DALLAS -- Oklahoma voters have rejected an attempt to repeal a $223 million education reform and tax package that critics said was ineffective and too costly.
Dan Brown, president of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Union, said his group, which headed the campaign to repeal House Bill 1017, would seek a referendum next fall to require voter approval of all new revenues at the state level.
H.B. 1017 was approved in the 1990 spring legislative session and became effective earlier this fall.
The union president said the loss on Tuesday by a 56% vote was a result of efforts by state officials last year to delay the statewide vote until after H.B. 1017 was implemented.
"They chose to make it hard for us," he said.
Mr. Brown, who recently quit his job as vice president for investments at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. to lead the campaign full time, said "We originally wanted to have a vote when they first approved this." But then-Gov. Henry Bellmon, who supported the reforms, contested in the Oklahoma Supreme Court the massive petition drive seeking the election last fall. By doing so, a special election could not be called until this month.
While the vote was pending, many districts began to implement the plan and spend an estimated $178.4 million of first-year money generated by the proposal.
Twenty-three districts would have lost $1 million or more this year had the repeal succeeded, including the public schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The two districts would have lost $15.6 million and $13 million, respectively.
Jon Dahlander, spokesman for the state's Department of Education, said only nine of the state's 578 districts would not have lost money because of the repeal.
Under H.B. 1017, schools were given new funds to reduce class sizes, raise teachers' salaries, impose tougher academic standards, and equalize how the state spends its $1.127 billion of aid to local districts.
Money for the reforms was generated by raising the statewide sales tax 0.5%, to 4.5%; restructuring the personal income tax; and raising corporate taxes by 1%, to 6%. Even supporters of the reforms worried the sudden increase in taxes might cause a voter backlash.
"The biggest problem is that people [felt] there was too much tax crammed down their throats," said J.B. Flatt, deputy executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators.
Terry Almon, executive director of Growth Oklahoma, which headed the campaign to block the repeal, said the reforms will cost each taxpayer about $6 per month. "H.B. 1017 is the first time we've ever had a very progressive way to fund education across the state," she said. "The corporations are paying for a lot of it, but they are all backing it."
But Mr. Brown warned that the initial taxes are only the beginning. He said taxpayers also will be asked to pay higher property taxes to back bonds needed to fund expansion to accommodate the smaller class sizes, and to pay higher state-level taxes to continue the reforms in the future.
"Oklahomans are asked to pay for this three times," he said. "The people want something affordable .... I think this essentially gives the Legislature a blank check to do whatever they want."
His newly formed Oklahoma Taxpayers Union hopes to do something about that. Already, the group has asked the state Supreme Court to certify a petition seeking an election on the proposal to prohibit lawmakers from raising revenues not approved by voters.
If certified, it will likely be next August or November 1992 before a statewide election is held. At the same time, the group may seek a referendum to limit state spending unless it is approved by voters.
The campaign to repeal H.B. 1017 was a very sensitive issue. In fact, a pipe bomb exploded Sept. 30 at the Oklahoma Taxpayers Union's headquarters in Oklahoma City. No one was hurt, and no one has been arrested in the case.
Ms. Almon said that with Tuesday's victory behind them, supporters plan to press lawmakers for further reforms. Asked if those proposals could mean higher taxes, she responded, "Some could, some won't."