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Taking a Look at the Tornado Shelter Ballot Measure

Filed by Michael Cross in Education, Feature, Local News, News.
November 4, 2013

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If you go to cast your vote in the November 2014 election, you might have trouble making heads or tails of one of the measures on the ballot.

Is it about taxes?

Is it about tornadoes?

Kate Carlton explains the meaning of State Question 767 and the fight going on behind the scenes to clarify its language before the voting occurs.

Kathy Turner works with Take Shelter Oklahoma.

The group wants to build safe rooms to protect students from tornadoes like the one that destroyed Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools in Moore.

Turner says her experience as a former school administrator showed her how important government funding can be.

“As a superintendent, I found out my bonding capacity was limited, and I couldn’t get the necessary funds to build the kind of buildings that I needed for storm shelters. It just couldn’t happen without raising taxes significantly.”

So her group drafted a proposal last month to use the already existing state franchise tax… a sliding-scale business tax… to fund safe room construction.

They filed their petition with the Attorney General and began collecting signatures to get it on the ballot.

A week and a half ago they received a response, and they were not thrilled with what they heard.

“It was a difficult decision for me to file a lawsuit against the chief law enforcement officer of the state, which is the attorney general, because I don’t believe in litigation. I find it harmful, but it was actually the only remedy that was available so that it would go to the Supreme Court and let the Supreme Court rule on what he did.”

The reason Turner’s group has filed a lawsuit is because they’re unhappy with the changes Attorney General Scott Pruitt made to the wording of their proposal.

The original wording had focused on the goal of funding safe rooms in schools, but now, supporters fear it’s been weighted down with legal language that clouds its meaning.

State Representative Joe Dorman shares those concerns.

“The problem is with the re-write, it’s four paragraphs, three paragraphs talk about the funding mechanism: the franchise tax. So if someone is looking at this, they’re going to assume it deals more with taxes than it does with storm shelters.”

Governor Fallin has in the past said she opposes the petition and believes school storm shelters should be funded locally rather than on a statewide level.

Representative Dorman sees this rewrite as an effort by the administration to distract attention from the issue at the heart of the matter and ultimately derail Take Shelter Oklahoma’s campaign.

“We’ve tried to indicate to the voters that we are not increasing taxes a single cent. We’re going to use an existing revenue stream. And I don’t feel that they were clear enough with that. I think this sets it up for the opposition to run a smear campaign on this proposal talking about the franchise tax rather than talking about school shelters and school security.”

The Oklahoma Tornado Project reached out to the Attorney General’s office repeatedly to get their side of the story.

Pruitt and his staff declined to grant an interview, but they emailed a statement saying that the measure’s original wording was found “not to be consistent with the requirements of the law.”

The State Supreme Court can now rule to accept the original wording, use Pruitt’s version, or write language of its own.  Whatever happens, Kathy Turner says she’ll be watching the outcome closely.

“Safety for children is a universal issue, no matter what you do for a living, no matter your economic status, your family status, it’s a universal issue.”

Until the court reaches a decision, Turner and the rest of the Take Shelter Oklahoma team say they’ll continue gathering signatures on their petition as if this challenge had never occurred.

Funding for the Oklahoma Tornado Project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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