OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A proposal supported by Gov. Mary Fallin to help local school districts pay for safety upgrades like storm shelters and safe rooms was approved Thursday by the Oklahoma House.
House lawmakers voted 65-28 for the bill in spite of the concerns of opponents who said it would force voters to choose between keeping schoolchildren safe from natural disasters like tornadoes and holding the line on raising their property taxes.
“People back home want us to protect our children. But is this the way to do it?” said House Democratic Leader Scott Inman of Oklahoma City.
“I seriously doubt a single district will implement this,” said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, a Democratic candidate for governor who helped spearhead a separate ballot initiative that would ask voters to decide a $500 million bond issue to pay for storm shelters in public schools.
The initiative petition, State Question 767, is the focus of a lawsuit filed in October by Take Shelter Oklahoma and Kristi Conatzer, the mother of one of seven children killed when a massive tornado struck Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore in May.
The lawsuit challenges Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s rewrite of the measure’s ballot title and claims the initiative petition’s original ballot title is legal. It asks the Oklahoma Supreme Court to reinstate the original ballot title and to give supporters more time to collect enough signatures to have the matter placed on an election ballot.
Supporters filed the initiative petition with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office in September and had 90 days to gather the signatures of about 155,000 registered voters to have the measure placed on the ballot. Supporters came up 35,000 signatures short of the number required.
Take Shelter supporters claim the new ballot title overemphasizes the funding method and the state’s franchise tax on Oklahoma businesses and underemphasizes the purpose of the petition. The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last month but has not yet handed down a ruling.
The legislation approved by lawmakers calls for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to permit school districts to pursue a one-time increase in bonding capacity for safety upgrades. The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Supporters said it is a responsible way for local school districts to provide for student safety.
“We need more tools in the toolbox,” said the bill’s co-author, Rep. Mark McBride. R-Moore.
“We need your support. The kids deserve it,” said another co-author, Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
But opponents said the measure does not go far enough. They also criticized its five-year deadline for school districts to take advantage of the bonding capacity increase.
“You don’t put a time stamp on it,” Dorman said. “We didn’t build a single shelter today.”
Following the vote, Fallin issued a statement thanking lawmakers for passing “this responsible plan to improve safety and security at Oklahoma schools.”
“This bill empowers communities to take action to better protect their children from tornadoes and other threats,” the governor said. “It is a fiscally responsible, realistic plan that I believe will ultimately help to save lives.”
If approved by the Senate, the measure will appear on the ballot of the Nov. 4 general election.