Fight For Safe Rooms Leads To Oklahoma Supreme Court

Oct 22, 2013

Kathy Turner works with Take Shelter Oklahoma.  The group wants to build safe rooms to protect students from tornadoes like the one that destroyed Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools in Moore.  Turner says her experience as a former school administrator showed her how important government funding can be.  

Credit hyku

“As a superintendent, I found out my bonding capacity was limited,” Turner said. “I couldn’t get the necessary funds to build the kind of buildings that I needed for storm shelters. It just couldn’t happen without raising taxes significantly.”

So her group drafted a proposal last month to use the already existing state franchise tax, which is a sliding-scale business tax, to fund safe room construction. They filed their petition with the Attorney General and began collecting signatures to get it on the ballot. A week and a half ago they received a response, and they were not thrilled with what they heard.

“It was a difficult decision for me to file a lawsuit against the chief law enforcement officer of the state, which is the attorney general, because I don’t believe in litigation,” Turner said. “I find it harmful, but it was actually the only remedy that was available so that it would go to the Supreme Court and let the Supreme Court rule on what he did.”

The reason Turner’s group has filed a lawsuit is because they’re unhappy with the changes Attorney General Scott Pruitt made to the wording of their proposal. The original wording had focused on the goal of funding safe rooms in schools, but now, supporters fear it’s been weighted down with legal language that clouds its meaning. State Representative Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs) shares those concerns.

“The problem is with the re-write, it’s four paragraphs, three paragraphs talk about the funding mechanism: the franchise tax,” Dorman said. “So if someone is looking at this, they’re going to assume it deals more with taxes than it does with storm shelters.”

State Representative Joe Dorman
Credit Oklahoma House of Representatives

Governor Fallin has in the past said she opposes the petition and believes school storm shelters should be funded locally rather than on a statewide level. Representative Dorman sees this rewrite as an effort by the administration to distract attention from the issue at the heart of the matter and ultimately derail Take Shelter Oklahoma’s campaign.

“We’ve tried to indicate to the voters that we are not increasing taxes a single cent,” Dorman said. “We’re going to use an existing revenue stream. And I don’t feel that they were clear enough with that. I think this sets it up for the opposition to run a smear campaign on this proposal talking about the franchise tax rather than talking about school shelters and school security.”

The Oklahoma Tornado Project reached out to the Attorney General’s office repeatedly to get their side of the story. Pruitt and his staff declined to grant an interview, but in an emailed statement, Communications Director Diane Clay said, “The proposed ballot title submitted to the Secretary of State was reviewed by the AG's Office and the language was found not to be consistent with the requirements of the law.  As required by the initiative petition process, the AG's Office corrected problems in the ballot language and submitted a new ballot title to the Secretary of State." 

The State Supreme Court can now rule to accept the original wording, use Pruitt’s version, or write language of its own.  Whatever happens, Kathy Turner says she’ll be watching the outcome closely.

“Safety for children is a universal issue,” Turner said. “No matter what you do for a living, no matter your economic status, your family status, it’s a universal issue.”

Until the court reaches a decision, Turner and the rest of the Take Shelter Oklahoma team say they’ll continue gathering signatures on their petition as if this challenge had never occurred.


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