Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Humbly submitted for the interest of readers and their consideration, a not-so-fond look back at 2016 -- the top ten news stories concerning Oklahoma government.
The felony indictment of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction was the year’s top story in Oklahoma government.
Accusation is one thing, conviction is another. However, the political novice’s emails reflect Joy Hofmeister’s awareness there was an independent expenditure on her behalf during the 2014 Republican primary in which she unseated incumbent Superintendent Janet Barresi.
The “black money” (as it is deemed by some) spending continued into the general election campaign.
Under law, independent campaigns are not supposed to coordinate their activities with the beneficiaries of such spending.
Perhaps Hofmeister’s legal defense will be able to get her out from under this, but it’s difficult to imagine how she explains the “winks” in her communications on the issue.
In light of the Citizens United precedent at the federal level, there is room for argument about the constitutionality of many existing campaign finance restrictions.
Indisputably, however, for now the schools chief is under a cloud, and that’s not good for education policy development in Oklahoma.
The second top story is Oklahoma education, taken as a whole.
David Boren suffered the first real defeat of his long political career when voters rebuffed the initiative he promoted, State Question 779 on the November ballot. Until late in the campaign, it appeared the University of Oklahoma president’s levy would prevail, giving state consumers one of the highest sales taxes in the nation.
However, voter sentiment (including among some educators) broke against the Boren Initiative for a one cent sales tax boost strongly late in the campaign.
According to final returns, Boren’s tax hike did not come close, losing 853,583 (59.40 percent) to 583,429 (40.60 percent). Aside from defeat of a possible teacher pay hike, the outcome might be regarded as the last echo of traditional Democratic dominance of Sooner State politics.
Despite rejection of Boren’s tax increase, there is clear sympathy for the interests of public school teachers.
Conservative legislators such as state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, will sustain his push for a teacher pay hike. While the current state budget might hint that is unlikely, those who want better pay for educators find allies as diverse as the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA, the state’s largest think tank, a font of conservative policy ideas) and the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy of Tulsa, inclined more to the policy Left).
Despite challenges for K-12 education, supporters of schooling options were thrilled over the state Supreme Court’s dramatic endorsement of parental choice. In a widely anticipated ruling, the court shot down substantive legal objections to programs like the Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarships, which allow parents to seek better options for special needs children.
Voices supporting the long-standing status quo in public education got their way with the Legislature’s decision to terminate the End-Of-Instruction tests, also eroding reading standards and weakening the A-F grading system for schools.
The governor’s push for administrative efficiency (the state has a high percentage of education dollars that never reach classrooms) fell short. However, the chief executive intends to push the idea again this year, as a means to improve student performance and free up some resources for instructional use in a tight budget year.
Third place goes to voter approval of two historic prison reform initiatives (State Questions 780 and 781). That came a few months after a modest cluster of new laws were enacted. Former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who led the support campaigns from his perch at Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, has been optimistic since voters endorsed the twin propositions. Implementation will bring challenges, just as the failure to implement the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) of 2012 brought disappointment.
The fourth top story? Continuing state budget difficulties, ratified when the Board of Equalization (BOE), just before Christmas, projected a state government revenue insufficiency of $863 million. Some will argue this issue deserves a higher ranking in a top ten list -- but the truth is that the Oklahoma government revenues falling short of spending expectations is the just the latest installment in an old story.
The Incentives Review group the Legislature created recently turned thumbs down on changes in ten significant business incentives that reduce revenue, but the Legislature can revisit that.
While the incentives panel does support phasing out the state’s generous wind energy subsidies sooner rather than later, the wind industry has powerful allies in the Legislature.
The fifth top story is continuing critical scrutiny aimed at Oklahoma’s deeply flawed Death Penalty process.
Last summer, a scathing multi-county grand jury report decried the entire process of recent years, pointing to the use of a wrong drug in at least one execution. In 2015, the last-minute reprieve for Richard Glossip, a death row inmate many contend is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, had already intensified negative scrutiny of state Corrections officials.
Some will argue this deserves either a higher or lower ranking the annual compilation of top stories. Indeed, anti-death-penalty activism was ranked as the third stop story for Oklahoma City in the annual compilation by The City Sentinel, in large measure because the most intense opposition to capital punishment comes in the capital city iself.
This writer’s analysis for CapitolBeatOK’s news partner observed, “Members of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) praised the grand jury for bringing a range of troubling details to light, and argued the state should halt executions, once and for all. The City Sentinel’s readers responded with thousands of words of commentary on botched executions, exonerations of many convicted of capital crimes in other states, carelessness by Corrections officials, assertions of Glossip’s actual innocence, and other aspects of the issue.
“Bi-partisan heft in focusing on manifest problems for the death penalty came with formation of an independent citizens commission, sponsored by The Constitution Project, a national group, and under the leadership of former Governor Brad Henry. That group will present its findings this year, possibly as early as February.
“State opinion polls have for the first time found a plurality would (or could) support life without parole rather than executions. For all this, voters gave 2-1 approval to State Question 776, a legislatively-referred proposition aiming to lock executions into the state constitution.”
Another issue where a strong case could be made for higher placement garners sixth place in this statewide analysis – that is, the state’s continuing swarm of earthquakes and the response, adequate or not, of state officials.
The three-member Corporation Commission, building on prior findings from scientists at the University of Oklahoma and elsewhere, has moved to ban or strictly limit deep-well wastewater injection at sites across the state. Major property damage came in the last year, and that has intensified pressure for ameliorative steps.
Insurance Commissioner John Doak has scrutinized industry practices that some believe mayweaken protections for policyholders. The Legislature remained under pressure from the Sierra Club and environmentalists in general to allow local jurisdictions to enact their own limits on oil and gas drilling.
In seventh place for statewide issues is the 2016 election campaign, presidential and local.
Republicans actually increased their dominance of state politics as a result of the November election, and now have a 71-25 edge over Democrats in the state House. In the Senate, Democrats have declined to only six members. The caucus is now in the same place as were Republicans former Gov. Frank Keating when he first came to the state Capitol as a young senator from Tulsa decades ago.
However, there was some subtlety in Oklahoma’s 2016 results. President-elect Donald Trump finished second (behind Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz) in the statewide Republican primary, and both men lost Oklahoma County to Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Trump was not the strongest GOP presidential nominee in state history, and not even the top statewide vote-getter (that prize went to U.S. Sen. James Lankford, as he won a full six-year term in Washington).
Below the state level, Democrats are actually gained strength in Oklahoma City.
The Libertarian Party (which ran strong enough to secure ballot status through 2018) seemed to erode Republican support in some races, contributing to some Democratic victories.
Analysts ponder all of this, and wonder if Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties might eventually be considered, if not “blue” at least “purple” in those national maps showing election results.
In eighth place is troubled Republican governance – a story that intensified late in 2016, but which could be sustained or deepened in the new year.
Republicans have never delivered on explicit promises, made during the historic 2010 campaign, that they would “right-size” state government.
That issue was and is a test of the party leadership’s seriousness of purpose. Victors that year pledged to reduce spending and eliminate waste.
Intensification of the party’s challenges came not from the budgeting crunch, but with the tumult that emerged just before Christmas, when Nolan Clay, the storied investigative reporter for the state’s largest newspaper, wrote stories concerning a secretive post-election legal settlement in a sexual harassment/wrongful termination case.
Not to make light of a serious matter, during initial Democratic press conferences on the matter, this writer had the sense of watching something akin to target practice with a shotgun, from ten feet away.
The on-again, off-again resignation of an important member of the Republican caucus presents the state’s majority party with issues, to understate things. The use of a janitorial account line item in the state House of Representatives, the apparent lack of awareness of the expenditure of the funds by most members of the Legislature, and the thus-far-reported justification for the secretive expenditure, present the majority caucus with the political equivalent of a migraine headache.
In the end, the Republican “brand” may emerge relatively unscathed. Still, with a wide-open election year anticipated in 2018, when many statewide elected officials term out of their current jobs, the unexpected tumult within governing circles could have deep consequences.
Our ninth top story is President-elect Donald Trump’s designation of state Attorney General Scott Pruitt as his choice to run the Environmental Projection Agency (EPA). The choice is a dramatic fulfillment of conservative hopes to end the federal agency’s targeting of the oil and gas industry, U.S. government attacks on agricultural business practices and the burden of clear air mandates no one anticipated as recently as 2008.
Pruitt’s in-state opponents have voiced dismay, in harmony with national environmental groups, over the designation by Trump. However, Pruitt has support from state environmental officials and unity of support in his home state congressional delegation.
If Pruitt is confirmed, direct consequences for Oklahoma may, in the short-term, be minor, because Gov. Mary Fallin will likely select a conservative to fill the job until voters have a chance to choose Pruitt’s successor at the ballot box.
Finally, our tenth top story is economic gains in Indian Country.
After one bad year, the tribal gaming industry grew last year. Oklahoma state government coffers benefited to the tune of $132,035,242 from what is called the “exclusivity fee,” under which tribes compact to provide some resources in return for their tax-free business status. That total was the highest in the 11-year history of the fee.
Although the interests of small tribes were completely ignored, a water accord involving the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, the City of Oklahoma City and the state government avoided further litigation over water rights for the big players. Some wonder if the accord will eventually allow sale of water to Texas.
Tribal governments, large and small, will assuredly become more and more important to the state as a whole in the year ahead. Some analysts make the case for crafting compacts more beneficial to state government -- but that is a topic for another day.