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Session Called in Oklahoma To Debate Taxes for Schools

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Gov. Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma will call lawmakers into special session on Aug. 14 to consider a constitutional amendment that would virtually eliminate public schools' reliance on property taxes as a source of revenue.

"The ad valorem tax on homes, farms, and businesses is a failure," Mr. Bellmon said. "We must and can do better."

The Governor's proposed "funding equity and equal educational opportunity act" seeks the elimination of all residential and agricultural property taxes, all taxes on industrial and business property valued below $100,000, and the personal-property tax. Local transportation taxes on pipelines, airlines, railroads, telegraphs, and utilities would remain in effect.

New 'School Tax'

To replace school districts' property-tax revenues, the Governor has proposed a new 1.9 percent "school tax" on the value of all finished goods and services. Revenues from the tax would be distributed to districts on a per-pupil basis.

Mr. Bellmon also proposed replacing county governments' revenues with a 15 percent surcharge on income taxes that would be paid to the state. Each county would be credited with revenue paid by its residents.

Wendy Johnson, a spokesman for Governor Bellmon, said the new school tax would generate $591 million its first year, a $234-million increase for public schools.

In addition, the Governor will ask the legislature to tap $50 million from the state's "rainy day" fund to finance the purchase of instructional supplies, materials, and textbooks.

The plan would be placed on the state ballot for voter approval if it is passed by the legislature.

Spurred by Kentucky Ruling

Ms. Johnson said the Governor decided to call the special session after the Kentucky supreme court in June declared that state's entire education system unconstitutional. She said Mr. Bellmon feared Oklahoma could be subject to similar court decision because of wide disparities in spending among districts.

Currently, all of Oklahoma's 609 districts levy the maximum 35-mill property-tax rate allowed under the constitution. In addition, the state's weak economy has forced reductions or small increases in state education spending for several years, allowing inequities in local spending to grow.

Oklahoma's ranking among states has fallen to 45th in terms of teacher salaries and 48th in terms of support for schools, according to the Oklahoma Education Association.

The teachers' union, which threatened a statewide strike this fall if the Governor failed to call a special session to increase funding for schools, immediately backed Mr. Bellmon's proposal.

"We're excited about it. It's the first opportunity for increased funding in a long, long time," said Bobby Johnson, the union's executive director.

Reaction from the Democratic-controlled legislature to the Republican Governor's plan has been lukewarm thus far.

"It's been a wait-and-see approach because the Governor is continuing to change the plan," said Senator Stratton Taylor, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee.

Mr. Johnson said convincing legislators to submit the plan to the voters "is going to be a battle."

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