OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma senators Tuesday decided to reallocate more than $750,000 in medical marijuana profits that voters ordered them to spend on public schools.
Senate Bill 1758, which advanced by a 27-16 margin, redirects the excess medical marijuana proceeds that voters earmarked specifically for common education to the state’s school building equalization fund.
State Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, said the switch will help about 51 rural school districts and brick-and-mortar charter schools that have little to no property tax revenue.
“It’s sad when people feel like they can’t take care of the poorest school districts in our state,” he said. “The quality of education or facilities for a child should not depend on their zip code. We have a moral obligation to help all kids across the state.”
When voters legalized medical marijuana in June 2018 through State Question 788, they sent 75 percent of surplus tax revenue to the state’s general fund with orders that it only be expended on common education. The remaining 25 percent, they wanted apportioned to the state Department of Health to pay for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
In budget year 2019, medical marijuana taxes generated about $6.8 million. Of that, $5.8 million funded the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. Another $767,000 is earmarked for education and $256,000 is supposed to fund rehabilitation.
Stanislawski said the state’s building equalization fund has never been funded by the Legislature, so he wants to redirect any excess revenue to the fund “because this is still education.”
He said the $767,000 represents only 0.02 percent of the total dollars going to common education, and when divided between the 537 districts, it represents a funding boost of only $1,429.
“That is nothing that will help in the classroom,” he said.
He said the debate on subverting the will of the voter is “all political.”
“And of all the things I despise about this house is the politics behind it,” Stanislawski said. “It’s a campaign ploy. That’s all it is.”
But Chip Paul, who co-authored State Question 788, said voters clearly wanted the surplus tax revenues from medical marijuana sales to be spent in classrooms and directly on students.
The money, for example, could be used to help buy extra school supplies, he said. And, if the tax revenue continues to grow, it could amount to millions of dollars in school funding.
“[It’s] extremely frustrating,” he said. “We wanted the excess of the marijuana program to directly benefit students and teachers. That doesn’t seem to be happening there.”
Paul said he hopes the “voice of reason” would prevail as the measure heads to the state House for consideration.
State Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, who opposed the measure, said the Legislature clearly is not executing the will of the people.
“A lot of people voted for medical marijuana because they thought the revenues would go into common education, and what this body just did is pull the revenues out of common education and put [them] into a very specific fund that will only go to a few schools,” he said.
He said the funding should benefit districts in all 77 counties, not just 50.
“That measure subverts the will of the people and does the wrong thing for equity purposes,” Dossett said. “We underinvest in education in this state in general, and this does not help. This causes more of a problem when we are not putting money into the whole body of common ed. We are putting it into little pockets around the state.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.