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House passes online sales tax legislation, dedicates $20 million to education

OKLAHOMA CITY - Standing room only in the Oklahoma house gallery Wednesday for day three of the teacher walkout in the state as lawmakers spent nearly four hours hearing legislation that would collect online sales taxes from retailers like Amazon.

The house passed the $20 million online sales tax bill 92-7, after several legislative hurdles to bring the bill directly to the floor and amend it to send the money towards education.

"This is not a new tax, these are taxes that are currently owed to the state," said Rep. Kevin Wallace, chairman of the Oklahoma House's Appropriations and Budget Committee, "(Online retailers) are taking an unfair advantage to our brick and mortar businesses and they’re draining dollars."

Hundreds of educators and supporters waited outside house chambers ahead of the scheduled 3:00 pm session, waiting to get a seat in the house gallery. All the seats in the gallery were filled, with some sitting on the floor or standing along the banister above the house floor.

"Whether you're in a little school or big school, the kids are what matters. Without the kids, we have no future," said  Georgette Penick, a special education teacher at Vanoss Middle School in Ada, Oklahoma.

Penick, who drove a school bus earlier in the day, made the roughly hour and a half drive to Oklahoma City to attend the late afternoon house session, in what proved to partly be an after-hours civics lesson.

"It's humbling," she said after the house passed the legislation. "You don't realize -- unless you've been here before -- in the middle of it. And people seem to think it can be an instantaneous decision. It's government. It's back and forth. It's the art of compromise at it's best. We've got to be willing to give and give and then take and take, and be willing to bend. Otherwise democracy and the republic doesn't work."

Legislators worked on amending the legislation to dedicate the funding to education after a floor amendment was filed by Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, and signed onto by Rep. John Bennett, R-Salisaw.

The legislation would call for the collection of online sales taxes from third-party retailers, like Amazon. It now goes to the senate. A separate, but similar, senate bill dealing with online sales tax collections passed the house appropriations and budget committee later Wednesday evening.

Lawmakers touted the bill as a way to help protect and even the playing field for small business owners, while providing additional education funding.

"This bill is the next step in continuing to fund education in the state of Oklahoma," said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. "The next step in proving we are moving forward with commitments we have made."

An additional commitment was to find a funding replacement for a yet-to-be repealed $50 million hotel-motel tax that was passed and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin last week, part of a massive $447 million tax increase package. Guarantee of a repeal was needed to ensure its passage in the senate.

While the sales tax legislation was supported by a vast majority of legislators, debate was used by some to address the visitors in the gallery and the last several days at the capitol. Sometimes to the slight annoyance of chairman Rep. Harold Wright, tasked with ensuring legislators address him and not the gallery.

"I know a lot of emotions on this floor," said Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Broken Arrow. "I know there`s a few people in the gallery might be willing to put a couple of our members in a time out, at this point."

Some Republicans and Democrats used debate to push back on each caucuses' positions on previous education funding measures that had failed.

"All of a sudden, now that we have guests in the gallery, now all of a sudden that now they care. now they want to do the right thing," said Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid. "There's a lot of different opportunities that they have passed over time, and time, and time, and time, and time again."

"In that last three days I've had folks that I thought were my friends insinuate that they thought they knew why I was here," said Inman during debate. "Grandstanding. Showboating. Peacock."

“You need to know, there’s fault on both sides. And you’re hearing a lot of it thrown around here today. Both sides are equally at fault of how we got to this point," said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, a former teacher and school administrator. "I’m very, very supportive of this bill and I hope all you will join me in supporting this bill, not only for public education, but for our small businessmen and women in this great state."

"But I know, and you know that is not enough, so thank you for being here," said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. "I hope that they will stay and demand better."

After the bill's passage, and people streamed out of the gallery, they were met by chants from the several hundred in the rotunda.

"We'll be back."