Seeking shelter for students

Now a discussion is under way to decide how to handle state assistance for shelter space.

Like many Oklahomans, I knew many who were trapped in at least one of the major tornadoes that struck Oklahoma last month. One of my cousins is a student at Briarwood Elementary in Moore, where his mother, a schoolteacher, protected him and others with her own body as walls fell around them. Fortunately, no lives were lost at Briarwood, but seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary died as a result of inadequate shelter.

My fight with this issue began a few years ago, when one of my constituents was killed in her mobile home park in Chickasha as she sought shelter in a barn on the property. At that point, I began working to better equip Oklahomans for impending storms. Legislation to require shelters in mobile home parks failed, along with requirements for assisted-living facilities to have generators in place for residents on life support. However, we did pass a bipartisan law to provide liability coverage to anyone providing shelter to persons during a tornado.

Still, lawmakers did nothing to provide additional, much-needed tornado shelter space for Oklahomans. On March 12, I tried to amend House Bill 2032 — the income tax-cut package — to roll back percentages of this cut for disaster funding. It failed when 59 legislators voted to kill my amendment.

Oklahoma schools are funded through various local, state and federal dollars, but upgrades to facilities come through local bonds voted upon by the registered voters in that school district. These bonds are capped at property limits within that district.

Many school districts lack the local bonding capacity to construct adequate shelters for protecting their students. I feel as if no school should have to make that decision, so the responsibility falls to the state, which means additional state funding is needed to avoid an unfunded local mandate.

Following the May 20 tornado, several legislators attempted to fund two shelter programs within the Oklahoma Office of Emergency Management. Their pleas fell on deaf ears with the legislative leaders who could have allowed a last-minute bill to be filed in the final hours. My proposal, an attempt to fund $500 million for a bond package to provide grants for storm shelters, was ignored and shuffled off to a proposed summer study.

Efforts will continue next year, either through legislation or a ballot initiative, to let Oklahomans decide if funding storm shelters is worthy of a constitutional amendment and a tax increase. Taxes would need to be raised to pay for such a project so as to avoid an unfunded government program, along with a constitutional amendment to allow for state bonding to provide funds for school shelters. If proponents of storm shelter assistance prevail, voters will have that choice in November 2014.

Dorman, a Democrat from Rush Springs, represents District 65 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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Rep. Joe Dorman

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