Oklahoma City voters will decide on tax increase

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Voters will go to the polls in September, deciding whether to raise their own taxes to improve streets and public safety.

In separate votes, citizens will decide whether to extend a temporary, one-cent MAPS tax and dedicate it to infrastructure over the next two years. The tax extension would generate $240 million over 27 months.

On the same ballot, voters will also decide whether to implement a permanent quarter-cent tax, to be dedicated to public safety. That measure would raise $26 million each fiscal year, enough to unfreeze police and fire positions and restart rigs that have been shut down.

"If you want your streets fixed, if you want more police officers and you want more firefighters, this is the ballot you've been waiting for," said Mayor Mick Cornett. "We're addressing public safety, we're addressing streets like no city ever has before."

Streets and public safety are the two areas people most frequently cite as needing improvement, Cornett said.

The council approved an amended plan Tuesday, first floated by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce last week during a public hearing. Unlike the plan that was previously discussed, the Chamber proposed raising taxes, instead of merely extending an existing tax.

Oklahoma currently has the 29th-highest municipal sales tax rate, according to the Tax Foundation. Increasing taxes would move Oklahoma City up to the 24th-highest rate.

Teachers and education advocates who showed up at that public hearing, pushing for a portion of the tax to go to education, had their idea rejected.

Mayor Cornett was not shy Tuesday about telling reporters the influence the Chamber has on city politics.

"At the end of the day you look back at the original support of MAPS, it wouldn't have existed without the business community," he said. "MAPS for kids wouldn't have existed without the business community, so the last thing you're going to hear me do is come up here and curse the business community because they care. They want to create jobs, they want this community to grow and we work with them as well as any city in the country."

Advocates for education who sat in the chamber Tuesday expressed their surprise at the new proposal.

"I thought it was rather sneaky," said Judy Mullen Hopper, a former teacher. "I mean none of us knew that was coming."

Hopper figured the council more or less had its mind made up, even after advocates made a plea for funding the week before.

"To hear our members talk over and over about our streets and the condition of our streets, as a former teacher that's rather insulting," she said. "You cannot compare a decayed street to a child that's stuck in a classroom with 28-plus kids."

The special election is scheduled for Sept. 12. It will also feature questions about the city's general obligation bond proposal.