Oklahomans could get to vote next November on whether to allow local school districts to exceed their bonding capacity to pay for storm shelters and other school safety improvements under a resolution passed Thursday by the state House of Representatives.
The proposal, endorsed by Gov. Mary Fallin, passed the House 65-28 and will now go to the state Senate.
Passions were high and House debate was heated Thursday concerning how the state can best facilitate the construction of school storm shelters. Seven students at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School were among 50 people killed in last spring’s tornadoes and floods that devastated Oklahoma.
“This is an evil piece of legislation and you should be ashamed,” said state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City.
State House co-author Jon Echols, however, said the resolution would allow local communities to take action to protect their school-aged children when severe storm season comes along.
“Local communities should have the option and authority to do what they feel is right for them in this area. This measure is a great step in continuing the efforts to protect our children,” said Rep. Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
The resolution still needs Senate approval before the proposed Constitutional Amendment can come up for a public vote.
If state voters were to approve the proposal next November, local school districts would have five years during which they could ignore the state’s 10 percent bonding capacity limit one time in asking their districts’ voters to approve property tax increases to fund storm shelters or other public safety measures.
Some House members argued they weren’t doing enough and that the state should pass its own bond issue to fund storm shelter construction rather than forcing people to increase their property taxes if they want to protect children.
“You’re telling the people of the state of Oklahoma that they have to choose between their children’s lives and raising their property taxes when we have many other options,” Hamilton said. “I’m ashamed to be standing here today and have to vote on this.”
“We should be considering something that provides for the safety of the children of this state without forcing people to face what could for some of them be ruinous property tax increases,” she said.
Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman, who has announced he will run against Fallin for governor, has been pushing an alternative plan through a petition drive that calls for the state to issue $500 million in bonds that school districts could tap to help pay for storm shelters.
That plan, which is currently tied up in a state Supreme Court case, calls for the bonds to be paid back with state franchise tax revenue, or general fund revenue if franchise tax receipts are insufficient.
Dorman made several attempts Thursday to amend Echols’ resolution to include variations of his proposal, but was unsuccessful.
Gov. Fallin issued a news release Thursday praising House members for their action.
“My thanks go out to House members who voted for this responsible plan to improve safety and security at Oklahoma schools,” said Fallin, who asked lawmakers to pass the resolution in her State of the State Address earlier this year. “This bill empowers communities to take action to better protect their children from tornadoes and other threats. It is a fiscally responsible, realistic plan that I believe will ultimately help to save lives.