The Oklahoma Supreme Court today received a fresh challenge to a proposed ballot measure that, if approved by voters, would increase the sales tax burden on Oklahoma families to the highest in the U.S.
Representatives of OCPA Impact, the group that filed the court challenge, said the proposal does not comply with state law and should not be placed on the statewide ballot later this year.
Initiative Petition 403, also known as State Question 779, has been championed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren and others as a means to increase teacher salaries. The proposal would levy a new, 1% sales tax that is expected to increase tax collections on Oklahomans by around $600 million a year.
When combined with existing state, county and municipal sales taxes, the proposal would raise the average total sales tax burden across the state to 9.78%, the highest of any state in the nation. Oklahoma already ranks sixth-highest nationally in combined state-and-local sales taxes. [LINK]
“Oklahomans want a teacher pay raise, not a tax increase, but President Boren’s proposal would impose a major tax increase on families, individuals and small businesses at a time when tens of thousands of Oklahomans have lost work because of the ripple effects of falling oil prices,” said Dave Bond, CEO of OCPA Impact, a nonpartisan advocacy organization in Oklahoma City.
The group is specifically challenging the gist of the initiative petition. The gist is the summary of the measure that appears at the top of every page of signatures gathered in support of the proposal.
The gist of Initiative Petition 403 fails to describe key aspects of the proposal, is inaccurate in its description of other elements of the proposal, and contains wording that could potentially be misleading or confusing to voters about the proposal’s effects, according to the challenge filed today.
In January, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of the constitutionality of Initiative Petition 403, following a separate challenge also filed by Bond and OCPA Impact.
The majority opinion of the court specifically did not reach the question of whether the gist complied with state law. However, the minority opinion stated that the gist was “dead on arrival.” The minority opinion also stated that, “The gist or proposed ballot title deceives potential signatories and potential voters.” [LINK]
Bond explained that the proponents of Initiative Petition 403 were on notice, following the Court’s January ruling, of the gist’s potential legal problems. The proponents opted to go forward without refiling the gist.
In Oklahoma, challenges to the gist of any proposed initiative petition have traditionally been filed after signatures have been gathered and before a costly election is held.
As recently as 2007, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled after signatures were gathered but before the election was held that a measure could not advance to the ballot due to deficiencies in the gist.
Per the challenge filed today, the legal insufficiencies of Initiative Petition 403’s gist include:
- The gist fails to explain that the sales and use taxes imposed by the proposal will be in addition to sales and use taxes already levied.
- It suggests funds raised by the new tax will be used to improve college affordability, but the proposal in no way requires this.
- It inaccurately states that funds cannot be used by school districts for administrative salaries, when the measure only prohibits funds from being used to increase superintendent salaries or add new superintendent positions.
- It fails to notify voters how the new monies will be allocated, though over 40% of funds would go toward areas other than teacher salaries, with nearly 20% to higher education.
- It does not mention how the proposal would alter the balance of appropriations authority between the state Board of Equalization and the Legislature.
- It does not notify voters of when salary restrictions and audit requirements related to use of the new monies would and would not apply, including that the proposal contains no audit requirements for funds directed to the State Department of Education, the Department of Career and Technology Education, or the State Regents for Higher Education.
In addition to pointing out the insufficiencies of the gist, the challenge filed today states that the proposal’s ballot title should be changed.
The ballot title is the 200-words-or-less summary of a proposal that voters see on the ballot. Bond said Initiative Petition 403’s ballot title, as currently written, is insufficient for many of the same reasons as the gist.
“Voters shouldn’t be led to believe this proposal merely asks them to spare a penny that they might find in their couch cushions or underneath the floor mats in their car, but that’s more or less how it’s currently worded,” Bond said.
During Oklahoma’s 2016 legislative session, which ended in May, OCPA Impact was the only group advocating at the state Capitol for a pay raise for classroom teachers in Oklahoma public schools.
To provide a $5,000 pay raise for every classroom teacher statewide would cost about $245 million. OCPA Impact has previously presented over $750 million in options for funding the teacher pay raise without increasing taxes or reducing core services. [LINK]
“A substantial, across-the-board pay raise for Oklahoma teachers is long overdue, but it can and should be provided without increasing taxes on working Oklahomans, including teachers, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet,” Bond said.
The general election is scheduled for Nov. 8.[Please click the links below to view the legal briefs filed today by OCPA Impact.]