Education advocates ready to push penny sales tax increase after court ruling

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OKLAHOMA CITY - There wasn't much time to celebrate a Supreme Court ruling at an Oklahoma City office building.

Instead, volunteers got to work on what their organizer said will be a "cumbersome" campaign: collecting 123,725 signatures by mid-August to raise taxes and money for education.

"We have confidence that this issue is important to voters," said Amber England, executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma. "[It's] important enough that we'll be able to collect the signatures to make the ballot in November."

The issue is a one-cent increase in the sales tax, which OU President David Boren expects will raise more than $600 million for education.

The legality of putting the question to the voters had been ensnared in the courts since October, when opponents filed a challenge.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the petition was constitutional.

Dave Bond, CEO of OCPA Impact, felt the campaign was unconstitutional because it combined several different issues into one question, something known as "logrolling."

Now, Bond is shifting his battle from a legal fight to an educational fight.

"If they know they're going to have to pay the highest sales taxes in the country, that half the money won't go to teachers, that may factor into considering whether they want to sign that petition and whether they want to vote for it," Bond said. "Our focus in the coming months is going to be to make sure Oklahomans realize that they're going to have to pay the highest sales taxes in the country."

According to the Tax Foundation, Oklahomans already pay 8.77 percent on average in combined state and local sales taxes.

That's the sixth-highest rate in the country.

"It's not a tax issue. It's an education issue," Boren said. "Our parents and grandparents sacrificed to give us a good education. Are we not willing to sacrifice? There's no free lunch. You have to sacrifice sometimes for your children and your grandchildren."

The OCPA instead wants government to trim its unnecessary spending in order to fund education without raising taxes.

It's also calling on OU to sell what it said is a $20 million monastery in Tuscany, Italy and $50 million of art.

Boren countered that it would be a slap in the face to private donors who contributed to the school.

"If they want us to cut all these things and start giving away the private property of people who have given private donations to the university, my goodness, I think people in Oklahoma would be shocked," he said. "We care about educating our children. We know there's no such thing as a free lunch."

The secretary of state must give Boren and his supporters the okay to begin collecting signatures, which should happen next month.

Once the campaign gets approval, it will have 90 days to collect the signatures.

Those signatures must be received and certified by mid-August to make it on the November ballot.

To prepare for the campaign, Amber England said volunteers are busy getting clipboards, petitions and other promotional materials in order to hit the ground running as soon as the secretary of state says "go."

"Every day that we delay this process is another day that teachers flee to other states and a possibility of schools closing now that automatic budget cuts have gone into place, so the ruling couldn't have come at a better time," she said. "We hope those roadblocks stop because we need to get this to the ballot. Schools could not be more desperate for this funding, and ultimately this impacts children."

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