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Oklahomans To Vote on Tax Overhaul

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Oklahoma voters will decide in a referendum next March whether to approve a proposed overhaul of the state's property-tax system.

If adopted, the measure would permit school districts to tap into local funding sources that have been effectively frozen since 1972.

Approval of the measure by state lawmakers and Gov. Henry Bellmon last month capped several years of debate on property-tax reform.

"The intent is to make an almost- incomprehensible system more understandable, more equitable,'' said Thomas E. Pickens, research coordinator for the education department.

Under Oklahoma's current realand personal-property-tax system, property is assessed for tax purposes at 10 percent of its fair cash value. The state constitution currently prohibits districts from taxing property at a rate greater than 35 mills per dollar of assessed value.

State finance officials say that by 1972, all districts had reached the 35-mill limit. For that reason, all increases in education spending since then have come from the state.

Under the plan to be submitted to the voters, all property would be reassessed at 100 percent of its fair cash value, and districts would be allowed to set their tax rates at between 3.5 mills and 35 mills.

Existing tax rates would remain in effect for one year following the proposal's adoption. After a year, districts would have to seek voter approval in order to raise their tax rates.

"The bottom line is that in the first year, tax bills won't change, but the method of calculating them will be different,'' Mr. Pickens said. "After a year, it creates a new taxing ability.''

Kyle Dahlem, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said the tax-reform effort had been "something we've worked on for a number of years.''

The new system "will be good for education,'' Ms. Dahlem said, "but it will be several years before we see any significant changes.''

The referendum would also provide for stronger oversight of county tax assessors, who are elected to office. Proponents of the tax-reform bill say some assessors have kept property values artificially low for political reasons.

The bill also would create a state board of property-tax review, appointed by the Governor, which would oversee local boards of equalization. The new panel would provide "an outlet'' for disgruntled taxpayers, Mr. Pickens said.

Ms. Dahlem of the O.E.A. predicted that winning voter approval for the proposed changes would be difficult.

"People don't have a full understanding of it, so it's going to be an education process,'' she said.--K.G.

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