By Warren Vieth, Oklahoma Watch
Enid News and Eagle
More than three in four Oklahoma voters support the idea of requiring all primary schools to have tornado shelters, and providing taxpayer-funded rebates to people who install shelters in their homes.
But a solid majority does not think builders should be required to add tornado shelters to all new homes, according to a newly released survey by SoonerPoll.com.
The telephone survey of 402 likely voters suggests that taxpayers may be willing to pick up at least part of the tab for providing more security for schoolchildren and home dwellers in the wake of last month’s deadly spate of tornadoes.
While Oklahomans appear wary of a government directive that could add to the cost of new homes, the survey shows substantial support for a state mandate to protect younger students who can’t be released from school to go home during a storm.
So far, Oklahoma leaders have been reluctant to embrace the idea of state-mandated school or home shelters. Gov. Mary Fallin ruled out a mandate in an interview with KFOR-TV earlier this month, citing the high cost of adding safe rooms to all schools.
But state Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood told Oklahoma Watch that Fallin and other officials were receptive to the idea of designing a voluntary program that would pool enough local, state, federal and private funds to install shelters in all schools.
In the view of some SoonerPoll participants, the state needs to do something.
“The weather’s just going to get worse,” said Mona Nelson, 48, of Norman. “If the goal is to protect lives, everyone’s going to need a place to go. … We’re going to have to come up with some solution and some way to help finance the cost of getting us all a place to be safe.”
“Schools have responsibility for our kids for six or eight hours a day, nine months out of the year at least,” said Edwin Senior, 60, of Broken Arrow.
Tornado shelters, Senior said, “should be part of that responsibility. It’s the same thing as having fire extinguishers and fire exits.”
The SoonerPoll telephone survey began only days after tornadoes struck Shawnee and Moore on May 19 and 20. It still was in progress when a massive twister passed near El Reno on May 31.
At least 46 Oklahomans were killed during those storms. The fatalities included seven children trapped in Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School, which did not have a tornado-resistant safe room. The EF-5 tornado also demolished nearby Briarwood Elementary school, which had no shelter.
Asked whether they would “support or oppose legislation that required all primary public schools in the state to have a specifically designed tornado shelter,” 87 percent of respondents said they “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the idea.
That compares with 10 percent who strongly or somewhat opposed the proposal.
Those who supported a state mandate were presented with three options for funding the cost and asked which they would support. Of that group, about 44 percent favored an increase in the state sales tax, 17 percent opted for higher property taxes, and 9 percent supported an increase in the state income tax. The remaining 30 percent declined to choose a financing approach.
“That means that 70 percent (of mandate supporters) picked one of three taxes to increase,” said Bill Shapard Jr., CEO of SoonerPoll, an independent research firm that conducts regular public opinion surveys. “It shows that the public feels very strongly about this issue, and thinks it is deserving of raising taxes of some sort to fund it.”
The survey did not indicate the total cost of installing shelters in all public primary schools. According to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, which has distributed federal funds to build shelters in 86 school buildings, the cost typically ranges from $500,000 to $1 million per school.
A large majority of SoonerPoll respondents also favored the idea of a “Safe Room Rebate Program” that would provide a state income tax rebate to cover part of the cost of adding a shelter to existing homes. About 76 percent said they “strongly” or “somewhat” supported such a program; 20 percent were opposed.
The simplest underground shelters located outside the home typically cost about $2,500. Those added inside homes and garages generally cost more.
The emergency management department already administers a rebate program for individual homeowners, but its scope has been limited by funding constraints and regulatory changes. Last year, 500 rebates were approved from an application pool of more than 14,000 homeowners. The pool now contains more than 20,000 names.
While Oklahomans reacted favorably to taxpayer financing for public school shelters and home shelter rebates, a majority were not inclined to require the installation of safe rooms in new homes.
Respondents were asked whether they would support legislation mandating such shelters “even though it will raise the cost of a new home by up to $2,000 to $8,000.” About 56 percent said they were opposed, compared with 41 percent who favored a mandate.
“If it’s required, obviously that’s going to raise the price” of new homes, said Nelson, the Norman homeowner. “To me, we live in America; we should have choices … What would be awesome is if we had incentives through a tax rebate of some kind.”
Nelson works in the Cleveland County treasurer’s office, where she helps collect property taxes. She said she is sensitive to taxpayer concerns about the affordability of homes and the perception that property taxes already are too high.
Senior, a former DirectTV sales representative who left his job to assist his disabled wife, said he, too, is concerned about property taxes, but still thinks they’re the most sensible option for financing shelters.
“Sometimes ... we have to lay out some money to do the things we need to do, and I think that protecting our children is one of those things,” Senior said.
Support for requiring schools to add storm shelters and helping homeowners cover the cost of doing so received majority support among all age groups, income levels, political parties, ideological classes, racial groups and genders.
The depth of support varied within groups. Women were more supportive than men. Younger respondents favored the proposals by bigger margins than older people. Democrats were slightly more supportive than Republicans on some questions.
But the consistency of support was more striking. For example, mandatory school shelters were favored by 88 percent of those who identified themselves as very liberal as well as 88 percent of those who considered themselves very conservative.
Geography appeared to be a factor on how to finance school shelters. Among those who favored a school mandate, 35 percent of Tulsans, 42 percent of Oklahoma City residents and 50 percent of the rest of the state endorsed a sales tax increase. An income tax increase was favored by 14 percent of Tulsans, 6 percent of Oklahoma City residents and 9 percent of those in other areas.
SoonerPoll CEO Shapard said respondents’ willingness to require shelters in schools and provide tax funds to subsidize them is significant, given the state’s traditional wariness of government mandates and tax increases.
“Overwhelmingly, they’re saying yes,” Shapard said. “I think that they see that the government needs to play a role.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.