Oklahoma justices hear challenge to penny education tax

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A plan to seek a public vote on a penny sales tax to fund a teacher pay raise and other areas of education in Oklahoma is a classic example of unconstitutional "logrolling" because it wraps up multiple subjects in one vote before the people, an attorney argued Wednesday before the state's highest court.

The nine-member Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides of the proposal on whether the initiative petition is constitutional and may proceed to the signature gathering stage.

A pro-education group that includes University of Oklahoma President David Boren wants a statewide vote on the one-cent sales tax that would generate about $615 million annually, about 70 percent of which would pay for a $5,000 pay raise for teachers. The rest would go to colleges and universities, grants for early childhood education and the state's career-technology system.

But the lobbying arm of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a think tank opposed to higher taxes, is challenging the petition, claiming it violates a constitutional requirement that amendments pertain to only one subject.

"The voters should not have to make an unpalatable, all-or-nothing choice," said Robert McCampbell, an attorney for OCPA Impact.

While McCampbell concedes that a pay raise for teachers is a "wildly popular" idea, he said Oklahoma voters shouldn't be forced to also subsidize other components of education they may not support.

Justice Stephen Taylor suggested during questioning that common education, or public schools for kindergarten through grade 12, is completely separate from higher education, both in terms of how each is referenced in the Oklahoma Constitution and how they are funded by the Legislature.

"They are separate entities in the Constitution," Taylor said.

But proponents of the education sales tax argued that the one general subject was improving the state's education system, and that voters should be afforded the opportunity to do so.

"The general subject here is education improvement," said attorney Kent Meyers. "And you can't just say you want to improve education without deciding how to fund it."

Meyers also argued that the direct democracy movement is strong in Oklahoma, and that the court should give deference to the people's right to vote.

Chief Justice John Reif said the nine justices will take the matter under advisement and issue a decision later.

Supreme Court Justices Tom Colbert and Joseph Watt both recused themselves from the case, and two special justices from the Court of Civil Appeals, Thomas Thornbrugh and E. Bay Mitchell, were appointed to replace them. Colbert and Watt did not indicate why they sought to be disqualified.


Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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