State Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of State Question 640’s tax limit strictures

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Supreme Court of Oklahoma on Tuesday (December 2) delivered a slam-dunk win to defenders of State Question 640, the historic ballot proposition requiring legislative super-majorities or direct voter approval before enactment of tax hikes.

Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote for a six-member majority, saying “the dispositive issue” of the case was the definition of “raising revenue” for purposes of S.Q. 540 (Article 5, section 33 of the state Constitution).

Kauger wrote that examination of the ballot title and text of the question, which gained strong approval from voters, “reveals the 1992 amendment had two primary purposes. First, the amendment has the effect of limiting the generation of State revenue to existing revenue measures. Second, the amendment requires future bills ‘intended to raise revenue’ to be approved by either a vote of the people or a three-fourths majority in both houses of the Legislature.”

Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent argued that Senate Bill 1246 (reducing state income taxes moderately) violated the 1992 ballot initiative. Defenders of the measure, popularly known as State Question 640, she summarized, argued “the voters did not intend (section) 33 to apply to bills which decrease state revenues, but that it was only meant to apply to increases.”

Kauger wrote for the justices, “We agree.” In key portions of the opinion, she wrote, “Absent an ambiguity, the intent of the framers and electorate is settled by the language of the provision itself and the courts are not at liberty to search for its meaning beyond the provision.” She continued, “More importantly, the intent of the framers and electorate is also reflected in the ballot title of the proposed amendment. The ballot title and text of the provision are to be read together, even if the text contains no ambiguities or absurdities.”

In sum, Justice Kauger’s analysis rejected Fent’s central assertions. Her view is that phrases such as “tax cut” or “tax reduction” or “revenue reduction” cannot be construed to include “tax hike” or “tax increase” or “revenue increase.”

Questions asked during October’s oral arguments over Fent’s case had triggered unease among supporters of tax reductions. That led Jonathan Small, a vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and Dave Bond, of OCPA Action, to join ten members of the state Legislature to rebuff Fent’s interpretation.

At a state Capitol press conference last week, Small, Bond and their allies in the state House and Senate detailed their concerns over possible retroactive tax levies reaching as high as $1 billion.

Joining Justice Kauger’s analysis were Vice Chief Justice John F. Reif, and Justices James E. Edmondson, Steven W. Taylor, Douglas L. Combs and Noma Gurich. Justice James R. Winchester joined in the result, while Chief Justice Tom Colbert and Justice Joseph M. Watt Watt did not vote.  

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