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May 21, 2013

Dorman pushes for storm shelter bond

Local rep wants to earmark $400 million for public school tornado safety

CHICKASHA — Local State Representative Joe Dorman (D) called on legislatures yesterday to pass a bond issue to combat what he called " a lack of adequate storm shelters" in Oklahoma.

Dorman said he has requested that House staff draft a bill containing language for a $500 million bond issue, with $400 million of that amount going to pay for storm shelters in public schools through a program currently in the Office of Emergency Management.

The remaining $100 million would fund another program which OEM has established for assisting homeowners and group home facilities with building storm shelters.

“We live in Tornado Alley and this will happen again,” said Dorman. “We need to provide some funding to help build storm shelters, especially in schools. I would hope the idea has bipartisan appeal.”

Dorman said a willingness from the legislative leadership of both parties is needed to pass the legislation.

"They were willing to consider a bond for the same amount of money for school security issues earlier this year," Dorman said. "I hope they are willing to upgrade the shelters."

Dorman said under house rules, leadership can still introduce new appropriations bills. These changes were put in place to avoid the use of shell bills, legislation that has no substantive language at the beginning of session, but has language added in during the final weeks of the legislature.

“I have put in the request for the bill to be drafted, but it will have to be proposed by either the presiding officer of a legislative body or the appropriations chair,” Dorman said. “I will be speaking to House leaders and asking them to propose this bill or another like it this session.  We have until May 31 to take action on legislative changes for this year, and a minimum of five legislative days is required to pass a new law.”

State Senator Ron Justice said he'd be surprised if the details of the bill could be worked out with such little time left in the legislative session.

"The house has typically not been receptive to any kind of bond issue," Justice said.

Stipulations regarding school shelters will also play havoc with the potential passing of this type of bond, said Justice.

"I think you have to have 7-square-feet for each child in a shelter," Justice said. "So what happens is you have a situation that is going to be changing pretty often. There has to be a lot of thought put into this."

Requiring new structures to be built with storm shelters would be an easier task to accomplish than adding on to existing structures, Justice said.

"Obviously we want kids to be safe, but we have to look at the big picture," Justice said. "As you develop legislation that will affect us from now you don't want it to be a knee jerk reaction, but, but we need to do whatever we can to keep our young people safe."

Dorman said he expects some animosity.

"There are a large number of legislatures that do not like bond issues," he said. "They do not think it's a smart idea to commit that much money in advance."

State Representative Scott Biggs (R) said he thinks for the time being the legislature's attention should be pointed elsewhere.

"I feel that right now our time is best spent on the immediate need of the families, friends and Oklahomans affected by the storms across the state," Biggs said.   

Respondents to a question on The Express-Star's Facebook about the potential bond issue overwhelmingly sided with Dorman.

"It's hard to believe that this hasn't already been done. The theory of putting children in hallways during tornados is the same logic used in the 1960's of having children hide under their desks to avoid an atomic bomb blast. Nothing about either scenario makes sense," Erica Elder-Alexander wrote.

Despite improved warning systems, storms like yesterday are too deadly and too large to effectively get everyone out of harms way, which poses a need for shelters, according to Sharla Beverly.

Some responders said  they were teachers and fully supported the bond.

"I support that 100 percent," Lyndi Wilkerson Douglass said. "I work at an elementary school and I know the gut wrenching feeling that occurs when you are faced with a dangerous situation. I know this would put parents and school faculty minds at ease."

State Representative David Perryman (D) echoed the support of those who responded on Facebook.

"As school districts move toward longer and year round schedules, it is imperative that those students be protected during the school day," he said. "In the past, federal emergency management funding has been available to assist local government and school districts in the construction of safe rooms and storm shelters. That funding has come under fire and consequently, when issues of public safety must be addressed and the state has an extreme budget shortfall, alternative funding sources such as this one proposed by Representative Dorman must be looked at. The safety of our children is imperative."

Dorman said he has been visiting with legislatures on both sides of the aisle and many are interested in getting a piece of legislation like this passed.

“As the leadership was willing to allow a hearing on that bill, I would hope they give this idea an opportunity to be discussed,” said Dorman. “After the devastation we have witnessed over the past twenty-four hours and the outcry from the public for more shelters in schools, I would think some minds might change about using bonds.”

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