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SQ 744: Oklahoma's Ethics Commission takes no action on NEA money

The Oklahoma agency called a special meeting to clarify a rule that has thrown into question more than $1.5 million in out-of-state contributions to the group backing an educational spending measure on the November ballot.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: September 4, 2010 at 1:12 am •  Published: September 3, 2010
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A committee backing an educational spending measure on November's ballot intends to keep more than $1.5 million contributed from outside Oklahoma by a national teachers group despite the other side's filing a complaint with a state agency that the contribution is illegal and should be returned.

The state Ethics Commission took no action Friday concerning a rule that bans ballot measure committees from receiving money from political action committees.

Before commissioners met, a complaint was filed questioning whether the National Education Association could give contributions to a committee supporting State Question 744. The measure, if passed, would require Oklahoma to increase education spending per pupil to match that of surrounding states.

The commission's failure to take action keeps in place a prohibition against political action committees giving money to ballot measure committees.

Joel Robison, associate executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association, who attended Friday's Ethics Commission meeting representing the Yes on 744 committee, said the NEA money came from its corporate funds and not from a political action committee.

"We don't believe that this proceeding today had anything to do with the money that Yes on 744 received from the NEA," he sad. "That money came from the NEA's corporate budget; it's a corporate donation to the campaign. It did not come from a PAC."

Robison said the Yes on 744 committee doesn't intend to return the money.

"It's our belief that we're fully free to spend the money as we choose," he said. "It was a legal contribution to the campaign. Yes on 744 will use the money as we see fit. ... Nobody's told us that that is not a legal contribution."

A PAC or not a PAC

Asked whether the Yes on 744 campaign could spend the NEA money, Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said: "I can't really say. All I can tell you is what our rule says — a political action committee is defined as including a ballot measure committee.

"I will not interpret whether their claim is correct or not, whether it is a PAC or not. ... The commission makes those decisions, not me," she said.

The NEA this year gave $240,000 to Yes on 744 committee before July 1 and $1.5 million on July 15, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission. It also gave $108,000 in 2009 and $290,500 in 2008. In all, the NEA has given $2.14 million to the Yes on 744 campaign.

Fred Leibrock, an attorney representing the One Oklahoma Coalition which opposes SQ 744, told the Ethics Commission that Yes on 744 should return the NEA money.

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STATE QUESTION 744

If approved, State Question 744 would require Oklahoma's per-pupil spending to be equal to the average amount of money spent on students in surrounding states.

If the regional average decreases, Oklahoma's level of per-pupil spending would not change. Opponents say it could cost up to $1 billion annually to bring education funding up to the regional average.

The measure, to be implemented over three years, would not provide new funding despite the requirements.

Supporters say drastic action is needed to improve Oklahoma's school funding, which ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to a report released earlier this year by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The ballot measure states that SQ 744 deals with "money spent on day-to-day operations of the schools and school districts. This includes spending on instructions, support services and noninstruction services. The measure does not deal with money spent to pay debt, on buildings or on other capital needs."

The Oklahoma Education Association, the state teachers union, helped launch the petition drive in 2008 to get the measure on the ballot.

The move came after a failed lawsuit which was intended to increase education funding.

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