Tom Coburn speaking at OK Taxpayers Unite press conference

[Note: The post has been edited to correct the information regarding HB 1024xx]

On March 28th, just hours before Oklahoma Senators were to vote on pay raises for teachers and other employees funded by new taxes, a group calling themselves “Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite” held a press conference at the State Capitol. Led by former-U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, the group warned lawmakers that they would lead a citizen initiative to overturn any tax increase. Senators disregarded the warning by approving HB 1010xx with the three-quarters support needed for revenue bills, and the Governor quickly signed the measure into law on  March 29th. But is the tax increase – the first to be approved by Oklahoma lawmakers in over 25 years – now in danger of being overturned at the ballot and dragging the pay raises down with it?

A rarely-used instrument

The activists’ threat involves a little-known provision of the Oklahoma Constitution (Article V, Section 3) known as the veto referendum, which allows a referendum petition to be filed challenging any bill passed by the Legislature. To put a veto referendum on the ballot requires signatures equal to 5 percent of voters in the last Gubernatorial election, which currently would require 41,242 signatures. As with citizen-initiated petitions to enact new laws, a veto referendum shall be had at the time of the next statewide election, unless the Governor orders a special election.

There have been 20 veto referendums in Oklahoma history but none since 1970. In 1991, an initiative petition attempted to overturn HB 1017, the landmark education reform legislation of 1990, but this was not a veto referendum. HB 1990 had been passed with an emergency clause, which allowed it to take effect immediately. To overturn HB 1017, opponents tried to amend the state Constitution; they succeeded in gathering enough signatures to get State Question 639 on the ballot in October 1991, but the measure failed with just 46 percent of the vote.

A year after the failure of SQ 639, a successful initiative petition campaign led to passage of State Question 640. In addition to requiring a vote of the people or a three-quarters vote in both legislative chambers for passage of revenue bills, SQ 640 prohibited revenue bills from having an emergency clause. Instead, a revenue bill “shall not become effective and be in force until ninety days after it has been approved by the Legislature, and acted on by the Governor.”

Challenging HB 1010xx

HB 1010xx was signed by the Governor on March 29th and is set to take effect ninety days later, on June 27th.

While there is uncertainty about the timing involved in  the veto referendum process, it appears that Sen. Coburn and his followers could block enactment of HB 1010xx if they are able to gather enough signatures and clear the various other obstacles needed to get a referendum petition certified prior to the law taking effect. In that case, the bill would be stayed pending a decision by the voters, which would likely (but not necessarily) coincide with the general election on November 6th. The teacher pay raise would most likely be deferred as well, as the pay raise bill (HB 1023xx) is effective August 1st and is explicitly contingent on enactment of HB 1010xx. The effect on the pay raise bills for state employees (HB 1024xx) and school support staff (HB 1026xx) is also unclear. Both are effective July 1st; the state employee pay raise bill is contingent on HB 1010xx while the support staff raise is not.

While opponents of the education funding package have uncovered a way to block the measure, they would be taking a major gamble by moving ahead with a veto referendum. Three-quarters of lawmakers, including over 70 percent of Republicans, voted for a tax increase because they understood that providing teachers a raise is both urgent and popular. In 1991, voters reaffirmed HB 1017 even though that measure required both a 1-cent increase in the sales tax and a 1-percentage point increase in the income tax. The current funding package, by contrast, is paid for primarily by limiting the tax break on oil and gas production and higher cigarette taxes, both of which are broadly popular and directly affect a limited number of voters, along with a small increase in motor fuel taxes (3 cents per gallon on gas, 6 cents per gallon on diesel).

Putting the funding package on the ballot almost guarantees a huge mobilization and strong electoral turnout by teachers and other supporters of public education, which could hurt Republican candidates in the fall election. The main goal of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite seems to be to warn Republican lawmakers about the political perils of raising taxes; the lesson they may learn instead is to stop messing with teachers.