OKLAHOMA CITY — The state’s Supreme Court will decide on the fate of a controversial movement trying to halt a series of tax hikes meant to increase public school funding.
At stake is the veto referendum petition — known as State Question 799 — filed by the anti-tax group Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!. The group is trying to collect about 42,000 signatures in an effort to stop nearly $500 million in legislatively passed tax increases on items like cigarettes, and motor fuels, as well as oil and gas production. The group wants voters to decide the future of the taxes at the ballot box in November.
Pro-education groups, though, contend the new taxes contained in HB1010XX are necessary for districts’ financial survival. They are challenging the effort in the state’s highest civil court on technical and constitutional grounds.
Kent Meyers, an attorney representing education groups challenging the legality of the petition, said the measure is misleading and leaves voters confused.
“This referendum is about as flawed as it could be,” Meyers said. “It is a genuine mess.”
Oklahoma Supreme Court justices spent Monday afternoon grilling attorneys on both sides. They questioned whether the ballot measure is written clearly enough that voters can understand it and its potential impact on public schools. They probed it on technical grounds. And they asked what would happen to public education if the measure were allowed to proceed.
Justices did not rule Monday, but some observers expect they will rule relatively soon. The anti-tax group has until mid-July to finish collecting the signatures necessary to get the question on the ballot.
Attorney Blake Sonne, who serves as general counsel for the Professional Oklahoma Educators, argued that lawmakers tied several legislative bills to the tax hike’s survival earlier this year when they passed the first increase in a quarter of a century.
Not only does the HB1010XX fund permanent, average $6,100 raises for classroom teachers, the measure funds pay increases for school support staff and public employees, new textbooks and increased classroom spending, he said.
And if an anti-tax group manages to gather enough signatures to stall the tax hike, school districts across the state risk starting the upcoming school year in debt, he said.
Some districts, meanwhile, are delaying teacher raises until the Supreme Court rules, he said.
“We honestly can’t sit here today and pretend that 1010XX wasn’t specifically passed to fund (public education),” Sonne said.
Barrett Bowers, the attorney representing the anti-tax group, said he doesn’t believe stopping the tax hike will affect teacher raises. He argued that teachers will receive a raise regardless of whether there’s increased revenue to fund it.
“I don’t believe that would impact the teacher pay raises,” he said. “Again, I think that’s more of a policy issue.”
The state economy is having a good year, so there will be plenty of money to pay for the raises this year, he said.
One justice, though, asked what districts and the Legislature would do next year if faced with a down economy.
Bowers said what it boils down to is “are we going to have increased taxes or are we not going to have increased taxes.”
His clients just want the voters to decide.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.