Education

Marijuana tax could pay for school buildings

February 13, 2020

Ray Carter

Oklahoma schools with limited or no local property tax funding would receive marijuana tax revenue to help cover building costs under legislation approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1758, by Sen. Gary Stanislawski, would dedicate a share of taxes collected off marijuana sales to fund building needs in Oklahoma school districts with limited local funding. Under Oklahoma’s system, state appropriations that go through the school funding formula cannot pay for building needs. Instead, local property taxes cover those costs.

For some school districts with very low property valuations, that makes maintenance of buildings or construction of new facilities a constant struggle. Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, said SB 1758 could aid those schools.

“It goes to an area that has the greatest need to help those struggling schools that they can’t upgrade their facilities,” Stanislawski said, “and that is heartbreaking to have that.”

Under the law passed by voters when marijuana was legalized, marijuana taxes first pay for associated regulation. Any revenue collected in excess of the amount needed for regulation is then distributed elsewhere with 75 percent going to the state’s General Revenue Fund, the main source for appropriations.

SB 1758 would instead place that 75 percent into the State Public Common School Building Equalization Fund.

“What does that fund do?” Stanislawski said. “That helps our very low ad valorem districts—rural schools throughout the state, also the public charter schools that receive no ad valorem dollars. It provides some support for some facilities, repair roofs, construction.”

It is not known how much money would be allocated to building needs if the bill becomes law, or how many schools would benefit. Last year, the state collected $6.3 million in marijuana taxes.

Part of the uncertainty arises from past failures to monitor the State Public Common School Building Equalization Fund, which was created by constitutional amendment in 1955 and subsequently amended in 1984. Officials previously said the fund never contained any money since its creation, but during a Senate study last year, the general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Education revealed that research had found more than $1.4 million was deposited into the fund in increments ranging between $155,500 to $361,000 between 1989 and 1994. State officials could not determine how the money was distributed or spent during those years.

That led to some concern among lawmakers.

“If we’re going to be putting thousands or millions of dollars in there, how are we going to oversee the money that goes in there and how it was spent if we don’t know where the $200,000 that was in there in previous years, where it went?” asked Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan. “I’m for your deal, but I just want to make sure that we know where the money’s going and who’s overseeing that.”

“When the fund was first established, the State Department of Ed was to create a model of distribution, where those dollars would go,” Stanislawski said. “It is my understanding that formula had never been created. So you will see at some point, hopefully, another bill—Senate Bill 1364—that creates the formula.”

He said SB 1364 is scheduled for a vote in another committee next week. Stanislawski said that legislation will mandate a “tiered-distribution formula” administered by the Oklahoma State Department of Education “that will clearly delineate where the dollars go and who’s responsible for those dollars.”

He said the companion legislation will prioritize funding needs at schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide in local property tax valuations, and money will be allocated on a per-pupil percentage. Stanislawski said the program would be subject to audits and other forms of traditional oversight, ensuring the program will help “the lowest ad valorem schools with the highest need.”

Public charter schools receive no local property tax funding, and are often housed in portable buildings or facilities that might have otherwise been bulldozed—despite the fact that charter schools produce some of the best academic results in Oklahoma. And per-pupil property valuations for traditional public schools range from $5,000 per pupil to hundreds of thousands of dollars per student. Schools at the low end of that range face serious struggles.

However, the fact that poorer school districts would be prioritized over wealthier districts under SB 1758 prompted some criticism.

“As we’re structured currently, the money would go into the GR, of which my school district—Edmond Public Schools—could access it,” said Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond. “This would create an apportionment into a fund that my public school, Edmond Public Schools, would never be able to access, is that correct?”

“Unless Edmond Public Schools’ ad valorem falls to the bottom 5, 15, or 25 percent of the entire state, that is correct,” Stanislawski said. “It’s for the greatest needs throughout the state.”

“This would not help every school,” said Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso. “It would not be equitable for every school. It would just help some schools in some places.”

Others objected to changing a law set by voters at the ballot.

“I think we’re changing the language that was passed by the people and the intent of the people to put it into the General Revenue Fund,” said Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd of Oklahoma City. “And my second concern is that we simply don’t know what the formula is because we haven’t seen 1364.”

But Stanislawski noted the existing law is vague on the use of marijuana tax revenue and provides “no specifics on how it is going to be redirected to education.”

“Does that mean it goes through the funding formula? Does that mean it goes to … State Department of Ed for projects? Does it go to grants for common ed? It does not state,” Stanislawski said. “It just says ‘to be deposited into general revenue for the benefit of common ed.’ Well, I’m directing where the ‘benefit of common ed’ is. And that is to help our greatest need schools throughout the state that have the lowest ad valorem, and help them with their facilities. It should not matter what ZIP code a child lives in, they should be treated equally with good facilities, and that’s what this does.”

SB 1758 passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 14-5 vote. Pugh joined committee Democrats in voting against the bill.

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