is a safer bet than wheat because it can be grown with less water, at a time when drought has hit some areas of the U.S. farm belt.

“I have switched out of grain pretty much completely,” said southern Kansas farmer Darrin Eck. “It’s rough to raise beans or corn. But, if we get a little bit of rain, the cotton works.”

Eck said he will plant 3,000 of his 4,000 acres with cotton, up from 1,700 last year. He also spent around $500,000 to purchase a used John Deere cotton harvester.

Even with expectations for more planted acres, cotton futures are hovering above 80 cents per pound, near the highest levels in about four years. Wheat futures have recovered from 2016’s decade-low of $3.60, fetching about $5.43 per bushel on Friday.

The other that crop farmers typically turn to during periods of drought or low rainfall is the animal feed sorghum. Both cotton and sorghum need less water than soybeans, corn or wheat.

But China in April targeted sorghum for punitive import tariffs in a tit-for-tat trade dispute with the United States, a move that sent prices plunging and made cotton the clear winner for many farmers this year. China has since removed the sorghum tariffs, but by then, most farmers had made their planting choice.

Growing more cotton is still a gamble. China had threatened to impose tariffs on U.S. cotton imports, before tensions eased last week between the world’s two largest economies.

In Kansas, farmers planned to sow 130,000 acres of cotton, the most ever, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oklahoma cotton plantings were forecast at 680,000 acres, the largest since 1980.

Across the country, farmers will likely plant 13.469 million cotton acres, the most since 14.735 million in 2011, after total acres of wheat planted last winter fell to 32.7 million, smallest in about a century.

SEEDS AND GINS

Seed firms are already seeing the benefits. U.S. sales of Monsanto cotton seeds and traits in the first half of fiscal-year 2018 were $243 million, up from $224 million during the same period in 2017, according to a company spokeswoman.

With both Monsanto and rival DowDuPont offering cotton seed with traits that help boost yields, the crop will likely be an option for many farmers for years, said Kansas farmer Eck.

“Cotton will be here to stay until the grains get better,” he said.

Some peanut farmers in states such as Georgia are also turning to cotton. USDA projected peanut plantings will drop 18 percent. Peanut production reached a record last year, but high cotton prices are luring farmers who need to rotate crops.

“Because cotton prices are attractive… it gives peanut farmers a chance to get their rotation back in order,” said Bob Parker, president and chief executive of the National Peanut Board, an industry group.

Demand for cotton harvesters, which strip cotton from the plants and make bales, is “off the charts,” said Greg Peterson, founder of the Machinery Pete website which hosts auctions for farm equipment.

The Southern Kansas Cotton Growers in Anthony, Kansas, plans to double its capacity to separate cotton fibers from seed this year.

The machine that does that, the gin, has already run at record capacity after a big harvest last year, said Gary Feist, president of the Kansas Cotton Association that operates the gin.

HEAVY EQUIPMENT

At Hurst Farm Supply in Lorenzo, Texas, there are roughly five farmers interested in each Deere  CS690 cotton harvester they have to sell, said Randy Sparks, a sales manager. The store collected names from farmers interested in the equipment and pulls a name out of a hat when a harvester becomes available, to ensure they are fair to their local customers.

“These guys out of Oklahoma and Kansas, there’s no local machinery for them to purchase so they have to come where it’s at,” Sparks said.

The machinery demand is a bright spot for Deere, which has been battling tepid demand in North America due to four years of declining U.S. farm income.

Equipment sales suggest the turn to cotton may be longer-term, said CoBank analyst Ben Laine.

“When you see producers making that type of investment, it gives confidence… You are going to see more acres switching,” Laine said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago, Chris Prentice in New York and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru; Editing by Simon Webb and Cynthia Osterman)

2 Dead as Fire sweeps across Western Oklahoma

aerial view of fires burning in Oklahoma.

By Kami Klein

With winds gusting at 30mph, low humidity and very dry conditions, fire officials in Oklahoma say that as bad as it is now, things are looking worse for the week. So far there have been two deaths reported and several counties are ordering evacuations as the flames burn mostly out of control in the Northwest areas of Oklahoma.  

According to KOCO News 5 the fires have burned more than 400,000 acre in western Oklahoma, and dry, windy weather has severely hindered firefighting efforts.  Today the counties of Dewey, and the towns of Selling, Talogo and Putnam have been order to evacuate.

In a news release late Sunday night Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain stated that  61-year-old Jack Osben died Thursday in Roger Mills County. He was driving a motor grader to help firefighters put out the fire that began southeast of Leedey,about 110 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Cain said a woman also died as a result of a fire near Seiling, about 90 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. The woman had been visiting at a residence, near Seiling, Okla., when the fire caused the people there to evacuate the area.The residents made it away from the area and reported to the authorities that the woman was missing. A search was made in the area well within the burn area where a Jeep Cherokee was found with the woman inside.

Because the fire began during the governor’s burn ban and if it should be proven the fire was intentionally set, the person who set the fire could be charged in the woman’s death.

Oklahoma News 4 reported that some volunteer fire departments are asking for donations to help, as fire heads toward many farming and rural towns.  “The wind’s horrible,” Weatherford Fire Chief Mike Karlin said. “We had wind all through the night. Typically, in the night, we get higher humidities, we get lower winds. The only thing that we’ve had is cooler temperatures, and that hasn’t affected the fire conditions at all.”

Weather conditions will be feeding the fire this week as dozens of fire departments attempt to gain control of the flames.  Warnings are out in 19 counties of Oklahoma for severely hazardous fire conditions, prohibiting fires and asking that people be vigilant throughout the state.    

 

After walkouts, U.S. teachers eye elections for school funding gains

FILE PHOTO: Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

By Heide Brandes and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – High school physics teacher Craig Hoxie filed to run for Oklahoma’s House of Representatives on Friday, a day after the end of a two-week teacher walkout that had pressed lawmakers for school funding.

“A week ago, I would have told you I wasn’t going to do it,” said the 48-year-old Army veteran who has worked in public schools for 18 years, as he drove to the state election board office to submit his paperwork to become a Democratic candidate in this fall’s election. “There is a funding crisis with all public services in our state.”

Teachers and parents in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona have staged collective actions in recent weeks, seeking higher wages and education spending. They say years of budget reductions have decimated public school systems in favor of tax cuts.

Protests in those Republican-dominated states have encouraged teachers unions and Democratic candidates who will try to capitalize on the outrage to score electoral victories. In November’s mid-term elections, 36 governorships and thousands of state legislative seats will be up for grabs.

“This transcends what has traditionally been viewed as blue states and red states,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which boasts 1.7 million members. “The deprivation has gotten so great that people are taking the risk to escalate their activism.”

The union, typically aligned with the Democratic Party, has targeted a number of key states with plans to mobilize in statehouse, gubernatorial and congressional elections this fall.

Nationwide, progressive causes have seen a surge of enthusiasm since Republican President Donald Trump’s election. Protesters have rallied on issues as wide ranging as gun control, gender equality, science and immigrants’ rights.

The Oklahoma walkout demonstrated the power of collective action to influence Republican lawmakers, as well as its limits. The legislature boosted annual education funding by about $450 million and raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,100, yet those figures remained short of the teachers’ demands.

The state’s largest union, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), declared victory and turned its attention to the fall elections to continue the fight for more funding. At least a dozen Oklahoma teachers are seeking office.

In remarks to the Tulsa County Democratic Party on Friday, OEA President Alicia Priest said local union chapters would form election committees to support pro-education candidates, while members will go door-to-door.

“We have to change and try something different,” she said of teachers choosing to run for office themselves.

Several Republican incumbents facing challenges from teacher candidates did not respond to calls for comment.

Sheri Guyse, 42, a parent with two children in Oklahoma public schools who participated in the walkout, pledged that come November, she would remember whose side lawmakers were on.

“A few of their demands were met, and of course that’s a step in the right direction, but the only thing I’m feeling really good about today is that there’s a big election in November where a lot of these legislators will lose their jobs,” she said.

A number of teachers have already won special legislative elections as Democrats in the last two years. Karen Gaddis, a retired teacher who ran on a largely pro-education platform, captured a seat near Tulsa that had been in Republican hands for more than 20 years.

“Things have gotten so bad out here, we’re like a third-world country,”” Gaddis said in a phone interview. She first ran and lost in 2016, but said she has sensed a shift this year as people have grown fed up with budget cuts.

“Education in particular was just being flushed down the toilet,” she said.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on statehouse races nationwide, said more than 50 educators are running in other states. The group said the 26 states in which Republicans control both the legislature and the governorship have seen an average 5 percent cut in education spending over the last decade.

In response, David James, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports that party in statehouse races, said, “It is sad and appalling for the Democrats to be coordinating a national protest effort with their longtime faculty room friends in the teachers unions to push a political agenda in the classroom, at the expense of the nation’s students.”

John Waldron, a social studies teacher, ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in Oklahoma in 2016. He is running again as a Democrat in 2018, this time for the state House of Representatives, and said the walkout gives him confidence this campaign will unfold differently.

“We’ve turned a whole generation of Oklahomans into political activists now,” he said.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa; Writing and additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

Oklahoma parents fret over childcare, testing as teachers strike

FILE PHOTO: Teachers rally outside the state Capitol for the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

By Heide Brandes and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – Oklahoma parent Matt Reynolds backs a teachers’ strike that has shut schools statewide, but each day it drags on is another he has to pay for daycare for three of his children.

“I’m mad at the teachers for walking out, but I’m more mad at the government for forcing them to do this,” said Reynolds, a 51-year-old chef in Yukon.

Lawmakers and striking teachers remained at odds over the state’s financing of its public education on Thursday, the 11th day of a walkout that has affected about a half million students.

The standoff is testing the patience of parents, many of whom support the labor action after seeing firsthand the fallout from slashed education budgets. But they are weary of making special accommodations for their children, and worry about how the missed class time will affect upcoming state testing and national advanced placements exams.

Some parents said the strike that started on April 2 has made them consider private schools, home schooling or moving to a district with more secure funding. Many said the prospects of a prolonged strike would eventually lead them to lobby their local districts to return to class.

“I’m at the point where if education doesn’t get adequate funding, I’ll say screw it and home school my kids since we can’t afford to move,” said Lisa Snell, who has been forced to take her two children to work during the strike.

Snell’s empathy runs deep for the state’s teachers, who are among the worst paid educators in the United States.

She has been asked to provide pencils, crayons, paper and tissue for the struggling elementary school her children attend near Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma. Her kids bring home school books in tatters and have to go shoeless in gym class to preserve the decaying floor, Snell said.

“I know what those teachers are going through,” Snell said. “It’s not just about raises.”

The main union in the strike is urging parents to make their voices heard by voting in this year’s midterm election for candidates who back increased spending, or have educators run for office.

Republicans, who dominate state politics, are appealing to conservative voters by saying they have done enough by raising education spending by more than 20 percent, and more spending would be wasteful.

PRESSURE EXPECTED TO MOUNT

The legislature passed its first major tax hikes in a quarter century to raise funds for schools and increase teacher pay by an average of $6,100. Educators are asking for a $10,000 raise for teachers over three years.

“We’ve accomplished a whole lot, and I just don’t know how much more we can get done this session,” state Representative John Pfeiffer, a top Republican lawmaker, told reporters this week on the education funding issue.

Pressure is likely to build on legislators and teachers to reach a deal that gets kids back to class.

For the most part, teachers have been given permission by their districts to participate in walkouts and have been paid, with the idea that they would make up for lost time as they do for closures due to inclement weather. But that could soon change as the cushion in school calendars runs out.

Two large districts, Bartlesville and Sand Springs, ordered schools to resume on Thursday. Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, has run out of inclement weather days and plans to lengthen school days when students return.

Legislators also are in a tough spot, said Gregg Garn, dean of the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma.

“They have kids in public schools and they live in the communities,” he said. “They are getting the signal that the investments need to be there.”

Candice Stubblefield, 43, of Midwest City wants a quick resolution.

“They have missed so many days now,” said Stubblefield, whose daughter attends public school. “Both the legislature and teachers seem like they are being stubborn and unyielding.”

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa, Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)

‘Momentum is on our side,’ Oklahoma teachers union leader declares

As their walk-out for higher wages and increased education spending enters its second week, teachers rally outside the Oklahoma Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S. April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Heide Brandes

By Heidi Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers carried their walkout over school funding and higher pay into a ninth day on Tuesday as a union leader declared that educators had the advantage of momentum in a battle with the Republican-dominated state legislature.

State lawmakers have approved nearly $450 million in new taxes and other revenues to help fund teachers’ raise pay and boost other education spending since the walkout began on April 2, but the union is pushing for more action to raise overall spending by $600 million each year.

“Momentum is our on side,” president Alicia Priest said in a video posted late Monday night on the Oklahoma Education Association’s Facebook page.

The walkout closed public schools serving about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 students on Monday, and schools in the state’s largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, were shut again on Tuesday.

The Oklahoma strike comes amid a wave of action by teachers in states where budgets have been slashed, as measured by per-student spending, over the past decade.

The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Oklahoma’s inflation-adjusted per student funding fell by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state.

A West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise for teachers. Educators in other states, increasingly angry over stagnating wages, are also considering walk-outs.

Opponents of the Oklahoma tax hikes say lawmakers could bolster education spending by cutting bureaucracy and waste rather than raising taxes.

Republican lawmakers said they have made major moves to boost education spending and it may be difficult to find more money.

“This year’s education budget, which spends $2.9 billion (a 22 percent increase), has been signed into law. I don’t anticipate that bill being changed this year,” Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat said on Facebook ahead of this week’s legislative session.

Thousands of teachers packed into the state Capitol on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to remove a tax exemption on capital gains that would bring in another $100 million in revenue. They also asked Governor Mary Fallin to veto the repeal of a hotel tax that is valued at an estimated $50 million.

The new taxes and revenue approved by lawmakers translate into an average teacher pay raise of about $6,100.

Teachers want a $10,000 raise over three years. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher is currently $31,600, state data shows.

Graphic – Education funding 2008 thru 2015, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2Iumbck

Graphic – U.S. Teacher Salaries in 2017, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2IsvlGa

(Writing and additional reporting Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Oklahoma Senate takes up tax hike to halt week-long teachers’ strike

FILE PHOTO - Teachers pack the state Capitol rotunda to capacity, on the second day of a teacher walkout, to demand higher pay and more funding for education, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – The Oklahoma Senate is set to debate a tax hike package on Friday to raise education funds in the hope of halting a week-long strike by its public school teachers, who are some of the lowest-paid educators in the country.

The strike that started on Monday has affected more than half a million students. It comes after a successful West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise and as teachers in other states angry over stagnating wages are considering walk-outs.

The Oklahoma package includes a $20 million internet sales approved by the House on Wednesday, a hotel tax hike expected to generate about another $50 million and a gambling measure that could bring in about another $22 million.

Tens of thousands of teachers have come to the state capitol this week seeking fresh spending for an education system that has seen inflation-adjusted general funding per student drop by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Last week, lawmakers approved the state’s first major tax increase in a quarter century, a $400 million revenue package that would have raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,000.

That was not enough for the teachers, seeking $10,000 over three years. Even with the pay raise already approved by lawmakers, they would still receive lower mean salaries than teachers in every neighboring state, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed.

Republican-dominated Oklahoma has the lowest median pay among states for both elementary and secondary school teachers, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The minimum salary for a first year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.

Oklahoma has some of the lowest U.S. oil and gas production taxes and a major cause for the budget strain comes from tax breaks the state has granted to its energy industry, which were worth $470 million in fiscal year 2015 alone.

When energy prices plunged a few years ago and tax revenue dropped, Oklahoma lawmakers made deeper cuts to education funding, which was already on the decline.

As a consequence of low pay at home and better opportunities across state lines, Oklahoma is grappling with a teacher shortage that has forced some school districts to cut curricula, and go to a four-day school week.

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Michael Perry)

Oklahoma House approves education tax bill amid teacher walkout

A teacher stands next to a music stand holding a sign during a school walkout in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S. April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – The Oklahoma House of Representatives approved a $20 million internet sales tax on Wednesday as part of a revenue package aimed at ending a statewide walkout by teachers seeking higher pay and more education funding.

The walkout, now in its third day, is the latest upheaval by teachers in a Republican-dominated state after a successful West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise. More than 100 school districts in Oklahoma will remain shuttered on Thursday.

Lawmakers approved the tax measure as hundreds of teachers, parents and students packed the Capitol in Oklahoma City to press for a $200 million package to raise education spending in Oklahoma, which ranks near the bottom for U.S. states.

“This is a win for students and educators and signals major progress toward funding the schools our students deserve,” Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association, the teachers union, said in a statement after 92 lawmakers approved the sales tax measure.

Across the state, protests were held near schools and along streets, with demonstrators holding signs bearing slogans such as “35 is a speed limit, not a class size.”

The tax bill requires third-party vendors on internet sites such as Amazon to remit state sales taxes on purchases made by residents.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers on Thursday will weigh a measure expanding gaming at Native American casinos as part of the $200 million package. Lawmakers are also weighing such options as repealing exemptions for capital gains taxes.

The teachers’ protests reflect rising discontent after years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among the 50 states in per-student expenditure in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

Kentucky teachers also have demonstrated against stagnant or reduced budgets by a Republican-controlled legislature. Arizona educators have threatened similar job actions.

“My books were old when I was in high school more than 15 years ago and chances are a lot of them are still being used today,” Oklahoma City resident Ashley Morris said by telephone from a statehouse rally.

“Students just aren’t getting what they need or deserve and that puts teachers in a tough situation,” said Morris, whose roommate is a first-grade teacher who relies on a second job to make ends meet.

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Ben Klayman and Leslie Adler)

Oklahoma teachers vow to stage second day of walkouts

Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Thousands of Oklahoma school teachers, including those in the state’s two biggest cities, were expected to return to picket lines on Tuesday for the second day of strikes demanding state lawmakers do more to shore up public education spending.

A walkout by more than 30,000 educators in Oklahoma, whose teachers rank among the lowest-paid in the United States, forced the cancellation of classes for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students on Monday, union officials said.

Many of the striking teachers traveled by the busload to Oklahoma City for a mass rally on the capitol grounds before lobbying legislators in the halls of the statehouse. They vowed to continue their protests indefinitely.

“When our members believe the legislature has committed to funding our children’s future, they will return to the classroom,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, said in a statement posted online.

Classes in about 200 of the state’s 584 school districts were disrupted by Monday’s walkout, according to the union.

Schools in the state’s two biggest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, will remain closed on Tuesday as the walkout extends into a second day, union officials said. The Oklahoman newspaper listed more than two dozen districts expected to be shuttered for the day as well.

The job action reflected rising discontent with years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among all 50 states in per-student expenditures and 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

The Oklahoma strikes on Monday coincided with a second day of walkouts by several thousand teachers in Kentucky after legislators there passed a bill imposing new limits on the state’s underfunding public employee pension system.

The protests come a month after teachers in West Virginia staged a series of strikes for nearly two weeks before winning a pay raise. Teachers in Arizona also rallied last week for more educational funding.

Educators say years of austerity in many states have led to wage stagnation and the hollowing-out of school systems. West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma all have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures that have resisted tax increases.

Oklahoma legislators last week approved, and Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, the state’s first major tax hike in a quarter century – a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike.

But teachers, some of whom have complained of having to work second jobs to make ends meet, said the package fell short and demanded lawmakers go further by reversing spending cuts that have forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Editing by Paul Tait)