Education tax faces voters with history of saying ‘no’ (Enid News)

By Janelle Stecklein

OKLAHOMA CITY — Over the past two decades, voters have overwhelmingly supported questions asked of them at the ballot box — except the ones that ask to raise taxes.

If the trend holds, supporters of a citizen-led measure to raise the state sales tax by a penny to fund education may find it difficult to drum up support, said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

“If (State Question) 779 passes, you can really point to it as proof that things have reached such a crisis situation in Oklahoma that Oklahoma voters are willing to buck the historical patterns and do something they have typically not done,” he said.


Blatt’s group analyzed the votes on 83 state questions posed to voters in the past 25 years.

Voters approved nearly 4 of 5 questions, and they tend to be more supportive of measures referred by lawmakers than citizen-led initiatives, the group found.

Also, voters have rejected outright every tax increase proposed since 1989 except a tobacco tax hike in 2004.

In 2005, the last time a tax hike was proposed, voters overwhelmingly turned it down. That citizen-proposed measure called for a motor vehicle fuel tax to raised revenue for roads and bridges.

“I think that if you look at the track record of state questions over the last 25 years, you’d have to say that a tax increase through an initiative petition has its work cut for it,” Blatt said. “I think the proponents of 779 are aware of that and went into this fully aware of how tough it is.”

Blatt’s group, based in Tulsa, is liberal leaning but has not taken a position on the education tax. The measure pledges to raise $615 million for education. Much of the money will go toward $5,000 raises for each of about 44,000 classroom teachers in the state.

Despite precedent, supporters believe the tax will be the first in more than a decade approved at the ballot box. They cite growing class sizes, the ongoing struggle to keep qualified teachers and concerns about public education spending as reasons that voters will back it.

“Voters now see the education crisis with their own eyes,” said Amber England, executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, which is championing the plan.

“I think that we knew that we had to make a strong case about why an investment in education was important,” she said. “I think voters have very strong awareness of what the problem is, and they’re tired of waiting on a solution from the Legislature.

“I think we’ve crafted the measure in a way that gives voters the peace of mind that this funding is actually going to reach the classroom and help students,” she said.

The tax also will gin up $118 million for higher education, campaign organizers said. It will pump $20 million into CareerTech programs; add $49 million to early childhood education; and set aside $60 million for ongoing school needs.


Championed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, the penny sales tax hike faces strong opposition by conservative groups, some top Republican leaders and cities and towns that complain it will push the state’s sales tax rate to the highest in the country.

Opponents also argue that it will affect working families more during a time when the state economy is struggling.

Despite voters’ tendencies at the ballot box, polls over the past year show that at least 60 percent of Oklahomans support the plan, said Dave Bond, CEO of OCPA Impact, a lobbying arm of the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which opposes the tax.

“From our vantage point, the only real reason people are saying that is because they believe a teacher pay raise to be an urgent priority,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of desire to fund it with any tax increase.”

Bond said there’s no question that teachers deserve raises, but his group argues that any raises should come from existing state revenues or by restructuring corporate tax exemptions.

It could be used to make college more affordable or, as Bond notes, universities could use the cash to buy campuses in Europe.

Bond said the tax supporters “very shrewdly wrapped” the teacher raises around the money for higher ed and the other purposes, knowing that “the one thing (voters) care about, by and large, is having good teachers in our public schools.”

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