Oklahoma Referee Hears Arguments in Education Tax Challenge

A proposal for a vote on a one-cent sales tax to help fund education and teacher pay raises doesn’t violate the Oklahoma Constitution’s single-subject rule

SEAN MURPHY
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – A proposal for a statewide vote on a one-cent sales tax to help fund education and teacher pay raises doesn’t violate the Oklahoma Constitution’s single-subject rule because it deals with the general topic of improving the state’s public education, an attorney for supporters of the plan argued Thursday.

Attorney D. Kent Meyers defended the initiative petition before an Oklahoma Supreme Court referee, who heard arguments from both sides over a legal challenge to the plan.

OCPA Impact, the lobbying arm of conservative think tank the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, has challenged the petition, claiming that it violates the requirement that any proposed constitutional amendment pertain to only one subject.

Robert McCampbell, an attorney for OCPA Impact, said the petition includes four separate subjects: a pay raise for teachers, funding for other educated-related items, a sales tax, and a change in the appropriations process that would prohibit the Legislature from reducing education funding. Voters who favor one subject that is popular, like a teacher pay raise, don’t have the opportunity to vote separately on an unpopular topic, like a sales tax, McCampbell said.

“You can’t reasonably expect that because a voter supports a teacher pay raise that they would also support making Oklahoma the highest sales tax state in the country,” McCampbell said. “Instead of rolling everything into one ball of wax, the voters should have a choice.”

Meyers said the state constitution requires only that the question submitted to voters embraces one general subject.

“We suggest the one general subject here is the improvement of Oklahoma public education,” Meyers said.

The initiative petition proposes a one-cent sales tax that would generate around $615 million a year, about 70 percent of which would pay for a $5,000 annual pay raise for teachers. About 19 percent, or $120 million annually, would go to colleges and universities to address rising tuition costs, 8 percent would help fund grants for early childhood education for low-income and at-risk students, and about 3 percent would go to the state’s career-technology system.

Supporters of the proposal would have 90 days to collect the signatures of 123,725 registered Oklahoma voters to get the measure on the 2016 election ballot, but the legal challenge delays the signature-gathering effort.

Oklahoma’s combined state and average local sales tax rate of 8.72 percent in 2014 was the fifth highest in the nation, according to The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. A one-cent increase would give Oklahoma the highest sales tax rate in the nation.

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Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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