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Taxpayers, teachers benefit from new laws

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ New laws taking effect on July 1 will mean more money in the pockets of Oklahoma taxpayers and school teachers.

Rebates are coming this fall for more than a million Oklahoma taxpayers under provisions of a tax-cut measure signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Brad Henry.

Henry proposed in February that lawmakers use $100 million in reserve funds for rebates and $100 million for high-tech research to generate jobs.

The final size of the rebate program will not be known until revenue collections are tabulated next month from the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Paul Sund, spokesman for Henry, said House fiscal officials have estimated the rebates will be about $65 per taxpayer, ``but we believe it would be more than that.''

Sund said couples who file joint returns would get double that amount, or $130 if the House estimate stands.

The tax package also includes $150 million in tax cuts, including a reduction of the top marginal income tax rate from 6.65 per cent to 6.25 percent and an increase in the standard deduction from $2,000 to $4,000 for most households.

Provisions containing the rebates take effect July 1, while the tax cuts will begin taking effect next year. The package also includes an expansion of the income tax exemption for retirees from $7,500 to $10,000, elimination of the corporate capital gains tax on Oklahoma-based property and exempting 50 percent of military pension income from taxation.

Another bill taking effect July 1 includes record funding for schools with a down payment on Henry's plan to raise teacher salaries to the regional average over four years.

Also taking effect is a bill to tighten teacher and student accountability, with an emphasis on math, and a plan creating an ``Oklahoma Smart Card'' to help low-income Oklahomans take advantage of prescription drug discount programs.

The public school funding bill provides $58 million to increase the minimum salary schedule for teachers.

The 329 school districts that are at the current minimum level would be required to give the most substantial raises.

There are 211 school districts that now pay higher than the minimum level, and those districts only will be required to give raises that meet the new minimum pay standard. In many of those districts, additional raises will be determined through negotiations between teacher groups and local boards of education.

The average raise for teachers in all school districts across the state will be $1,300.

Henry has proposed continuing the raises for the next three years until the state reaches the regional average teacher salary. At $35,061, Oklahoma ranked 50th in the nation in average teacher pay last year, according to figures supplied by the Oklahoma Education Association.

The bill also includes $24.6 million to fully fund all-day kindergarten, a plan Henry said will give students a head start on learning.

Also taking effect July 1 is Henry's school accountability measure, called Achieving Classroom Excellence

The ACE measure raises math and other course requirements for high school students, creates math labs to increase student achievement, encourages high school seniors to take college courses and establishes rigorous testing programs for middle and high school students.

Under the plan, students must take a college-bound curriculum unless their parents sign a statement to opt out. Henry said CareerTech officials helped develop the program and it will not hinder instruction at vocational-technical schools.

Another education measure provides incentive pay for teachers at school sites where tests show high academic achievement.
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