- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Supporters of placing storm shelters in Oklahoma’s public schools will get more time to gather signatures on a ballot initiative, but the wording of the measure can make clear the cost, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The high court said proponents of the initiative petition, State Question 767, have 90 days from the day their appeal of the ballot title is final to collect the signatures needed to get the measure on the election ballot. Supporters need the signatures of about 155,000 registered voters to get the measure on the ballot.

The initiative petition was proposed four months after seven children were killed in May by a tornado that slammed into Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore.

The Supreme Court’s decision means voters will be asked to sign the storm shelter initiative in the spring, when severe weather is most likely in Oklahoma. The court gave proponents and the attorney general five days to request a rehearing and said the appeal will not be final until the five-day period has passed or a request for a rehearing is decided.

Justices voted 8-0 for the 45-page decision that was written by Justice James Edmondson of Muskogee. Chief Justice Tom Colbert of Tulsa did not vote.

Supporters filed the petition with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office in September to place the issue on a statewide ballot. The petition’s 200-word ballot title focused on what supporters said was the purpose of the proposal, to authorize a $500 million bond issue to build school storm shelters.

But Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office made significant changes to the ballot title and went into detail on the financial aspects of how the storm shelters would be funded through a franchise tax levied on businesses that generates an estimated $40 million each year.

After the change, supporters who had been circulating petitions that relied on the original ballot title came up 35,000 signatures short of the number required to be placed on an election ballot.

The rewritten ballot title was challenged in a lawsuit filed in October by Take Shelter Oklahoma and Kristi Conatzer, the mother of one of seven children killed when a massive tornado struck Plaza Towers Elementary School.

In a statement, Pruitt said the decision affirms his office’s legal obligation to review all ballot measures to ensure they comply with the law and that “my office’s ballot title is ‘legally correct, impartial and accurately reflects the effects of the proposed initiative.’”

“Throughout the process, my office has acted as a neutral legal advisor and the court’s ruling upholds the correctness, accuracy and impartiality of the ballot title my office proposed,” Pruitt said.

Although the ruling gives the petition’s supporters another 90 days to gather signatures, volunteers do not want to collect them using the amended ballot language, according to a statement from David Slane, an attorney for Take Shelter Oklahoma.

“We want to compromise,” Slane said. He said he contacted the attorney general’s office Tuesday afternoon in an effort to work on ballot language both sides can agree on.

“Why not work out a compromise on the ballot language then let the people vote?” Slane said. “This is the first day of severe weather season and our kids are sitting in schools unprotected. Make no mistake, we will not go away.”

Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Sand Springs, a Democratic nominee for governor who helped spearhead the petition, said more than 506,000 school kids and teachers are unprotected every day in 1,109 Oklahoma public schools.

“That is unacceptable,” Dorman said. “The time has come for elected leaders to work in a bipartisan manner to create a solution that truly protects school children’s lives. It is time to stop the politics and let the people of Oklahoma decide.”

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