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.
"Under the current law those funds cannot be spent," Leibrock said. "It would be illegal for the Yes on 744 to spend those funds."
A representative of the One Oklahoma Coalition filed a complaint Friday with the Ethics Commission saying the NEA contribution is an illegal political action committee-to-political action committee contribution.
"The money, whether it's corporate or not, isn't really the question," said Jeff Wilson, campaign manager for the One Oklahoma Coalition. "It comes from a fund that specifically engages in influencing the outcome of ballot measures in states. That's a PAC," he said.
The NEA has not registered as a political action committee in Oklahoma.
The One Oklahoma Coalition raised objections with the NEA contribution after the coalition had to return a $15,000 contribution it received from the Oklahoma Public Employees Association political action committee.
Questioning the NEA contribution is a diversionary tactic, said Michael Kolenc, Yes on 744's campaign manager.
"The One Oklahoma Coalition is clearly trying to distract voters from the fact that they accepted an illegal contribution," he said.
Ethics Commissioner Karen Long said she was reluctant to act on the matter without giving the public more time to be aware of the issue. She also is concerned about the pending complaint.
Months to decide
Ethics Commissioner John Raley said it could take several months before a final determination is made on the complaint. SQ 744 is on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
"Something has got to be done with this big sack of money," Raley said. "The longer we postpone it, the longer that money remains in limbo. ... Now is the time to act."
But commissioners — with Commissioner Bob McKinney absent — failed in two attempts to take any action. A motion to postpone taking any action failed on a 2-2 vote and Raley's motion to clarify the rule died because no one seconded it. Commissioners then adjourned.
The Ethics Commission passed a rule in 2008 which prohibited Oklahoma political action committees from transferring funds to other Oklahoma political action committees. The commission earlier this year passed another rule, which took effect July 1, which expanded the prohibition to include out-of-state political action committees from giving money to political action committees in the state.
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.