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Oklahoma Voters Approve Tax-Limitation Initiative

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The Oklahoma anti-tax activists who failed last October to force repeal of a massive school-reform and tax-increase law celebrated victory last week, after state voters passed a ballot initiative limiting the legislature's ability to raise taxes.

Although the constitutional amendment took effect immediately, it is not expected to endanger funding for House Bill 1017, the $2-billion reform measure enacted in 1990 and upheld in a popular referendum last fall. (See Education Week, Oct. 23, 1991.)

But the tax-limit measure, known as State Question 640, could affect state programs--including education--that need new revenue in the future, officials said.

The new law mandates that any new or increased tax obtain a three-quarters majority in both houses of the legislature, as well as the backing of the governor. A tax measure that passed the legislature without the required super-majority would have to win a majority in a statewide referendum before becoming law.

The measure also establishes a 90-day waiting period before a tax approved by the legislature can go into effect, allowing citizens time to organize an opposing referendum.

In complete but unofficial returns, the amendment passed with 373,143 votes, or 56 percent, cast in favor to 290,978, or 44 percent, against.

To its detractors, the amendment reflects a "standstill, status quo, plant-our-feet-in-cement kind of attitude,'' said Barbara Smith, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, which worked to defeat the ballot initiative.

But supporters portrayed the anti-tax measure as an effort to "shunt the power from the legislators and the special interests back to the people,'' according to Dan Brown, the president of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Union.

Mr. Brown's group, along with others, had labored simultaneously for two years to repeal House Bill 1017 and enact the tax-limit measure.

This amendment appears to ensure that "House Bill 1017s will never happen in the future in Oklahoma,'' Mr. Brown said.

Continual Battles Foreseen

What it may also ensure is a limit to the state's ability to meet educational needs, warned Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett.

While she said she believed any tax increases to benefit education would fare well with Oklahoma voters, Ms. Garrett expressed concern that this year's unexpected and significant increase in student enrollment could present an extra strain on state finances.

"That just means we're going to be needing more money to educate this huge [enrollment] growth,'' said Ms. Garrett, who did not support the anti-tax measure.

Ms. Smith of the O.E.A. said her group opposed State Question 640 in part because it will force state leaders to subject relatively popular tax increases, such as those to benefit education, to voter referendums.

Education advocates would then have to mount expensive and time-consuming campaigns each time such a measure appears on the ballot, she noted.

"I see us continually having to fight these battles,'' Ms. Smith said.

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