Oklahoma Supreme Court to Consider Penny Tax for Education


Greg Albert, an Oklahoma Supreme Court referee, last week heard arguments from supporters of a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase for education purposes to determine the constitutionality of the proposal.

Barbara Hoberock writes for Tulsa World that the action came after OCPA Impact, the lobbying arm of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, filed a protest against the proposal earlier in November. The OCPA is an organization for proponents of conservative policy.

Last month, University of Oklahoma President David Boren announced the initiative petition that would amend Oklahoma’s constitution. The petition would have to attain voter approval to be enacted.

Known as State Question 779, it would allow for a $5,000 pay raise for teachers and increased funding for common education and higher education. Supporters of the petition said the increase in taxes will improve education. They add that the state’s education system is in crisis, including a shortage of teachers.

Robert McCampbell, a representative for OCPA, said voters might agree that teachers deserve a raise, but might disagree with increasing funds for higher education. He added that some voters could approve a pay raise but differ with raising the necessary money by increasing the sales tax.

If approved, the sales tax increase would put Oklahoma’s state sales tax combined with city rates at the highest in the country.

McCampbell explained that the proposal should not be presented to voters because it violates the state constitution’s provision against lumping various subjects in a single proposition, creating what is known as “logrolling,” writes Rick M. Green of The Oklahoman.

“Instead of rolling everything into one ball of wax, voters deserve a choice,” McCampbell said.

Albert will make a summation to the full Supreme Court, which will then rule on whether the initiative should go forward.

D. Kent Myers, representing initiative proponents, argued that the subjects in the proposal are closely related, and both would serve the purpose of benefiting schools. One part of the provision would create a fund and another would bring money to the fund by way of the penny sales tax increase.

Only after the court resolves the challenge can backers collect the 123,000 voter signatures necessary to put the issue to a vote in November 2016.

McCampbell said the petition included four separate subjects: a teacher pay raise, funding for various education-related items, a sales tax increase, and a change in the appropriations process prohibiting lawmakers from reducing funding for education.

“You can’t reasonably expect that because a voter supports a teacher pay raise that they would also support making Oklahoma the highest sales tax state in the country,” McCampbell said.

The combined state and average local sales tax rate of 8.72% was the fifth highest in the nation in 2014, reports Sean Murphy for the Associated Press. Oklahoma’s average sales tax rate during 2015 was 8.77%, which put it at sixth nationwide, according to the Tax Foundation. The tax rate for the state is 4.5%, and local taxes make up the rest of the taxes imposed.

Should the initiative succeed, it would create about $615 million a year for education in the state, including career-technology centers.