Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – From an editor’s notebook: Momentum for substantive criminal justice reforms manifests itself in successful petition campaigns, in a Wall Street Journal commentary Attorney General Scott Pruitt details his reasons for adding the state to a lawsuit against the U.S. Education Department’s “Dear Colleague” mandate, and Gov. Fallin highlights some positive economic news.
Leaders of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform -- advocating two broad ballot initiatives to build on momentum established during the recent legislative session -- say they have enough signatures to assure ballot status In November.
At 1:30 p.m. on Thursday (June 2), activists plan to turn in more than 200,000 signatures collected across the state. The names will be submitted to the office of Secretary of Chris Benge.
The proposals would, organizers summarize, “reduce the prison population and redirect savings toward local treatment and training programs to help those in need of rehabilitation services.” The number of names gathered on the statutory petitions likely assures sufficiency for ballot status, in that 65,000 valid signatures are required for such measures.
Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele is serving as chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, and will lead the delegation delivering the petitions. Joining him will be state Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, former state Rep. Ryan Kiesel (presently executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union – Oklahoma) and Natasha Purnell, a graduate of the ReMerge program in Oklahoma City.
During his stewardship of the House, Steele, a Republican, guided passage of the historic Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a framework for broad reforms of criminal justice that garnered bipartisan support and (Gov. Mary Fallin’s signature) in 2012.
JRI then languished, unimplemented – but this year the state Legislature enacted four incremental reforms flowing from the JRI framework.
Steele has for the past few years guided The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) in Oklahoma City.
Both Steele and Rep. Young are ordained ministers of the Gospel.
A press release detailed the rationale for the ballot measures: “Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women, which costs taxpayers nearly $500 million annually. As the state’s prison population continues growing (increasing by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014), so does its price tag, which has increased by 172 percent in the past two decades.”
In a widely read commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt pressed his case for the lawsuit 11 states have filed to counter a recent “guidance letter” on transgender issues which was promulgated by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.
He wrote, “Title IX is the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in schools. It has always allowed schools to provide ‘separate toilet, locker rooms, and shower facilities on the basis of sex.’ The Obama administration has unilaterally rewritten Title IX’s core premise.”
Saying the feds have redefined the word “sex” in prohibitions against sex discrimination, Pruitt observed:
“No transgender student should be discriminated against for being transgender. But discrimination on the basis of a trait occurs when someone takes that trait into account in making a decision. When a school divides its bathrooms based on biological sex, without taking into account gender identity, that school is, by definition, not discriminating against on the basis of gender identity because gender identity played no part in the school’s decision. Under the guise of preventing discrimination, the Dear Colleague letter creates in Title IX a new mandatory-accommodation regime.”
He continued, “None of what the Education Department has mandated is in Title IX, and no one can seriously argue that this is what Congress had in mind when it wrote the law or when President Nixon signed it.”
Pruitt asserted, “This suit is not about determining the appropriate policy on transgender issues for every state and school in the nation. We think that discussion should start in the many school-board and PTA meetings that happen every day across the country.
“This suit is about allowing those discussions to continue. People of goodwill may disagree about the course American society should take, but we should all agree that we decide that course through the democratic system, which starts at the local level and allows for communities to shape themselves in different ways. It is not for the president alone to decide this issue — or any issue — through a bureaucratic cram-down in the last days of his presidency.”
After conclusion of the toughest legislative session during her time as chief executive, Governor Mary Fallin stressed some good news.
Fallin on Wednesday (June 1) praised Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Enid for high rankings in the “WalletHub” listing of Best Cities to Start a Business. The analysis looked at the 150 most populous cities in America with a focus on business environment, resource access and cost of doing business.
According to Fallin’s office, “Oklahoma City ranked No. 3 overall (up 18 spots from 2015), just behind Sioux Falls, S.D. and Grand Rapids, Mich. It also ranked No. 7 in business environment. Tulsa ranked No. 9 overall, including No. 4 in costs, and Enid ranked No. 11.”
In a prepared statement, Fallin said, “The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well across Oklahoma, and we will continue to support business-friendly policies that will help cultivate small businesses.”
WalletHub’s metrics included five-year survival rate, affordability of office space, and educational attainment of the labor force. (https://wallethub.com/edu/best-cities-to-start-a-business/2281).
On the last day of the session (Friday, May 27) Fallin’s office distributed a ranking from Congressional Quarterly Press that ranked the Sooner State second best in property taxes, and tenth in local taxation.
“When making business decisions, companies often look at rankings like these to determine options for relocation and expansion opportunities,” Fallin said. “Understandably, tax rates play a critical role in these decisions.
The CQ Press rating looks at a total of 15 “livability categories: agriculture, crime and law enforcement, defense, economy, education, employment and labor, energy and environment, geography, federal government finances, state and local government finances, health, households and housing, population, social welfare and transportation.”