- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma voters are deeply concerned about funding for public education as evidenced by their overwhelming willingness to sign a petition for a vote on a one-cent sales tax in November, University of Oklahoma President David Boren said Monday.

Supporters nearing the midpoint of a 90-day window for gathering about 123,000 signatures needed to place the question already have gathered more than 200,000 signatures, Boren said.

“People circulating the petitions tell me they’re hardly ever turned down,” said Boren, a former Democratic Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator. “People start lining up to sign it.”

Supporters say the tax would generate about $615 million annually, with about 70 percent designated for a $5,000 pay raise for Oklahoma teachers. Nearly 20 percent, or $120 million, would go to state colleges and universities, with the rest going for early-childhood education and career-technology centers.

“I’ve never seen the people so deeply concerned, and they’re absolutely right to be concerned, because we are just literally dismantling the system of public education in this state, all the way across the board,” Boren said. “And we’ve got to think about the future of those children whose parents can’t afford expensive private schools, who can’t afford increasing tuition at colleges and universities.

“We’ve got to make sure all the children across the state have an equal opportunity, no matter what their circumstances.”

Oklahoma’s combined state and average local sales tax rate of 8.82 in 2016 was the sixth highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. A one-cent increase would give Oklahoma the highest sales tax rate in the nation.

“I do believe we very much need a robust teacher pay increase, but I just don’t think a penny sales tax is the answer,” said Republican state Rep. Mark McCullough of Sapulpa.

State appropriations for K-12 schools in education remained flat last year amid an increase in the number of students, and allocations have been cut again this year amid a revenue failure. And with lawmakers facing a $1.3 billion hole in the budget for next year, any pay increase for teachers seems unlikely.

“At this point in time, I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Legislature to raise that kind of revenue to take care of the kinds of problems that we’re facing,” Boren said.

Boren was at the Capitol Monday to endorse the nomination of Tulsa business executive Phil Albert to a seven-year term on the OU Board of Regents, replacing outgoing Regent Jon Stuart of Tulsa.

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Online:

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

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy


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