Tornado Safety For Oklahoma Schools May Fall Victim To Anti-Tax Zeal

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

A woman surveys the scene at the tornado-ravaged Plaza Towers Elementary school Thursday, May 23, 2013, in Moore, Okla.

Oklahoma activists who want the state to retrofit school buildings with tornado shelters using revenue from corporate taxes find their effort at the mercy of the state’s Supreme Court after missing a Monday deadline for gathering petition signatures to put the proposal on the November ballot.

An organization called Take Shelter Oklahoma had been gathering signatures since September. The group, formed after fatal tornadoes leveled two schools in the town of Moore in May, resorted to the ballot measure tactic after Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and her supporters in the legislature refused to reinstate the 0.125 percent franchise tax rate on businesses to pay for the school safety improvements. That tax had lapsed in 2010 and Republican lawmakers want to repeal it permanently in the name of job creation.

Take Shelter Oklahoma’s ballot measure would reinstate the tax and use the proceeds — roughly $50 million each year — to finance loans that would pay for the construction projects required to reduce the likelihood of future school fatalities like those in Moore. The group launched its petition drive officially in mid-September. Activists collected about 120,000 signatures in the 90-day petition-gathering window, coming up short of the 155,000 required to get the measure on the ballot. The Oklahoma Supreme Court is set to rule Wednesday on a technical challenge to the wording of the ballot measure, and that decision could extend Take Shelter Oklahoma’s deadline.

One basic reality won’t change no matter what the court decides. Oklahoma Republicans are dug in against reinstating the franchise tax, and do not seem interested in suggesting alternative ways of paying for school safety improvements. The state’s top education official, Janet Barresi, told the Associated Press that “adding a new tax burden on Oklahomans is not the answer” to the school safety problem, reflecting the broader Fallin administration’s stance on the idea. “There are things that will have to be cut” to fund the plan, Fallin claimed in October, drawing criticism from supporters of the idea who noted that the tax hasn’t been collected for three years and would therefore be bringing in new revenue sufficient to pay for construction without cutting other state services.

Fallin’s agenda has centered on tax cuts that mirror typical supply-side thinking. Her income tax plan, for example, would give the wealthiest Oklahomans a large tax break but do next to nothing for the bottom 80 percent of the state’s earners. The same thinking is on display in the GOP’s stance on the tornado safety measure. “Republican leaders maintain that eliminating taxes, especially those on businesses, will encourage more investment in the state,” according to the Associated Press, “generating more money for communities to pay for their own needs.”

That fend-for-yourselves approach leaves Oklahoma’s less wealthy communities in the lurch. While some districts enjoy local economic activity sufficient to finance steel-reinforced safe rooms in schools through local taxes, many of the state’s rural districts are not so fortunate. A lot of the state’s schoolhouses were built in the first half of the 20th century and are far behind modern tornado safety codes.