Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin endorsed a proposal that would enable voters to weigh in on efforts to improve school safety and grant school districts a one-time increase in local bond limits to pay for storm shelters, safe rooms or other upgrades.
Local governments are limited in how much debt they can carry. The governor suggested a statewide vote on whether to allow districts a one-time chance to increase the limit as long as the money raised is used to improve school safety.
“These are important projects, and there needs to be a solution to that,” Fallin said. “There are many school districts that need our help, and we want to help provide that help.”
Fallin made the comment during The Associated Press’ Legislative Forum, a gathering of statehouse leaders held annually before each legislative session.
Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman, who is considering running for governor against Fallin, has proposed a $500 million state bond issue to help schools pay for shelters. Dorman’s proposal is supported by some parents whose children died when a tornado tore into Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore last spring.
But the governor said that wouldn’t be enough money to pay for the roughly 1,100 school buildings across Oklahoma without safe rooms. Fallin also said Dorman’s proposal would be of little help to the 700 schools who already have installed safe rooms.
“There are schools that may already have safe rooms that may want to look at other safety needs and evaluate those,” she said, suggesting bulletproof glass or metal detectors.
Also during the forum, Fallin and Republican leaders in the House and Senate reiterated their support for cutting the state’s income tax. But both the governor and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman suggested that the state would need to come up with ways to offset the roughly $120 million annual price tag for a .25 percent reduction in the income tax.
“Any time we’ve had a tax cut in the past, we’ve used growth revenue. We don’t have that this year,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “The revenue picture has got to change before we can enact the tax cut.”
With the Legislature already projected to have about $170 million less to spend on programs this year, Bingman said a tax cut would make it even more difficult to balance the budget.
“We’ve got to make that up from somewhere,” he said.
House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, the No. 2 leader in the Republican-controlled House, said his caucus supports a cut in the state’s top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 4.85 percent.
It’s similar to the tax cut approved by the Legislature last year that was ruled unconstitutional because it was part of a bill that included more than one subject. That tax cut had been scheduled to take effect in 2015.
Jackson, R-Enid, spoke in place of current House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who announced Wednesday he was running for the U.S. Senate. Jackson acknowledged he has been securing votes to replace Shannon were he to step down as House speaker, but said Shannon has not given any indication that he plans to immediately vacate the post.
Jackson said he agrees with Shannon’s opposition to a bond issue to pay for state infrastructure improvements, such as repairs to the Capitol. He also said he wants to keep in place a generous tax incentive for certain oil and gas drilling that is costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in general revenue annually.
Both the governor and Bingman have suggested that incentive, which lowers the tax rate on horizontal drilling from 7 percent to 1 percent for the first 48 months of production, should be revisited. Jackson said he supports making the 1 percent rate permanent.
Fallin and Bingman also have said they support a bond issue to pay for improvements to the state Capitol and other state-owned buildings in need of repairs.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman and Senate Democratic Leader Sean Burrage both said they remain opposed to any effort to cut the state’s income tax, which they say will take away much-needed revenue from schools, public safety and other core functions of government.
“I think at this point it’s fiscally irresponsible,” said Burrage, D-Claremore. “When you consider we’re funding public education at $200 million less than we were in 2008, when you consider the fact that our teachers haven’t had a pay raise since 2006 … I think it’s very irresponsible to talk about tax cuts at this time.”