- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Supporters of a statewide 1 percent sales tax hike to fund $5,000 pay raises for Oklahoma teachers and other education spending gathered more than twice the number of signatures needed to put the state question on the ballot, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The order from the state’s highest court recognized supporters gathered 301,512 signatures for the initiative petition being led by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former Democratic Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator. The group needed 123,725 signatures.

“It’s the most signatures ever gathered for a ballot initiative, and we did it in 45 days,” said Amber England, executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, a nonprofit education advocacy group that pushed the proposal. “To me, that’s a huge sign of the momentum of this campaign.”

Once notice of the state question is published in Oklahoma newspapers and a 10-day period passes for any objection, the governor will be authorized to put the proposal on the general election ballot in November or call for a special election.

Oklahoma’s average K-12 teacher salary of $45,317 in 2014-2015 ranked 48th among the 50 states and District of Columbia, according to a report this year from the National Education Association. The nationwide average teacher salary was $57,420.

The average teacher salary is higher in the surrounding states of Arkansas ($47,823), Colorado ($49,828), Kansas ($48,990), New Mexico ($46,625) and Texas ($50,713).

The case for more funding for public schools will be even more compelling when the new fiscal year begins July 1 with deep budget cuts to colleges and universities of more than 15 percent from last year’s original appropriation, England said.

The one-cent sales tax is expected to generate $615 million annually, with about 70 percent designated for a $5,000 pay raise for Oklahoma teachers and other funding for K-12 schools. Nearly 20 percent of it, or $120 million, would go to state colleges and universities, with the rest earmarked for early-childhood education and career-technology centers.

There will be opposition to the plan, which would give Oklahoma the highest combined state and average local sales tax rate in the nation at 9.82 percent, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that advocates for broad-based, low-rate tax policies.

The Oklahoma Municipal League filed a court brief opposing the plan , arguing the cities and towns it represents are overly dependent on local sales tax revenue to fund their operations, since municipalities don’t receive property taxes for general operations.

The plan also is being opposed by OCPA Impact, the lobbying arm of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market think-tank that opposes higher taxes.

While both groups acknowledge the need for better teacher pay, they argue a sales tax is not the best option to fund it.

“The Legislature had the ability to do this during session without hurting core state services … but unfortunately opted not to,” said Dave Bond, CEO of OCPA Impact. “At a time when thousands of Oklahomans in rural and metro areas have lost their jobs because of falling oil prices, raising taxes is not the solution.”

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Online:

State Question 779: http://bit.ly/1RLypAf

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Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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