The Oklahoma Supreme Court disallowed a ballot question that would have given voters the opportunity to decide whether to accept a set of tax increases the state government enacted earlier this year.
The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Professional Oklahoma Educators, a nonunion association of school personnel, on June 22, after Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, a taxpayer advocacy group, submitted signatures to place a referendum on the state’s November 6 ballot.
The ballot initiative, State Question 799, would have asked for popular approval of a measure repealing House Bill 1010xx (H.B. 1010xx), legislation that increased excise taxes on cigarettes and tobacco, oil and gas extraction, hotel rooms, and motor fuel sales by $447 million.
In addition to signing H.B. 1010xx on March 29, Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 1023xx (H.B. 1023xx) approving pay raises for government school teachers and staff.
In the teachers organization’s May 10 court challenge, lawyers argued the Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite ballot question, asking to repeal H.B. 1010xx would also remove H.B. 1023xx, a bill necessary for “the immediate preservation of the public peace.”
The state constitution prohibits the referendum process from affecting laws deemed necessary for the state’s “public peace, health or safety.”
In April, after the measures were signed into law, Oklahoma teachers unions staged a two-week organized walkout, demanding further wage increases.
Says Court Silenced Voters
In 1992, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 640, a constitutional amendment requiring tax hikes gain supermajority approval in both General Assembly chambers or a simple majority of voters.
Trent England, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs says although the tax hike package met the first of those conditions, the people should have had a say in the matter, too.
“The really important part of the whole argument in Oklahoma is tax increases are supposed to go to a vote of the people,” England said. “One of the problems with courts asserting their power over citizen initiatives is there’s always going to be technical questions and courts who will put their judgment in place over the will of the people.
“This collection of tax increases, through a lot of arm-twisting and outside pressure, met that threshold,” England said. “The outside pressure from education spending groups allowed them to put together supermajorities, and now the legal challenge has foreclosed any opportunities for regular Oklahomans to have a say.”
‘Unnecessarily Raising Taxes’
Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, cofounder of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, says the people should have been given a say in the tax hike.
“The teachers tried to say we were going after teachers’ pay raises,” Vuillemont-Smith said. “We were just going to have the bill placed on a ballot.”
Vuillemont-Smith says she’s not convinced raising taxes was the government’s only option to fund pay hikes for teachers.
“It should concern people because the legislature is unnecessarily raising taxes on its citizenry,” Vuillemont-Smith said. “There are other ways we could have the money to give teachers pay raises. No one mentions audits or reforms.
“Raising taxes should be the last thing, not the first thing,” Vuillemont-Smith said. “It should never be done to appease a certain group of people.”
The photo “Oklahoma State Capitol – Supreme Court (2522082037)” is copyright © 2008 Serge Melki, and was made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.