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Seeking shelters


Families endorse a petition drive that could ultimately put storm shelters into public schools without raising taxes to pay for them.

Tim Farley September 25th, 2013

Three fathers — Scott McCabe, Rick Cole and Ross Legg — sat in the first row of chairs at the State Capitol’s Blue Room on Sept. 18, listening intently to plans that could bring storm shelters to every public school in Oklahoma.

Their wish is that storm shelters had been in place four months earlier as a powerful EF-5 tornado swept through southwest Oklahoma City and Moore, killing 47 people, including seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary. Among the students who perished were their sons — Nicolas McCabe, 8; Kyle Davis, 8; and Christopher Legg, 9.

With photographs of their sons in hand, the trio of dads vowed to help with an initiative petition seeking a statewide vote that, if approved, would allow a $500 million bond issue to pay for public storm shelters. The men hope the statewide measure will prevent other parents from experiencing similar tragedies.

“I dropped him off at school that morning, told him I loved him and drove away, but he never came home,” Ross Legg recalled.

“We should not have to bury our children,” Scott McCabe said. “We should be able to take our children to school and have them come home.”

The three men said they will help wherever needed to gain the 160,000 signatures required for the statewide vote.

“We’ll go anywhere we have to go,” Rick Cole said.

“It’s not a question of if we’ll get them, but rather how long it takes.”

State Rep. Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs, pictured at top), who also serves as a member of the Take Shelter Oklahoma steering committee, said the group has 90 days to collect signatures. Volunteers will ask for signatures at high school and college football games, the fair and other large events.

Protecting the youngest
Kathy Turner, chairwoman of Take Shelter Oklahoma and a former school superintendent at Fletcher Public Schools, said the petition drive should be a nonpartisan effort.

“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue or urban versus rural or local control versus state control. This is a children’s issue. It’s about protecting our youngest citizens from a real threat that we all know,” she said. “This is about taking care of our children in Oklahoma.” Dorman said he is not aware of public opposition to the petition drive.

Protecting students from future deadly twisters should be a top priority for all Oklahomans, Turner said.

“It’s not a matter of if we’re going to have bad weather. It’s a matter of when and where we’re going to have bad weather,” she said. “It’s a matter of how much damage will be done and how many people will be killed.”

Turner was administrator at Bridge Creek schools on May 3, 1999, when the infamous F-5 twister swept through southwest OKC and Moore. Although the tornado went around the Bridge Creek school, Turner found herself in an unenviable position as the manager of a makeshift morgue at the school.

“My job was to identify the dead, who were my friends and neighbors and coworkers. It was truly a dark night in my soul,” she said.

Funding mechanism
The bond issue, if approved by voters, would be funded by the state’s existing franchise tax and would not raise taxes of any kind. If Take Shelter Oklahoma is able to gain the required number of signatures, Gov. Mary Fallin would set a date, placing the issue on a statewide ballot.

In January, the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce issued a policy statement opposing the franchise tax, claiming it makes Oklahoma a less attractive place for businesses to locate. Monday, Fred Morgan, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, said the chamber’s board of directors have not yet reconsidered their policy on the franchise tax in connection with shelter funding.

“We will consider our legislative agenda this fall,” he said.

Corporations pay the tax based on the amount of capital invested in Oklahoma. Corporations are taxed $1.25 for every $1,000 they invest in the state.

The tax was suspended three years ago in lieu of a Business Activity Tax, which was then repealed by State Question 766 in November 2012.

As a result, franchise taxes will be due July 1, 2014.

Dorman and Turner stressed that it’s important to fund storm shelters in this manner because local school districts already are in a pinch. Turner emphasized that public school funding has been cut 20 percent since 2007 and that transportation reimbursement for local districts has not been addressed in 20 years.

“If we left this solely to school districts, scores of communities would have no option but to raise property taxes,” Dorman said. “This is absolutely a win-win for the people of Oklahoma, particularly our youngest and most vulnerable generations.”

If the franchise tax produces enough revenue, individuals and private businesses also could apply for storm shelter grants, according to the proposed ballot language. However, the proposal also would require a change to the Oklahoma Constitution because state bond money cannot be used to fund another political subdivision such as a school district.

The proposal allows for this specific bond program to be renewed through legislative action or by another initiative petition. A subsequent petition drive would require 80,000 signatures instead of 160,000.

 
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