In a dramatic late night flip-flop, members of the state House of Representatives reversed course Thursday and approved a school storm shelter proposal backed by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin just hours after they had defeated it.
House members voted 51-39 to approve the resolution after initially voting 34-61 to reject it.
In between those two votes, Fallin lobbied House members on the House floor and issued an angry news release blaming the initial defeat of the measure on “a politically motivated and intentionally misleading smear campaign.”
“Critics of the bill said House Joint Resolution 1092 would have raised taxes. It does not,” Fallin said in her news release.
“It would have allowed local communities to increase their bonding indebtedness only if those communities voted to do so. It is a local control measure that supports decisions made by local communities.”
House Author Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, implored House members to pass the measure when it came up for a revote.
“We’re sending the wrong symbolic message,” Echols said of the earlier vote.
“What we’re saying is we don’t care...You have an opportunity to send a message that we do care.”
Fallin issued a news release thanking House members for reconsidering the issue after the measure passed.
“It is now up to the Senate to act on this bill and ensure the people of Oklahoma have a chance to vote on a plan to help put more storm shelters and safe rooms in our schools,” she said.
The storm shelter proposal was drafted in the wake of last year’s devastating tornadoes and storms that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma City, El Reno and many other Oklahoma communities.
Fifty people died in those storms, including seven students at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School.
“Every child that died in that school last year was our responsibility,” said state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City.
“A tornado didn’t kill them; we did.”
House Joint Resolution 1092 would ask state voters to remove a barrier that is preventing some school districts from passing bond issues to build tornado shelters and other public safety improvements.
The proposed constitutional amendment would create a five-year window during which school district voters could approve bonded indebtedness in excess of 10 percent of the district’s net assessed valuation. Each district would be allowed to exceed the limit only once during that time period.
Echols said the proposal would benefit about 25 of the state’s 545 school districts that are at or near their debt limits.
The proposal, if approved through a statewide vote, would let voters within each school district decide whether they want to increase their property taxes to build storm shelters.
Sixty percent approval would be required within each district.
The plan drew complaints from many House members who argued that it only had the potential to benefit about 3 percent of Oklahoma’s school districts and would require voters in those districts to approve a property tax increase on themselves for that to happen.
Many House members who opposed the bill indicated they backed an alternate proposal by state Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, who is running against Fallin for governor.
Dorman’s proposal called for the state to issue $500 million in bonds that districts could tap to help build storm shelters.
Some Democratic lawmakers argued that Dorman’s plan was better because it would more directly provide money for storm shelters.
Hamilton called the proposal backed by Fallin a “lousy alternative.”
“If kids die because they don’t have storm shelters in their schools, it’s on you,” she told the plan’s backers.
“You can do better than this.”
State Rep. Charles Hoskin, D-Vinita, said many rural Oklahomans can’t afford property tax increases.