Petition and Repeal
The Oklahoma Taxpayer Unite! petition to veto the passage of HB1010XX was given a veto of its own last week when the Oklahoma Supreme Court handed down a ruling, ordering that the repeal initiative, as presented to taxpayers, not be allowed to appear on the November ballot.
The decision was a huge win for Oklahoma’s teachers and the state as a whole, so long as the group doesn’t successfully launch and complete a second petition before the rapidly-approaching deadline.
Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! and its founder, former Senator Tom Coburn, have until July 18 to redraft a petition that presents an honest and accurate interpretation of the bill it is intended to repeal, and obtain the 41,000 signatures required to get the referendum on the ballot for the November election.
Considering that there are only 20 days remaining before the deadline, this is a tall order made even taller due to the fact that the state’s taxpayers are now jaded to anything this group may present because of their first misleading petition attempt.
Coburn had launched the referendum petition seeking a vote of the people to repeal tax hikes on cigarettes, motor vehicle fuel and energy production approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin earlier this year. Money from the increase would fund an average $6,100 annual teacher pay increase, support staff pay raises, general school funding and pubic employee raises.
Now, short of anything less than a miracle, it looks like 1010XX is safe and will go into effect.
What this means for Oklahoma can be measured not only by the millions of dollars the bill will pump into fiscally desperate school districts throughout the state, but by the number of Oklahoma teachers it will retain.
When the Step Up Oklahoma education funding plan failed in February of this year, teachers took its failure as a message from the Legislature that lawmakers were not going to support the, or their schools if it meant increasing the gross production tax on directionally drilled wells.
In May, as schools let out for summer break, the exodus began. Both experienced and recently graduated teachers began leaving the state by the hundreds, seeking higher wages and better funded classrooms. Many school districts found themselves scrambling to find qualified teachers to fill the gaps.
Even families with school-aged children began leaving, looking for a state where education was a higher priority than campaign donors.
It remains to be seen whether the (likely) failure of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! petition will lessen the flood of educators leaving the state, but the collective sigh of relief among school districts and educators was audible across the state.
The affect on Coburn’s legacy is not so rosy.
Anyone who supports teacher pay raises and increased education funding saw through Coburn’s smoke and mirrors and recognized that his petition was an attempt to mislead taxpayers and get the increase in gross production taxes stopped.
During a hearing two weeks ago, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices said right out that it appeared to them that the language in the petition to repeal 1010XX was intentionally misleading to taxpayers who might sign it.
When the petition was introduced, Coburn repeatedly claimed that money for education could be produced by cutting wasteful spending, conducting genuine audits, trimming the Medicaid rolls by eliminating unqualified recipients, cutting corporate welfare, using existing funds from the School Land Trust, increasing the cap on scholarship limits, diverting funds from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, changing the rules for using property tax revenues, legislative lineitem budgeting for higher education, trimming higher education administrative costs and more.
While these measures are necessary and could go toward easing the education shortfall, the notion that any or all of these could be implemented in time to save public education is preposterous.
Coburn’s motivation in forming Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! is rooted in less noble soil.
It is interesting to note that one of his initiatives would be to reduce corporate welfare because during his tenure in Washington, Coburn received $546,813 in campaign funding from the energy sector and the crux of 1010XX – the very bill he intends to repeal – is an effort to retain levels of corporate welfare for the energy sector.
Starting in 2008, Coburn began publishing compilations of the worst wasteful spending that passed through Congress.
Despite his work to uncover and ease waste at the national level, Coburn’s legacy among Oklahomans will forever be as the man who tried to derail the most significant legislative contribution to education funding in decades.