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'Momentum is on our side,' Oklahoma teachers union leader declares with strike in ninth day

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Oklahoma teachers carried their walkout over school funding and higher pay into a ninth day on Tuesday as the Republican party governor signed school revenue bills that fell short of their demands.

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

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature said it may be difficult to find more money after approving nearly $450 million in new taxes and other revenues since the walkout began on April 2 to help fund pay raises for teachers and boost spending.

The strike has closed public schools serving about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 students. Schools in the state’s largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, were shut on Tuesday and planned to close on Wednesday.

A non-partisan poll released on Friday showed 72 percent of voters in Oklahoma, where teacher’s pay is near the bottom among U.S. states, supported the walkout.

“Momentum is on our side,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union.

Governor Mary Fallin has already approved legislation that would raise teachers’ wages an average of $6,100, while teachers who packed the state Capitol on Tuesday want a $10,000 raise over three years.

Saying that education funding was wrapped up, Fallin signed a bill aimed at expanding revenues from Native American casinos and one that will raise about $20 million from internet sales taxes, her office said in a statement.

Fallin also approved a bill that repealed a hotel tax, a measure that teachers wanted vetoed. A union spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Lawmakers also had blocked a union request to approve a bill to remove a capital gains tax exemption that educators said could bring an extra $100 million to state coffers.

The Oklahoma strike comes amid a wave of action by teachers in states where budgets have been cut. A West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise for teachers.

Teachers in Arizona, also seeking higher wages and more funding for education, were expected to protest on Wednesday to build support but not shut schools, local media reports said.

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

The non-partisan 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.

Writing by Peter Szekely in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington; Addiitonal reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Dan Grebler