OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – A proposed penny sales tax to help boost the salaries of public school teachers and fund other areas of public education can be placed on a ballot for a statewide vote, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In a 6-3 decision, the state’s highest court rejected claims that the measure unconstitutionally combines multiple subjects into a single vote.
The decision on the proposal, known as Initiative Petition No. 403, clears the way for supporters to begin collecting signatures to authorize a statewide referendum on the November ballot, said Kent Meyers, an attorney for proponents of the education tax proposal.
The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office will authorize supporters to begin collecting signatures within the next 30 days, Meyers said, and then they’ll have 90 days to collect a required 123,725 signatures of registered Oklahoma voters.
The measure had been opposed by the lobbying arm of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank opposed to higher taxes, which claimed it violated a state requirement that any proposed constitutional amendment pertain to only one subject. Justice Steven Taylor’s 16-page dissenting opinion agreed, saying the measure is “a clear example of logrolling” in violation of the constitution.
“An extremely popular one-time pay raise for a group of state employees paired with other less popular tangentially related questions is repulsive to this constitutional provision,” Taylor wrote. Justices Yvonne Kauger and James Winchester joined him in dissenting.
Dave Bond, CEO of OCPA Impact, said the organization will continue to oppose the measure and work with state lawmakers to find alternative ways to raise state teacher pay. Passage of the ballot measure would lift the state’s combined state and average local sales tax rate to 9.78 percent, the nation’s highest, according to The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research nonprofit.
A coalition of Oklahoma educators and civic leaders filed paperwork in October to circulate the petition that calls for a statewide vote on a new one-cent sales tax for public education and address a chronic teacher shortage. The state currently has more than 1,000 teacher vacancies statewide.
The coalition, which is called “Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future” and includes the state’s largest teacher organization, said the tax would raise money to address the teacher shortage as well as boost college affordability, raise reading rates, improve graduation rates and expand career and technology training.
In a statement Tuesday, members of the coalition said Oklahoma residents realize that the teacher shortage will only worsen without bold action.
“Our state’s citizens deserve the opportunity to help close the education investment gap and send the message that Oklahoma’s students are worth the same level of investment our neighboring states make in students,” the coalition said.
University of Oklahoma President David Boren called the ruling “a great victory for the school children and the people of Oklahoma.”
The proposed one-cent sales tax would generate around $615 million a year. Almost 70 percent of the new revenue, about $424 million, would fund a $5,000 annual increase in the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers. None would go toward school administrative costs, according to supporters.
State finance officials have said the Legislature will have $900.8 million less – nearly 13 percent – to spend in the fiscal year that begins July 1 than the current fiscal year. State finance officials have also declared a revenue failure for the current year, resulting in automatic budget cuts.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said last week some Oklahoma school districts could be forced to close their doors as a result of about $47 million in cuts to the current year’s education budget.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.