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Oklahoma Supreme Court hears arguments on petition to repeal tax hikes

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma Supreme Court spent two hours hearing arguments regarding a recent petition to repeal tax hikes.

On Monday afternoon, the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two challenges to a referendum petition to repeal House Bill 1010XX.

The bill, which passed in March, raises taxes on cigarettes, motor fuels and some oil and gas production. The petition to repeal the bill is championed by the group 'Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!,' which has been backed by former U.S. Sen. Dr. Tom Coburn.

"It is easy to pass a tax increase. It’s easy to spend other people’s money," Coburn said in March. "There’s lots of areas where we can go and find the money. That’s not the problem. The question is do you have the leadership that will go and do it? That’s my complaint."

The arguments heard Monday represent several educational organizations, including the Oklahoma Education Association. In its written argument, the group claims "the gist" of the petition is insufficient and misleading as it is written backwards.

"On behalf of the protestants, I'd like to respectfully submit that this referendum is about as flawed as it could be," said OEA attorney Kent Meyers.

In court, Meyers called the initiative "a genuine mess" and claimed it was both misleading and incomplete. According to Meyers, the tax bill in question is missing components on the petition including language regarding taxes on little cigars and the hotel/motel tax. The hotel/motel tax was repealed from HB1010XX after it was signed into law.

Blake Sonne, who represented the group Professional Oklahoma Educators, argued HB1023XX is contingent upon the enactment of HB1010XX. HB1023XX increases the minimum salary schedule for teachers.

"School districts across Oklahoma right now are telling their teachers these raises don't go into effect. They're awaiting the outcome of this court and this protest. Just last week, we got an email from a union in Tulsa," Sonne said.

The group Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite was represented by attorney Barrett Bowers.

"What we've heard so far from the protestants are policy arguments," Bowers said.

Bowers reiterated what has been previously submitted in written arguments that repealing HB1010XX would not impact HB1013. He argued that, while HB1010XX is a funding source, it's not the only option on the table.  He told the nine justices the pay raises for teachers will happen regardless of the outcome of this initiative.

"I think it would be funded as we can see currently that we're going to have a surplus in the state and our receipts for the month of May and June are expected to be the highest ever," Bowers said.

According to Bowers, surplus projections have already been certified by the State Treasurer.

In response to Monday's hearings, OEA president Alicia President released the following statement:

"The State Question 799 referendum is either deceptive or inept. That became even clearer after hearing the Supreme Court react to oral arguments today. Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite failed to follow the basic requirements of this process, and we are confident the court will strike the current referendum petition.

The arguments today were presented well, and the court asked good questions. The issues we raised in the briefs for the protest are good and valid arguments.

I believe the action that our members, parents, and students took to demonstrate their commitment to our public schools should be lauded and the revenue upheld. Keeping this revenue intact backfill the deplorable cuts to our schools and helps our students receive the educational opportunities that they receive."