Legal wrangling between the group Take Shelter Oklahoma and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has focused on the wording of a ballot title that explains what the issue is about to voters.
Take Shelter Oklahoma had until Dec. 16 to collect 160,000 signatures so the measure could be decided by voters. However, that plan has been put on hold. The group received 120,000 signatures, but the legal maneuvering might give them another chance.
The debate has centered on Pruitt’s changes to the ballot title, which originally was written by Take Shelter Oklahoma. The group’s version emphasized the need for storm shelters, while Pruitt’s wording was centered on the franchise tax, which would be the funding source for the program.
Pruitt has said he changed the wording because the original language did not meet legal requirements.
The franchise tax would be used to repay $500 million in state bonds. The move to build shelters at every school was prompted by the May 20 tornado that left seven children dead at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore.
Attorneys for Take Shelter Oklahoma argued before a court referee Dec. 18 that Pruitt’s response to the ballot title was too late and exceeded the five business days allowed by law.
Take Shelter Oklahoma supporters insist Pruitt changed the wording because of his connection to the State Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit business organization that opposes the franchise tax. Take Shelter Oklahoma maintains an emphasis on the tax might cause some people to vote against the storm shelter proposal.
No timetable was given for the Supreme Court’s decision. Justices will review the referee’s report and all legal briefs submitted by both sides.
Working the plan
If the justices rule against Take Shelter Oklahoma, state Rep. Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs) said he will introduce legislation that would fund the storm shelter measure. If the proposal does not receive legislative support, Dorman said the group’s organizers intend to file another initiative petition and start the process again in the spring with hopes of placing the measure on the general election ballot in November 2014.
“We definitely have a plan in place regardless what happens at the Supreme Court,” Dorman said.
During the Dec. 18 hearing, the attorney general asked that the justices invalidate the 120,000 signatures Take Shelter volunteers collected.
“If that happens, we will go out and ask those same 120,000 plus 40,000 more to sign it again. The voters should decide this issue, and not the Legislature,” Dorman said.
Dorman and Mark Nestlen, a spokesman for Take Shelter Oklahoma, insisted dirty politics played a major role in the group’s inability to acquire the required number of signatures. “There were people out there making claims that public school teachers and employees couldn’t sign the petition,” Dorman said. “That’s not true at all. The only prohibition at all is teachers and school employees cannot sign the petition during normal work hours. What they do on their own time is their business.”
During the controversy, attorneys for Take Shelter Oklahoma filed an open records request seeking all communications between the State Chamber, Pruitt and Gov. Mary Fallin. The governor has neither endorsed nor rejected the proposal. She has publicly said storm shelters should be funded by school districts.
So far, neither the attorney general nor the governor has complied with the records request, Nestlen said.
“We did receive one reply from the AG saying they didn’t understand our request and that they didn’t know who the chamber members are,” the spokesman said. “And the governor’s office has not responded at all.”
Take Shelter Oklahoma is considering legal action against Fallin and Pruitt to obtain the records, Nestlen said.
Slane, one of the attorneys representing Take Shelter Oklahoma, said
the attorney general’s response was “nothing but a ploy to buy time, and
the governor is blatantly violating the law. They (governor and staff)
may just think if they ignore us we’ll go away, but an open records
request doesn’t just go away.”
Democrat Joe Dorman
is 99.5 percent sure
he’ll seek the governor’s chair
Just to make sure he has made the correct decision, Dorman intends to travel around the state for the next few weeks, talking to residents about their needs and wants.
Dorman announced the formation of an exploratory gubernatorial committee last week.
Dorman gained a high level of notoriety statewide during the last four months because of his connection to Take Shelter Oklahoma. The Sulphur Times- Democrat said Dorman didn’t have plans to be a gubernatorial candidate. Instead, Dorman intended to seek the Grady County commissioner’s seat because of legislative term limits. State lawmakers are limited to 12 years in office.
However, the plan changed as Dorman began promoting the storm shelter issue from city to city.
“The response has been amazing statewide,” he said. “Many people didn’t know who I was. But after talking to so many people, it became clear they are not happy with the current leadership in the governor’s office.”
A Lawton man who was not identified set up a Joe Dorman for Governor Facebook page that already has 1,700 “likes.”