EFFORTS to paint a storm shelter plan for Oklahoma public schools with a nonpolitical brush are off to a rocky start. But then it’s folly to think that such a thing could remain uncolored by the palette of politics.
For starters, the initiative petition process is inherently political. It involves the circulation of a proposal that, if enough signatures are gathered, would place a measure on the election ballot — itself a political document.
The initiative and referendum process is a cherished right and somewhat insulates issues from the politically charged atmosphere of the Legislature, which could have (but didn’t) place a shelter proposal on the November ballot.
A storm shelter petition drive has been revived after stalling last year over a dispute on the ballot language. The movement started following the May 20, 2013, tornado in Moore that took the lives of seven children at an elementary school. Emotions ran high after the event. Indeed, an election on a shelter proposal might have easily passed had the vote been taken two or three months after the storm.
Politics entered the equation early on. State Rep. Joe Dorman, a future candidate for governor, took on the cause as the central plank of a political platform centered on attacking Gov. Mary Fallin. The governor favored (as did The Oklahoman) a competing plan for shelters that emphasizes local control. Dorman’s early involvement and his current status can’t be unlinked.
Dorman, D-Rush Springs, pressed for a vote on a $500 million statewide bond issue to be repaid with franchise tax funds. When the ballot language controversy erupted, an attorney for the first petition drive played politics in accusing Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office of making changes in response to his political donors. This was specious. As it turns out, Pruitt didn’t need any immediate help from donors. He was re-elected in April when no one filed to oppose him.
Therein lies a problem for the petition organizers: If the statewide bond issue approach is so popular, why did Pruitt — the man whose office was accused of pulling strings to keep it off the ballot — get a pass?
In the latest petition, the franchise tax funding has been scrapped in favor of repaying the bonds from the General Revenue Fund, thereby subjecting it to the political process of appropriations. Also, the mother of one of the Moore victims injected herself into politics by filing for a state House seat. The incumbent in that seat favors the more sensible local control option.
In a final signal that the shelter petition plan reeks with politics, backers brought in Jesse Jackson to mug for the cameras on the launch date. Jackson is a political animal. Enough said. Why not bring in a nationally known figure associated with, say, meteorology, instead of a professional race-baiter? Al Roker?
Circulators have 90 days to gather the requisite signatures and, if validated, the measure would go to the ballot on a date at least 18 months after the emotions of Moore have subsided. We don’t question the right of the proposal’s backers to seek a public vote, but they face a hurdle in gathering names outside the traditional signature-reaping period of autumn.
Never believe that this effort rides above the fray of politics. The movement has been entwined with partisan politics from the get-go. Lest we forget, if the referendum makes the ballot, that’s when the real poli-ticking will begin. With $500 million plus interest at stake, it couldn’t be otherwise.