OKLAHOMA CITY — Teachers could lose all their hard-fought gains if enough voters embrace anti-tax advocates’ effort to eliminate nearly all of the new education funding passed since March.
An anti-tax group says it will launch a “veto referendum” signature-gathering campaign in the coming days that could potentially overturn the nearly $500 million tax increases. The new taxes are slated to pay for increased education funding, including the first permanent salary increases for classroom teachers in more than a decade.
If the newly formed anti-tax group Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!, can get about 42,000 voters to sign on to their referendum measure, it would likely force the state to delay implementation of the first tax increase in more than two decades until voters can decide its fate at the ballot box in November.
The group’s efforts would also mark the first time since 1970 that anyone has tried to use the obscure law to shape public policy, an analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute found.
“It certainly is the most pressing threat in the near future, and people need to have a watchful eye about what would happen if this were to go into effect,” said former Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman, who has been researching the issue.
The educator raises can’t happen without the tax increases, according to the final legislation signed into law recently by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.
The average $6,100 salary increase would bring teacher compensation from last to second in the region.
Observers say a successful ballot challenge could also jeopardize the recent raises awarded to public employees and school support staff as well as newly allocated classroom spending.
“Teachers would be furious,” Dorman said. “I think they’d be more engaged, and I think they’d be back at the Capitol next session looking for some kind of solution. Of course, there would be a potential blowback at the ballot box, too.”
More than 500,000 students have been out of school during the past two weeks, as districts closed their doors to allow teachers to advocate for additional funding. For nine days, tens of thousands of teachers filled the hallways of the Capitol to plead for additional classroom funding.
While the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Oklahoma Education Association, called off the walkout Thursday, hundreds of teachers still showed up at the Capitol on Friday, complaining their advocacy work wasn’t finished yet.
Many districts plan to reopen schools Monday.
Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, the co-founder of the anti-tax group, was also at the Capitol on Friday. Her group counts former Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn among its membership.
“The public has a right to vote for it,” Vuillemont-Smith said. “Let the people who pay have a say.”
The Broken Arrow resident said an attorney is drafting the referendum and the group will soon start collecting signatures.
Vuillemont-Smith said her group’s actions aren’t a dig at teachers or the state’s education system, but they stem from concern about lawmakers passing new taxes on oil and gas drillers, cigarettes and fuel to fund the increased education appropriations.
“I want the best for (teachers),” she said. “Of course, I want them to succeed. All I want is the people to have a chance to say yes or no.”
State Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said the move could mark the biggest threat to education in the state.
“That’s probably my biggest concern,” he said. “I think if I were the education establishment, I would be very wary.”
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said the “fight isn’t over just because the school bell will ring” again as she urged educators to focus their attention on the November elections.
“There is also a group who wants to take away the raises for all of the funding we secured for education over the last three weeks,” she said. “Former (U.S) Sen. Tom Coburn and his group will be passing a petition that will allow the people of Oklahoma to repeal our efforts. We must not sign it. We must defeat that effort.”
Oklahomans tried to undo the last legislative education tax increases in 1990 with a failed constitutional amendment, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank.
In a statement, David Blatt, the organization’s executive director, said the anti-tax group may face a tough fight.
“While opponents of the education funding package have uncovered a way to block the measure, they would be taking a major gamble moving ahead with a veto referendum,” he said. “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.”
Putting the measure on the ballot will almost guarantee a huge mobilization and a strong electoral turnout by teachers and public education supporters, which could hurt Republican candidates, Blatt said.
“The lesson (Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!) may learn instead is to stop messing with teachers,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.