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Oklahoma Supreme Court hears arguments against penny sales tax petition

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OKLAHOMA - The Oklahoma Supreme Court is deciding the constitutionality of a proposed initiative to boost teacher salaries.

The nine-member court heard arguments from both sides of the proposal on Wednesday.

A pro-education group, that includes University of Oklahoma President David Boren, wants a statewide vote on the one-cent sales tax.

That’s exactly what supporters of the petition said is needed to keep teachers on the job.

“This is an unprecedented time in our state, a revenue failure. It is time that we look for bold solutions to help our children and this initiative is that solution,” said Amber England, Executive Director for Stand for Children Oklahoma. “I think we are facing dire consequences right now for our children. They are really paying the ultimate price for this delay tactic."

She said more funding for education is long overdue.

“They are going without quality teachers. Everyday, a teacher leaves the classroom or goes to another state," she said. "We were 1,000 teachers short after eliminating 600 classes. We are facing billion dollar shortfall."

The group challenging the petition, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Impact, agrees teachers need a pay increase, but they say raising sales taxes is not the way to do it.

“There’s a whole lot more in President Boren’s proposal that’s being petitioned to put on the ballot than just a teacher pay raise, and that’s what makes it unconstitutional,” said Dave Bond, with OCPA Impact.

He’s talking about a part of the state constitution that doesn’t allow different subjects in one petition.

It’s called the singe subject rule. Essentially, it means taking something that many would support and lumping it with other items that people may not support.

He said his group has a better solution: Instead of increasing sales tax, reallocate money already in the budget.

“So, to provide that $5,000 pay raise and 1,000 new teachers cost $284 million a year. We’ve ruled out $617 million in areas of state government spending that are either a waste,” Bond said.

England disagrees.

“Let’s be clear. Improving education is not an unpalatable choice. Voters overwhelmingly support education and they want the opportunity to vote to improve education in this state,” England said.

Bond said, no matter the outcome of today’s hearing, he will stand behind his group’s plan.

“We are going to keep pushing this proposal, so to try to accomplish this without Oklahoma families hurting, without teachers themselves having to pay the highest sales tax in the nation. It is a real threat,” he said.

The nine justices will take the matter under advisement and issue a decision later.

Until the court resolves this challenge, backers of the tax hike can’t start collecting the voter signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot for next year.

It’s going to take $123,000.