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Close Vote Predicted on Okla. Tax-Rollback Plan

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A Super Tuesday squeaker is shaping up in Oklahoma next week, but it has nothing to do with the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

A close vote is expected on a March 12 ballot question that would substantially alter local school funding in the state. The proposal would roll back local property-tax rates to 1993 levels and place a ceiling on the percentage by which voters in a county could increase those taxes.

Many educators view State Question 669 as a potentially severe blow to the state's public schools, which depend on local property taxes for about 20 percent of their budgets.

The drop in funding that the measure would cause would hit the state's vocational-technical centers especially hard. The 53 regional centers receive about 65 percent of their funding from property taxes, officials said.

The rollback provision alone could drain about $7 million from the $200 million statewide budget for the centers, said Roy Peters, the state director of vocational-technical education.

"To lose that much in one fell swoop would be a big cut," Mr. Peters said.

Proponents of the measure, however, see it as a chance for individual voters to wrest control of their tax rates away from politicians and government bureaucrats.

"This is going to put the power of taxation in the hands of the people," said Scott Bulling, the director of governmental relations for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. That organization, which represents farmers and agribusiness interests, is part of a coalition supporting the measure called Oklahomans for Property Tax Reform.

Shades of California

Under the ballot proposal, a county could raise its property taxes if at least 60 percent of the qualified electors, voting in a biennial general election, authorized an increase. The increase could not be greater than 3 percent.

Sandy Garrett, Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction, said State Question 669 could having an effect similar to California's Proposition 13, a sweeping measure passed in 1978 that limited property taxes in that state. Its passage left many California school districts in financial turmoil.

If the Oklahoma measure passes, some districts will have to make cutbacks sooner than others, Ms. Garrett said. "But most importantly," she added, "it would be a long-term and cumulative effect."

In 1992, Oklahomans approved State Question 640, which requires that any increase in state taxes must have either the approval of a 75 percent majority of the legislature, or a simple majority and then the subsequent approval of state voters.

SQ 669's tax rollbacks would mean scarce funds for districts, and because of the 1992 law, the legislature would be hard pressed to pass state taxes to help them out, said Randall Raburn, the executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, an umbrella organization for administrators' groups. "The combination of the two will make it extremely difficult to cope."

Opponents Plan Blitz

The vote margin promises to be slim. Polls have showed opponents of the proposal narrowing the wide lead once held by its supporters.

A coalition of 100 opposition groups, which include the Oklahoma Education Association and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, has promised a blitzkrieg of advertising in the days leading up to the vote.

However, the measure could benefit because the election includes a Republican presidential primary. The state GOP executive committee has endorsed the tax-cut measure, although Republican Gov. Frank Keating has not taken sides.

"I think probably we're in a dead heat right now," Ms. Garrett said last week.

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