The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Conservative activists are rallying to repeal the state’s $500 million of tax increases, and onlookers said that drive’s success will depend on the teacher walkout’s outcome.
In March Oklahoma passed its first major tax increase since 1990. House Bill 1010, a special session bill, raised about $450 million in new taxes to pay for teacher salary increases, more classroom funding and public employee pay raises. Oklahoma has been an anti-tax state for years, and it didn’t take long for anti-tax activists to begin protesting the move.
Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite formed, and on March 28 the group announced it was investigating its options to combat the tax increase. Members knew then that it would include encouraging residents to run against members who voted yes on the measure. They said they would also consider a petition referendum to repeal the bill.
One of the group’s leaders, longtime conservative activist Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, confirmed on Wednesday that members have begun working with the Oklahoma secretary of state to draft initial versions of the petition.
A former lawmaker and a political analyst each said the push doesn’t come as a surprise after such a massive tax increase was adopted, especially given how energized Oklahoma’s political environment is now. They also said that because the package largely benefits education, the petition’s popularity will likely depend on how the teacher walkout ends.
Vickie White Rankin, a former Democratic lawmaker and current lobbyist, said there are many similarities between the political environment during the fights for House Bill 1017 and House Bill 1010. The first, in 1990, was also considered a massive and historic tax increase for education. It occurred after a teacher walkout. And it angered anti-tax advocates. They filed a petition similar to the one that Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite is working on right now.
“They were close, but they were unsuccessful,” she said. “They then said, ‘OK, fine, we’ll just prevent you from ever passing a tax again. State Question 640 was born, and state legislators’ hands have been tied for 30 years.”
That measure amended the state constitution, requiring among other things a 75-percent support threshold for each new tax increase. HB 1010 was the first increase to meet that heightened requirement since the amendment was made in 1992. Several lawmakers, including Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat, have attributed low revenue to that measure.
Rankin said there is a large faction of Oklahomans who are frustrated with the Legislature for failing to properly fund education and other vital services for years. However, she said, there is a growing portion that is frustrated with the teacher walkout and children missing school. As the second group grows, she said, that petition’s chances do too.
“You have two competing sides,” she said. “I think we’ll need to watch the polling data to see how this plays out.”
Trent England is the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank based in Oklahoma City. The organization is not involved with the petition. England said that HB 1010 wasn’t the only catalyst for conservative activists to start mobilizing. He said lawmakers have passed a litany of smaller fee and sales tax increases over the past few years, such as the adjustments to gross production taxes, ending the sales tax exemption on cars and several others that together raised just as much money.
He said it’s residents such as those in Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite who are active in their county Republican parties and keeping themselves apprised of decisions at the Capitol, particularly those of the members who once fought tax increases like HB 1010.
“You’re going to have grass-roots pushback,” he said.
It’s unclear how much traction that petition will get, but he said the next few days will likely have a strong effect on that.
“I think it all comes down to how the school shutdown ends,” he said.