Group seeks to overturn Oklahoma tax hikes for teacher raise
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An anti-tax group filed paperwork on May 1a seeking a public vote on whether to overturn a package of tax increases approved by the Legislature this year to pay for teacher pay raises and fund public schools.
The group Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, which includes former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, now has until July 18 to gather about 41,000 signatures needed to place the question on the ballot.
Ronda Vuillemont-Smith of Tulsa, who co-founded the group with GOP political consultant Brooke McGowan, said the Legislature should have looked for waste and fraud within state government instead of seeking more money from taxpayers.
“I’m fighting for the taxpayers,” Vuillemont-Smith said. “We are the forgotten man.”
The group is seeking to overturn HB1010XX, a package of tax increases on cigarettes, motor fuel and oil and gas production that is expected to generate about $430 million annually. The bill narrowly received a three-fourth’s majority vote in the Republican-controlled House and Senate and was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin. The revenue from the bill was used to fund an average pay raise for teachers of about $6,100 a year, as well as increased funding for textbooks, health benefits and raises for education support personnel.
The effort to overturn the funding mechanism has outraged Oklahoma teachers, thousands of whom walked out of their classrooms last month and protested at the Capitol seeking more funding for classrooms, even after the Legislature approved the funding bill and raises for teachers.
“It seems like they’re undercutting all the progress we made this session,” said Cheryl Fentress, a ninth-grade teacher from Bartlesville. “It’s hard not to take it personally.”
Oklahoma Education Association Executive Director David Duvall said the union is organizing a campaign to fight the proposal.
“We believe this is an irresponsible action to try and take that money away,” Duvall said. “We’re going to do everything we can to block it.”
If the group successfully gathers the required number of signatures by July 18, the taxes will not go into effect until voters decide the issue, said Richard Wilkinson, an attorney for the OEA. Wilkinson said it’s the OEA’s position that the teacher pay raises would not be jeopardized by the referendum, but that’s not entirely clear.
A provision in the teacher pay raise bill states the measure will not become law unless the provisions of HB 1010XX are enacted.
“There are probably going to be conflicting views on this,” Wilkinson said. “At the end of the day we’ll need some determination, from either the courts or the attorney general.”