Leaders of the group Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite attempted to file the necessary paperwork at 1 p.m. today for a veto referendum that, if successful, would repeal the funding mechanisms for Oklahoma’s impending teacher raises.
But the group had its proposed ballot language printed on the wrong size of paper, forcing a trip to Office Depot for Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, Brooke McGowan, Adrian Otap and a bearded man who identified only as “Moto” and said he was attending to provide the other three with security.
“I’m fighting for the taxpayers. We are the forgotten man,” Vuillemont-Smith said after staff from the Secretary of State’s office asked her group and a cadre of frustrated Bartlesville Public School teachers to go out in the hall after voices were raised during an impromptu policy debate in front of media.
“I thought we could have a civil discussion,” said Vuillemont-Smith, who had offered to answer questions from the gathered educators.
‘It feels like an attack on public education’
Oklahoma educators are set to earn between $5,000 and $8,300 more annually starting in the fall thanks to the passage of HB 1010XX and a slew of other measures in March.
But Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite — featuring former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn as a spokesman — quickly announced its intent to collect the more than 41,000 signatures required to place HB 1010XX’s tax increases up for a veto referendum this year. That process is a guaranteed right in the Oklahoma Constitution.
“It’s time to clean up Oklahoma and make this a place where people want to move here because we’ve got low taxes, we’ve got great education, our teachers are great and we’re going to pay them exactly what they’re worth,” Vuillemont-Smith said before leaving the Capitol to obtain the proper size of paper. She and McGowan emphasized their desire for “audits” of state agencies, listing off reported problems at various departments.
But a handful of Bartlesville teachers in attendance Tuesday said they disagreed vehemently with the veto referendum effort.
“It feels like an attack on public education,” said Heather Boyle, a first-grade teacher from Washington County. “Obviously, the teachers were here for a couple weeks. During that time, our voice was heard. This is what teachers need and what public education wants, and our legislators voted for us. They are the people who we voted for to come and represent us, and they did their job. So we feel like it doesn’t necessarily need to go back to the people now. Our legislators did their job.”
Background on HB 1010XX
HB 1010XX passed the Oklahoma Legislature at the end of March and was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin. The bill — which achieved 75-percent majorities in both the House and the Senate — raised the gross production tax incentive rate on oil and gas production from 2 percent to 5 percent, implemented a new $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes and raised the tax on gasoline $0.03 and the tax on diesel fuel $0.06.
The bill was the first revenue-raising measure to achieve the three-fourths threshold since State Question 640 was implemented by voters in 1992.
Rep. Mickey Dollens (D-OKC) voted in favor of HB 1010XX and stopped by the Secretary of State’s office Tuesday because he saw the Bartlesville educators milling about.
“I think it’s terrible,” Dollens said of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite veto referendum effort. “It was a rare bipartisan agreement, and for us to come together is rare. And for someone to come in and try to unravel it, I know that’s their right, but I would recommend that people read before signing.”
McGowan emphasized the need for lawmakers to focus on spending reforms and increased accountability.
“We’ve been supporting these legislators who are trying to run some reform packages,” she said. “Teachers are contacting us in droves. They are supporting this.”
In response to that statement from McGowan, several Bartlesville educators shook their heads and guffawed.
Boyle said if Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite’s veto referendum is successful, the state will continue to lose teachers to surrounding states.
“Teachers that maybe would have stayed because of the $6,000 raise or the $8,000 raise,” Boyle said, “those teachers are now going to say, ‘You know what? Never mind. I can go to Kansas, I can go to Arkansas, or I can go ahead and retire because those raises have been put on hold.'”
(Correction: Originally, Heather Boyle’s name appeared incorrectly in a cutline. NonDoc regrets the error.)