- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The attorney general’s office abused its discretion by rewriting a ballot title for a petition to place storm shelters in Oklahoma public schools, a lawyer for the initiative’s supporters told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The 200-word ballot title condenses the full initiative petition, State Question 767. When it was submitted, it focused on what supporters say was the purpose of the proposal, to finance and build school storm shelters. Attorney General Scott Pruitt made significant changes, going into great detail on the financial aspects of the $500 million bond.

“He did not need to re-write it,” attorney David Slane said during oral arguments in a lawsuit over the petition. “Ours was legally correct. We do not agree with the attorney general’s re-write.”

He said the new version overemphasizes the funding method and the state’s franchise tax on Oklahoma businesses, and underemphasizes the purpose of the petition. He also said Pruitt’s changes led to not getting enough signatures for the measure to go before voters.

But Senior Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader said his office was justified in rewriting the ballot title to fully explain its impact and effect, as required by state law.

While the goal of the initiative petition is to build shelters in schools, “what they’re presenting is a financial transaction,” Leader said.

The lawsuit was 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 Moore in May.

Supporters filed the petition with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office in September to place the issue on a statewide ballot. Under state law, the attorney general had five business days to review the proposed ballot title to make sure it complies with state law. Supporters then had 90 days to gather the signatures of about 155,000 registered voters to have the measure placed on the ballot.

Slane argued that the attorney general’s rewritten ballot title was submitted after the five-day period had expired.

“On the seventh business day we were thrown into a legal quandary,” Slane said.

Supporters came up 35,000 signatures short of the number required to be placed on an election ballot.

“I think it caused confusion among the people,” Slane said of the revised ballot title. Supporters have asked the Supreme Court to extend the time in which they can gather signatures.

Leader said supporters did not deliver a copy of the original ballot title to the attorney general’s office when they filed it with the secretary of state as required by law. He also said his office issued the rewritten ballot title within five days after it received formal notice from the secretary of state.

“When it’s filed with us, that’s when we start,” he said.

Leader accused backers of the initiative petition of engaging in “a partisan three-ring circus,” including allegations that Pruitt, a Republican, is biased against the proposal because it would be funded by a tax on the state’s businesses.

“They have tried this case in the press,” he said. “I think those tactics backfired on them big time.”

Justices did not say when they may hand down a ruling.

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