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Plan for school shelters thwarted by Okla. tax cut

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm •  Published: December 16, 2013
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After a huge tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburbs this spring and demolished two elementary schools, killing seven children, a longtime legislator thought the time was ripe for the state to act on a well-known problem.

Although Oklahoma averages more than 50 tornadoes a year, and sometimes gets more than 100, about 60 percent of public schools have no shelters. Cash-strapped districts can't afford to build them.

Rep. Joe Dorman, who represents the small farming town of Rush Springs, proposed a bond issue, taking advantage of the state's rebounding economy and revenue from a business tax that was already on the books.

But the response to his proposal has made clear that there's something more ominous than tornadoes these days in one of the nation's most conservative states: taxes and borrowing.

The idea has been snubbed by Oklahoma's political leadership, including Gov. Mary Fallin, triggering a debate over the current push by some GOP-controlled states to cut taxes to improve their business climate instead of using available revenue for longstanding problems.

"It would be nice if every kid in Oklahoma had a safe room to go to," said Bill Pingleton, the superintendent in the rural town of Tushka, where the school and much of the town were destroyed by a tornado in 2011.

But top officials said the schools shouldn't expect state help for shelters.

"Just adding on a new tax burden on Oklahomans is not the answer," said Republican State Superintendent Janet Barresi, Oklahoma's highest ranking education official.

Republican leaders want to eliminate the franchise tax, a $1.25 levy on every $1,000 a corporation invests in Oklahoma, to help fund the shelter plan. The tax, which has existed since 1963, generates about $40 million annually, but was recently suspended. Since 2010, the Republican-controlled Legislature has cut the personal income tax and several taxes on businesses as part of an aggressive fiscal agenda.

Supporters of the shelter proposal, including teachers and families of children killed in the suburban Moore tornado, are trying to collect 155,000 signatures to put the question on the 2014 ballot. Organizers said they were about 40,000 signatures short by Monday's deadline, but have asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court for additional time.

Oklahoma is dead center in the Great Plains corridor known as tornado alley. Every spring when twister season arrives, school children follow a familiar ritual of filing to interior hallways, gymnasiums or — in the more affluent districts — reinforced shelters for state-mandated storm drills.

At the new Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Norman, a fast-growing college town in one of the wealthiest counties, every fourth classroom has been outfitted as a shelter with steel-reinforced concrete walls, no windows and a solid steel door.

Parents say the rooms ease their fears.

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