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End of walkout doesn't mean funding questions are settled

The end of the widespread teacher walkout doesn't mean questions surrounding Oklahoma's education funding are settled.

Voters will head to the polls this November to chose Oklahoma's next governor and elect a large swath of the Legislature. But it's a pair of proposed state questions, which may or may not ultimately appear on the ballot, that could decide if teachers lose recently approved raises or possibly receive further pay increases.

Effort to repeal tax package

Perhaps the more controversial of the two is an effort to repeal the nearly $425 million tax package the Legislature passed to give teachers an average raise of $6,000.

Ronda Vuillemont-Smith a co-founder of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!, a new tax-exempt social welfare organization backed by former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, said the group has drafted language to start a veto referendum that would repeal the funding legislation, which increased tax on fuel, cigarettes and oil and gas production.

"We want to let those who pay have a say," she said.

Vuillemont-Smith said the group hopes to submit paperwork with the secretary of state in the next two weeks and, if given the go-ahead, begin collecting the needed 41,242 signatures to get the proposal on the ballot.

She added that she believes repealing the tax hikes would not affect the teacher pay raises and create a nearly half-billion-dollar shortfall that lawmakers would have to address by finding money elsewhere, cutting spending or, as Vuillemont-Smith suggests, by finding and eliminating waste.

But the potential ramifications appear to be more complicated, depending on how the proposal is written.

House Bill 1023, the teacher-pay package that was signed into law just before the walkout began, includes language saying the act "shall be contingent upon the enactment of the provisions" of HB 1010.

The attorney general's office couldn't confirm Friday whether approval of the referendum repealing the tax-hike package would simultaneously nullify the teacher pay bill.

But educators say they believe that the veto referendum poses a direct threat to the raises.

"(Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!) is trying to repeal our efforts," Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said during a press conference Thursday in which she implored educators to shift focus from the walkout to the elections. "We must defeat that effort.

Could tax increases be put on hold?

The other question is whether the tax increases in HB 1010 would be put on hold  again threatening the collection of revenue to pay for the raises  until the election if the anti-tax group gets the repeal question certified and obtains the required number of signatures.

Both the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and the Oklahoma Policy Institute are among those who said they believe the state Constitution requires the tax increases to be put on hold until voters have their say.

The attorney general's office declined to weigh in since no ballot language has been submitted yet.

Although Vuillemont-Smith questions whether her petition would stall the pay raises, she said she expects answers in the next few weeks. And with educators increasingly organized and active in state politics, she said she expects challenges to even get the proposal on the ballot.

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