Public School Finance: Prospectus Paper

Oklahoma utility companies are currently protesting the amount of taxes that they must pay. The dispute came about because of the difference between what utility companies and other commercial properties and other entities such as railroads and airlines must pay. The utility companies originally protested all of the taxes that they had to pay. They are now protesting the percentage of taxes that they must pay above what the commercial properties pay. The money is currently going into escrow accounts until a decision over the taxes has been made. According to Oklahoma Tax Commission estimates, the protests could affect more than $63 million in funding for schools and counties across the state. The money will not be allocated into the schools until the dispute has been settled.

A large group of Oklahoma superintendents has been meeting with the big four utility companies (Public Service Company of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Natural Gas, Oklahoma Gas and Electric and Southwestern Bell) to try to reach a compromise. The most recent meeting occurred on Monday, November 28, 1994. At that meeting Marvin Stokes, Superintendent of Byng Schools, proposed that the utility companies be assessed at 25 mills and that commercial properties be assessed at 20 mills. This would generate around $100 million in new revenue for Oklahoma schools. Eugene Chitwood, Okemah County Assessor, suggested that public service companies be assessed at 23 mills and that commercial properties be assessed at 15-19 mills. This would generate around $50 million in new revenue for Oklahoma schools. The utility companies are currently paying 22.85 mills and commercial properties are paying 11 mills. Private advalorem property is assessed at 11-14 mills. The utility companies were receptive to the suggestions. They do not care if their taxes are increased as long as commercial properties are assessed at a higher level as well. Another idea proposed to the utility companies for their tax rate to decrease to 21.85 mills. This would free up around 58 million dollars immediately if the utility companies agree.

The group of Oklahoma superintendents will meet with Glen Johnson ,Speaker of the House, on Monday, December 5, 1995. The superintendents feel that it would be to their advantage to have there concerns heard by the House even though the State Equity board has the final say. The State Equity Board is comprised of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Superintendent of Schools, State Treasurer, the State Auditor, and the State Secretary of Agricultural. In order to get a measure passed by the State Equity Board, a measure must receive four of the 7 votes. Dale Wells, State Representative for Oklahoma, feels like the decision will end up on the legislature in February and that it will be one of the first items discussed.

It is advantageous to the schools to have this matter settled as quickly as possible. Some school districts who rely on the taxes from local utilities for the majority of their funding are concerned as to whether they can keep their school going past February of 1995 without the revenue derived from utility taxes. In most districts, money from local utility companies accounts for as least 40% of their fixed expenses. Schools who have to pay off bonds rely heavily on the income gained from utility companies. If the matter is not settled quickly, our schools could be in serious trouble. Court ordered judgements could result against schools and counties which cannot pay their bills. Funding for all schools will be reduced as State Aid is redistributed to help replace the lost local/county ad valorem funding. Bond ratings of schools could be adversely affected. Finally, schools and county governments could be forced into consolidation.

I think that we are following a bad trend if we allow the utility companies to lower the amount of taxes they pay once again. The utility companies have not had an increase in there taxes in the past few years (since 1991). The utility companies in Oklahoma in effect assess their own properties. If they wanted to say that they were worth a lot less than they actually were, we would have no way of knowing. Utility companies also choose the sites in which they build around schools with lower millage rates - if the