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September 22, 2013

Dorman, GOP lawmakers differ on storm shelter issue

DUNCAN — Two area Republican lawmakers say they’re all for schools having shelters to keep kids safe during tornadoes, but they don’t think a proposal by Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs is the path to get there.

Republican state Sen. Corey Brooks of Washington, Okla., and Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan, say a state government approach to the issue is not the best way to address it.

Dorman, whose district includes a slice of northwestern Stephens County, is a big backer of a petition drive seeking to redirect revenue from Oklahoma’s franchise tax to pay for storm shelters in public schools.

The petition calls for a statewide vote on providing shelters through a $500 million bond issue. It would be funded by taking about $40 million in annual revenue from the franchise tax and using most of it to pay back the bond over several years.

The petition drive comes four months after tornadoes killed 47 people, including a twister that destroyed two schools in Moore and took the lives of seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary.

Dorman tried to get a shelter funding bill passed during the waning days of the last legislative session in May. He also  wanted the issue considered during the recent special session. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and GOP lawmakers who control the state House and Senate devoted the special session solely to making laws on limiting lawsuits constitutional.

“Protecting children is the responsibility of every Oklahoman,” Dorman said Wednesday when backers of the petition drive held a news conference at the state Capitol.

“Parents deserve the peace of mind that their kids at school can have sufficient shelter during life-threatening weather,” Dorman said. “In this region of the nation, that is far from a hypothetical situation.”

Dorman, who cannot seek re-election again next year because of term limits, said the initiative proposal is the only plan that would not raise taxes to fund shelters on a large scale. Revenue from the franchise tax currently goes to the state’s general fund — the account that pays for numerous state programs and services.

Johnson and Brooks said redirecting franchise tax revenue means taking away millions of dollars from worthy services and programs it helps fund while some funding needs are not addressed.

“Nobody that I know of, including myself, says we don’t need shelters,” said Johnson, a former mayor of Duncan. “Nobody is going to refute that, but we are not going to solve that problem overnight.”

Johnson said $500 million is a lot of money.

“We have other needs,” he said. “We have teachers who haven’t had pay raises, highway patrolmen without pay raises.”

Johnson said the needs of schools differ and it was “one of those problems best solved at the local level.”

Brooks, whose district includes most of Duncan and a large portion of Stephens County, agreed.

He said many schools are teaming with foundations, businesses and nonprofit groups to raise money for storm shelters. Some are taking large, steel shipping containers, such as those hauled by ships and 18-wheelers, and partially burying them and stocking them as shelters, Brooks said.

Newcastle has done several projects over the last decade, including reinforcing existing school areas and making them safe, he said.

Brooks said he applauded Dorman and others for raising awareness about the issue but said “there is no free lunch” and government is probably the least-effective way to address the issue across-the-board.

If government controls the process, Brooks said, “We’re going to build some big, reinforced concrete structures with rebars that will take forever to build and longer to design and probably forever to fund,” he said.

Proponents of Dorman’s plan have less than 90 days now to collect nearly 160,000 signatures of registered voters to put the issue on a statewide ballot.

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