Supporters of school shelters plan seek more time

Supporters of school shelters plan seek more time

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Plaza Towers Elementary, taken May 20, 2013, where 7 children were killed when an EF5 tornado ripped through the school. Plaza Towers Elementary, taken May 20, 2013, where 7 children were killed when an EF5 tornado ripped through the school.
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -

The group wanting voters to decide if the state should borrow $500 million to help put shelters in schools says the Oklahoma Attorney General's office cheated them out of the time they needed to collect signatures for the initiative.

Attorneys for the state and the group Take Shelter Oklahoma argued their case before an Oklahoma Supreme Court referee who will prepare a report for the Supreme Court justices.

"Some of the comments made in the courtroom today just sickened me," said Kristi Conatzer who lost her daughter when a tornado tore through Plaza Towers Elementary in May, "Their attorney sat there and tried to compare the death of his 21-year-old twin brother to the death of my 9-year-old daughter who died trying to protect herself."

In oral arguments assistant attorneys general argued that the complaints raised by the legal advisers for Take Shelter Oklahoma were "frivolous" and called the claims that Attorney General Scott Pruitt was biased against the initiative a "malicious" attack.

Those same attorneys accused Take Shelter Oklahoma attorneys of creating a "media circus" and making the issue of school shelters a partisan fight and that attorneys for the group have failed their clients by offering bad legal advice. Those same attorneys refused to make any comments on camera following the hearing or to offer any comment about the decision to change the ballot title of the initiative petition.

"I didn't fail anybody," said attorney David Slane who is representing Take Shelter Oklahoma pro bono, "The attorney general failed to even tell us who his client was. His client was the people. "I didn't fail my clients; I stood for my clients and I'm standing for every other child that can't stand for themselves. So words are cheap sometimes."

Parents upset at elected officials

Some parents who lost children at Plaza Towers believe it is the state officials who have failed them and say neither the Attorney General's office nor Governor Mary Fallin's office have proposed any plans or offered to work with Take Shelter Oklahoma to come up with a solution to the differences.

"You're not going to exploit this," Conatzer said, "It shows to me how much our attorney general and our governor really care about our kids, because if they did we wouldn't be here. They would have come to us with a plan."

"Governor Fallin's first priority as a governor and as a mother is the safety and security of Oklahomans especially our children," said Fallin Communications Director Alex Weintz.

Weintz says the governor was on the ground at Plaza Towers within 30 minutes of the storm hitting and continued to work around the clock in the days that followed. "I can tell you anyone who was with Governor Fallin at that time knows how personally that affected her and how much she put into that recovery effort."

The governor's office says she is not opposed to the initiative petition, but because it circumvents the traditional legislative process she has remained uninvolved in the debate. "If it's on the ballot and the people of Oklahoma decide to support a $500 million bond initiative clearly that's a decision the governor will respect and will move forward on that," Weintz told Fox 25.

In a written statement to Fox 25, Governor Fallin reiterated that her administration is working on the issue of school safety and her staff is committed to finding ways to better protect children.

"We currently have school safety assessment teams evaluating the individual needs of local school districts. We know that each school is different and we want to treat them that way, and allow for local flexibility in responding to safety concerns."

"We will continue to have a serious discussion about school safety and the best way to protect our kids moving forward. The results from our assessment teams are going to help provide us with more information as we have that conversation in the next legislative session."

Attorney General Pruitt's office denied our requests for an interview with anyone in the office saying the case was involved in litigation and they could not do interviews during such circumstances.  The Director of Communication for the Attorney General's Office sent us this statement:

"As the Attorney General has said, and as we expressed to the Court, the parents who suffered loss in the recent tornadoes should be applauded for their efforts to see that it doesn't happen to other children in the future, but as we explained in our brief and in the hearing, the opposing counsel hasn't complied with the law, and continues to misunderstand and mischaracterize the role and responsibility of the Attorney General. The AG is required to ensure that voters understand the effect of a proposition, and that duty is being fulfilled." - Diane Clay

Signatures fall short

The Take Shelter Oklahoma group said they are about 40,000 signatures short of the needed signatures, but argued that the Attorney General's change in the ballot title caused confusion and delayed the start of the petition drive.

"The way they did it, we lost 10 percent of our 90 days," Slane said "What that means is the people of Oklahoma were cheated out of 10 percent of their time."

Take Shelter Oklahoma requested the Supreme Court rewrite the ballot title and either allow for additional time to collect the final 40,000 signatures or allow them to start the process from the beginning.

Funding Questioned

The $500 million dollar bond would be paid for using the state's franchise tax. That tax is currently not being collected, but is due to go back online next year.

"The governor is not opposing the initiative petition, the only thing she has reminded people is that it's all coming out of the same pot of money," Weintz said.

However when the franchise tax goes back online it would be new revenue that is predicted to bring in $40 million to the state's general fund. "The question is do we want to let that money go to general revenue? Do we want to give that money back to the people of Oklahoma in the form of tax cuts or allocate it for a specific use like storm shelters?" Weintz said.

The legislature could also vote to end the franchise tax altogether during the 2014 legislative session. That would mean the shelter bond payments would have to come out of the state's regular budget. Weintz says that is a topic the governor will be discussing with legislative leaders in the upcoming session.

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