DALLAS -- When Oklahoma voters decide today whether to back the state's first general obligation bond plan since 1968, they could authorize the $350 million in debt while rejecting the taxes to pay for the issue, observers say.

"I would say it's pretty much a toss-up right now," said Dan Brown, president of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Union, which has taken no formal position on the bond issue. "You might see the bonds approved, but the funding mechanism turned down."

Because of the way the bond authorization is worded, voters must approve separate referendums: one that would authorize the sale of GO bonds, and a second that would approve three new taxes to pay debt service. Both questions must pass before the bonds can be legally sold.

"Both questions are companion issues," said Lynne White, a political consultant and spokeswoman for the pro-bond Higher Education to Rebuild Oklahoma 1992 campaign. "Under state law, if both questions do not pass, there will be no bond issue."

She predicted the measures will pass because voters support plans to use two-thirds of the bond proceeds to finance higher education projects around the state. This is the same strategy that was used in 1968 to pass the state's last bond package.

Because voters last approved a GO debt sale three decades ago, Oklahoma currently expects to retire all of its tax-backed debt by fiscal 1996. As of June 30, the state had $14.2 million in outstanding GO debt.

Jim Joseph, Oklahoma's bond adviser, said state officials expect any new bond authorization to be sold over a 24-month period. "I feel like it has a pretty good chance," he said.

It is difficult, however, to determine what voters may feel about the proposal because no polls have been conducted recently. While there is no formal opposition to the bond issue, observers point out that voters are facing seven ballot issues in a year during which antigovernment sentiment is high.

"With seven questions on the ballot, voters could just start saying no to everything," said one bond underwriter who asked not to be identified. "I've talked to a lot of people who think we need the bond program for our colleges, but who don't think any higher taxes are a good idea."

Brown agrees. He said his tax group, which last year won passage for a state question that requires voter approval of all new state taxes, was so split over the bond proposal that it chose to remain neutral on the issue.

"I think people have a problem with the funding source," said Brown, who personally opposes the bond issue. "When voters approved State Question 640, the sentiment was that they opposed taxes. The Legislature didn't get that message; they believe the message is just that voters want to approve higher taxes."

While the $350 million in bonds would be backed by a GO pledge of the double-A rated state, the state has historically pledged specific revenues to make debt service.

As part of the bond proposal, voters will be asked to continue the double-barreled pledge of paying cigarette taxes for bonds. Voters will also be asked to pledge new taxes on bingo and pull-tab gambling and certain tobacco purchases in the state's Indian smoke shops to secure debt service.

Proponents note that all the taxes are essentially paid by users, so that voters only pay if they gamble or smoke.

"If you watch the election returns [tonight], I think you'll see that voters like that," said White. "They like the idea that these taxes are all voluntary."

Others interviewed were concerned that voters might confuse the bond referenda with a separate ballot measure to raise the health-care provider tax. The measure would affect funding of Medicare, not the bond issue.

Oklahoma Gov. David Walters said in an earlier interview that the bond plan enjoys statewide support because it would spend money on higher education projects in all areas of the state.

"We've got 28 institutions of higher education, so we've got a lot of geographic dispersion around the state, and I think we'll be successful in getting it passed," he told The Bond Buyer.

And what if voters reject the proposal?

"We don't have enough excess funds to do this out of the operating budget," the governor said. "I suspect we'd simply come back again on another bond issue request and look for the reasons why they didn't approve it, whether it was the expenditure of funds or how we raise the revenues."

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