Oklahoma Storm Shelter Initiative to Stress General Fund Over Taxes

By TIM TALLEY | July 8, 2014

Oklahoma budget writers say an initiative petition to install storm shelters and safe rooms in every Oklahoma public school could overstress the state’s biggest and most critical revenue fund and slow the flow of tax dollars for vital public services.

For the second time in less than a year, a group known as Take Shelter Oklahoma is collecting the signatures of voters to put the issue on a statewide ballot.

Supporters say State Question 774 is a moral obligation shared by parents and others to protect school students following a massive tornado that struck Moore on May 20, 2013, which killed seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary School. But others are concerned about the plan’s $500 million state bond issue to fund the shelters, money that would be repaid over 25 years from the state’s General Revenue Fund.

“It’s a sizeable amount of money,” Senate Appropriations Committee chairman s Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said. “You can take it away without a tax increase. But you’re going to have to cut agency spending in this state.”

State Treasurer Ken Miller said government has a responsibility to provide for public safety, but that “further eroding the state’s beleaguered General Revenue Fund with additional off-the-top earmarks is not the solution.”

The storm shelter plan’s advocates first started gathering signatures for the initiative in September, but abandoned it in April after complaining that changes to the proposed ballot title by Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office moved the focus from the construction of school storm shelters to how they would be funded – through a franchise tax on businesses.

The new proposal shifts funding for the school shelter proposal to the General Revenue Fund, a $5.8 billion fund that is tapped by almost every state agency and is state government’s principal operating fund. Pruitt’s office raised no objection to the wording of the ballot title for State Question 774.

John Estus, spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said that at current interest rates, paying off a $500 million bond issue over 25 years would cost about $32 million a year, or about $800 million over the life of the bond issue.

David Slane, an attorney for Take Shelter Oklahoma, said he expected the cost to be a principal objection. But Slane, whose two children attend public schools in Moore, said if the public has an obligation to provide children with an education, it has an equal obligation to protect them while they are at school.

“Caring for children, educating children and making them safe has got to be a top priority,” he said. “How can you send kids to school and not protect them? It’s worth the expense. It’s worth the tax dollars.”

Jolley said dedicating state tax dollars to pay for storm shelters in schools will take them away from other needs, such as roads and bridges and public safety.

“Thirty-two million dollars would be larger than almost all state agency budgets in the state of Oklahoma,” he said. “The entire size of the state pay raise this year was approximately $30 million.”

Jolley said he believes providing storm shelters and safe rooms in schools should be the responsibility of local school districts, and added that most of the more than 500 school districts have sufficient bonded indebtedness capacity to afford a school shelter initiative on the local level.

“There’s a lot of districts who haven’t topped out on their local expenditures,” Jolley said. “I think the local level is where it should be done. Many districts have already done it.”

Slane said a 90-day period began on July 3 for organizers to collect the signatures of at least 155,000 Oklahoma voters to have the measure placed on the November ballot.

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