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Oklahoma lawmaker begins petition drive for school tornado shelters

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - An Oklahoma lawmaker began a petition drive on Wednesday to put on the ballot a measure allowing the state to issue $500 million in bonds to finance storm shelters in schools, after a devastating tornado in May killed seven children at a school.

State Representative Joe Dorman, a Democrat, faces an uphill climb to collect nearly 160,000 valid signatures of registered voters within 90 days to put the measure on the ballot.

The ballot measure also faces opposition from some Republicans, who control all of state government in Oklahoma, who say it is too costly and that there are better ways to help schools.

Dubbed "Take Shelter Oklahoma," the petition drive was launched four months after one of the strongest tornado's in the state's history hit the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, killing seven children at the Plaza Towers Elementary School, which did not have a storm shelter.

"We assume schools are safe places, but they are not," Mikki Davis, whose 8-year-old son Kyle was among those who died at Plaza Towers, said at a press conference. "Our children paid the ultimate sacrifice because no one wanted to pay to make schools a safe place."

Storm shelters are a basement or reinforced room that can withstand most tornadoes. Most Oklahoma schools, especially those built years ago, do not have such facilities.

If approved, the measure would pay debt service for the $500 bond issue using money from the existing franchise tax, which Dorman said brings in about $40 million a year to the state's General Revenue Fund.

Volunteers will seek signatures throughout the state, including at the Oklahoma State Fair and at popular Friday night high school football games.

If the number of signatures is reached, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, will set a date to place the issue on a statewide ballot.

Fallin told Reuters in an interview shortly after the May tornado that it could take some $2 billion to ensure every Oklahoma school has a shelter, which she said would be too expensive.

A Republican leader on Wednesday said it should be put on hold until a nonpartisan steering committee can be formed and accused Dorman of violating state ethics laws to promote the petition.

Dorman and a supporter used the state legislature's email system to promote the petition and the state capitol's media resources to film a press conference, said Republican Party Chairman Dave Weston.

'No matter how worthy an issue may be, initiative petitions should be funded by those who believe in them, not the taxpayers," Weston said.

Dorman apologized on Wednesday, saying he was unaware use of the facilities was an ethics violation.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes; editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)

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