Group files challenge to Oklahoma education sales tax initiative (News OK)

By Rick Green

The Oklahoma Supreme Court will examine the constitutionality of an effort to generate millions of dollars for schools through a one-cent increase in the state sales tax.

Until the court resolves a challenge filed by an advocacy group on Thursday, backers of the tax hike will not be allowed to begin collecting the 123,000 voters signatures needed to put the issue before voters in November 2016. 

The increase in the state sales tax, already one of the nation’s highest, would fund a $5,000-a-year pay raise for public school teachers.

The legal challenge alleges the proposal violates state constitutional requirements that such measures embrace only a single subject.

Legal papers filed by former U.S. Attorney Robert McCampbell said the initiative petition actually covers four subjects:

•The pay raise for teachers.

•Multiple other educational funding improvements.

•A penny sales tax.

•Changes in the appropriations process.

OCPA Impact is the plaintiff. This group is the lobbying partner of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank.

Dave Bond, chief executive officer of OCPA Impact, said teachers deserve a pay raise, but this is not the way to do it.

Combining a popular idea like a teacher pay raise, with an unpopular one like a tax hike, is a frowned-upon political technique known as “logrolling,” he said.

“A strong majority of Oklahomans want a pay raise for teachers, to reward and retain the people making a difference in the lives of children in the classroom,” Bond said. “This can and should be done without a misleading, unconstitutional money grab.” 

He said there is $617 million in wasteful or nonessential state government spending that could be eliminated without hurting core services such as education, roads or public safety.

Money could be saved through Medicaid reforms, an end to some state subsidies and the sale of certain state assets, he said. 

Backers are confident

University of Oklahoma President David Boren is a key proponent of the penny sales tax initiative.

“I have confidence that the petition has been properly drawn by the legal team representing the grassroots committee,” Boren said. “I think it is a shame that any organization would try to stop the people of Oklahoma from having the right to vote on such an important issue to the children of Oklahoma and our state’s future.”

Oklahoma’s average sales tax rate this year was 8.77 percent, No. 6 nationally, according to the Tax Foundation. The state rate is 4.5 percent, with the rest of the tax imposed by local governments.

Boren said the state’s overall level of taxation compares favorably with many states, and polling indicates a one-penny increase in the sales tax rate would have more support than other funding mechanisms.

David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, doesn’t think the single subject rule will derail the initiative drive.

“A tax dedicated exclusively for education shouldn’t be out of conformity with the single subject requirement,” he said. “There could always be a challenge, but I believe the issue has been fully vetted.”

Amber England, executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, an education advocacy group, also expressed confidence. 

“There are some groups that just don’t want to see more investments in public education no matter how bad the funding situation becomes for our schools,” England said. “This is nothing more than a delay tactic in trying to keep the people of Oklahoma from being able to decide for themselves if they want to increase education investments.”

The sales tax increase would raise $615 million a year, with $378 million going to fund teacher raises. 

An additional $50 million would be used for grants for locally controlled reforms such as incentive pay.

Another $125 million would go to higher education to keep down tuition and fees, while $50 million would go to early childhood programs and $20 million would go to the vocation and technology educational system.

One provision of the initiative would prevent money raised through the penny sales tax from supplanting other education funding now in place.

None of the money would be used for administrative expenses.

Oklahoma’s spending per-pupil and its teacher salaries trail most of the nation. Educational association leaders say the low salaries make it hard to attract and retain good teachers.


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