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Oklahoma lawmaker wants voters to decide on school tornado shelters

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - An Oklahoma state representative said he wants voters to decide whether the state should issue bonds to help fund storm shelters in public schools, a day after the House refused to consider such funding.

Oklahoma Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat, said on Wednesday he will hold a special committee meeting on Friday to discuss a possible ballot initiative.

The Republican-led House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to exclude the issue of safety in schools from consideration as part of a special legislative session. The decision came three months after two historic twisters hit the state, including one that killed seven students in a Moore elementary school that did not have a shelter.

"The motion to kill it means to me that no one else had a plan or that they wanted to leave it up to local schools to fund shelters, many of which cannot afford to do so," said Dorman.

The state House voted 57 to 26, largely along party lines, to not consider shelter funding. One of the Republicans who voted against the discussion represents Moore.

Republicans said the special session was called by Governor Mary Fallin in order to reform torts, the amount of money that can be awarded in court cases. All other issues not relevant to tort reform also were tabled.

"The governor issued the call, and we need to adhere to her agenda," said Republican House majority floor leader Pam Peterson. "She set the agenda, and the House is adhering to that agenda only."

During an 11 day period in May, Oklahoma was hit by two EF5 tornadoes, the strongest rating assigned to such storms, with winds of 200 miles per hour or more.

The first tornado on May 20 flattened whole sections of the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, killing 24 people, including seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary School that did not have a shelter.

The second, on May 31, was the widest tornado ever recorded in the United States, at 2.6 miles. But it skirted the town of El Reno, Oklahoma. Nineteen people died from tornadoes, flooding and other weather-related events on the day of the monster El Reno twister.

Fallin, a Republican, told Reuters in an interview two weeks after the Moore tornado that it would be unrealistic to put a safe room or shelter in every school. It could cost up to $2 billion, which would be nearly a third of the state budget, she said.

Following the devastating tornados, Dorman requested that House staff draw up a bill for a $500 million bond issue, with $400 million going to pay for storm shelters in schools through a program currently administered by the state's Office of Emergency Management.

The other $100 million was earmarked for a program to assist homeowners and group home facilities to build storm shelters.

However, in Oklahoma, only House leadership can introduce spending measures late in regular session. Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon declined to have the bill heard. Shannon was not available for comment on Wednesday.

(Editing by Brendan O'Brien, Mary Wisniewski and Ken Wills)

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