From the Capitol Beat: Oklahoma's top 10 news stories for 2014
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Published: 26-Dec-2014

Oklahoma City – From the Capitol Beat, a perspective on the top state policy news stories of the year that was.

The Oklahoma economy remains, despite emerging signs of severe stress for the oil and gas industry, the Sooner State's top news story. Government revenues continued to grow throughout 2014. Oklahoma's unemployment rate is far below the national average, and per capita personal income growth is still robust.

There are dark clouds aplenty, including the demands of tax consumers to increase public spending significantly, and intensifying concern about the production cuts in the oil and NatGas patch. As citizen concern intensifies over the fracking process and possible consequences, including increased seismic activity, new regulations or limits on drilling activity seem conceivable. Finally, it is not clear if tax revenues will remain on the upswing in 2015.

Closely related to the top story is the second-place item – tax relief in the absence of government “right-sizing.” Mary Fallin was elected the state's chief executive after blanketing the state with television advertising asserting that “right-sizing” and “tax cuts” had taken place on her watch. Other than scattered efficiencies at a few agencies (including utility costs on college campuses) there is little evidence the state has reduced its functions.

A few weeks ago, the state Supreme Court, in an opinion fashioned by Justice Yvonne Kauger, struck down a legal challenge to the premises underlying a scheduled moderate nip-and-tuck to the state's income tax rate.

Although “right-sizing” is not yet achieved in reality, the rhetorical case for it has been made, and state government grew just enough for the Board of Equalization, in December, to authorize implementation of the first personal income tax cuts authorized during the Fallin era. But those reductions will not take effect before early 2016.

Ranking as the third top story of the year is the criminal justice arena, where hope for real reform was reborn in 2014. It might seem curious to rank hope ahead of achievement in the state's top news, but the truth is nearly all the promise of prison reforms enacted in 2012 remains unfulfilled.

In Oklahoma City, the “ReMerge” program combined with Tulsa's acclaimed and long-running “Women in Recovery” system is providing a practical private sector model for transitioning one- or even two-time offenders into productive lives. Criminal justice policy in the Twenty-First Century must be built on models such as these, lest the state miss the opportunity to follow the successful “Right on Crime” models that have led to a flattening of incarceration rates.

There is no “secret” or magical formula. What is needed is diversion of salvageable human beings – those with mental health issues or treatable drug addiction challenges – away from long-term incarceration into less expensive, more humane and much more effective programs. For some of the tougher characters in prisons, post-incarceration supervision as envisioned by former House Speaker Kris Steele has never been widely implemented, despite nationwide evidence of effectiveness.

With new signs that Gov. Mary Fallin has rededicated herself to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative she signed into law two-and-a-half-years ago, advocates of changes needed to shift the state away from first in female incarceration and third in male incarceration have grounds for cautious optimism in the New Year.

The fourth top story of the year incorporates three inter-related political events: Tom Coburn's decision to vacate his U.S. Senate seat early, the candidacy and ultimate nomination of Democratic state Sen. Connie Johnson, and the impressive primary and general election victory of U.S. Representative James Lankford as Coburn's successor.

It is difficult to overstate Coburn's impact in the course of six years in the U.S. House, followed by a sojourn of several years back in private life and the last decade in the U.S. Senate.

No one matched the Muskogee physician's intensity or consistency as a budget hawk in the nation's capital. His annual budget books will be often imitated, but no doubt rarely matched. While focused on debt and spending issues like a laser, Coburn well represented Oklahoma's social conservatism, support for Nation of Israel and sensitivity to legitimate aspirations of the state's Indian nations.

Coburn combined his passionate and articulate conservatism with an active friendship with President Barack Obama. The first African-American president should have consulted Coburn more on matters of health care. In the end, each man refused to stray from their views on the Affordable Care Act. Yet they remained friends. Obama's tribute to Coburn in Time Magazine last January, and Coburn's recent affirmation of his love for the president provide modeling behavior that evoke the memories of both Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill and Ronald Reagan. May the ranks of such leaders increase.

Early on, this news website characterized Connie Johnson as “a blue gal in a red state.” A strong and unapologetic liberal, or “progressive,” Johnson said she always planned to run for Coburn's seat when he vacated it in 2016. When the early departure was announced, she quickly entered the race for her party's nod to fill the last two year's of the six-year term.

Johnson ran without sufficient funds, trying to translate strong left-of-center policy preferences in ways palatable to Oklahoma voters. She did not succeed, but the first African-American nominee for a Senate seat in Oklahoma acquited herself well.

As for Lankford, his most consequential victory this year was an overwhelming victory over former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton. A large independent expenditure on Shannon's behalf was unpersuasive, given the curious assertion that Lankford, one of the half-dozen more meticulous budget hawks in Congress, was or is some kind of a closet liberal.

Lankford and Johnson had only one debate, but it was a good one. From pillar to post, they treated one another with personal respect while advancing their conflicting policy preferences.

Lankford won a strong victory in November. His 67.9 percent of the vote barely trailed the 68 percent garnered by incumbent James Inhofe in the other Senate race.

Our fifth top story was continued attacks on school choice, the legal defense of parental rights in education and bi-partisan strength for existing and envisioned choice policies.

State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, turned back a well-funded challenge from an articulate liberal opponent. After the election, he credited his long-running defense of choice for some of his electoral strength.

In fact, the ranks of pro-school-choice legislators grew after a year-long campaign to defeat advocates like Nelson. The numbers backing choice advanced by a few legislators in both parties.

At the state Supreme Court, the year ended with a constitutional challenge to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program allowing children with special needs to attend the school of their choice with taxpayer support.

The sixth top story was broader education policy, including the overwhelming electoral defeat of incumbent Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and the state's historic repeal of the Common Core.

Tulsan Joy Hofmeister easily dispatched Barresi and one other foe in the GOP primary. She went on to defeat Democratic nominee John Cox, who argued against school choice while defeating charter school administrator Freda Deskin.

Woven into the statewide discussion on education policy was the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the Common Core curriculum standards. For a time, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman managed to get on Gov. Fallin's right flank, carrying through on opposition to Common Core, a position he first took in 2010. 

Fallin eventually reversed course and criticized Common Core in her own right.

The Legislature's repeal of Common Core put a variety of federal funding streams at risk for several months, but late this year the Obama Administration restored a funding waiver after state officials approved restoration of prior curriculum guidelines.

The state now has two years to develop new public school academic standards independent of Common Core's national mandates.

The cultural and popular response to scheduling of a Satanic Black Mass at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City, and in particular the faith community's articulate opposition as led by Catholic Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, is our seventh ranked statewide story.

The local Catholic shepherd responded immediately and forcefully to the unanticipated decision of city officials to allow Satanists to rent a small theater in the basement of the tax-financed building. He authorized litigation in hopes of preventing the service, a deliberate and pointed insult to Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist. Foes of the faux Mass gained a partial victory when courts ordered a consecrated Communion Host surrendered to Church officials.

In his opposition, Coakley drew support from many public officials, notably state Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello, state Rep. Richard Morrisette, D-Oklahoma City, and Gov. Fallin.

However, the service was held, with half the seats empty.

Protesters from across the United States, including many members of the Society for Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) gathered outside the center the day of the service. Also present were hundreds of non-Catholic Christians, supporting Coakley and the Catholic position on the event. Local police would not allow this writer to interview attendees at the Satanic service because I was not on the “authorized” list from the sponsors.

The event drew nationwide news coverage, including a CapitolBeatOK story used at the worldwide Alteia.org website.

Our eighth top story encompasses multiple examples of the crucial role the judiciary plays in development of (or, in some cases, authorization of) policy changes in our state and nation. This includes state High Court rulings upholding tax limitation provisions, enactment of lawsuit reforms and of changes in the workers compensation system.

Despite clear language clarifying the right of the news media and of citizens in general to access public records, the state Supreme Court, relying on federal precedents, crafted a new executive privilege exemption for Oklahoma's governors, allowing attorneys to withhold many e-mails and other public documents from public scrutiny.

The lengthy execution of a murderer this year, described in news stories as "botched," led to new debate about the death penalty in Oklahoma. At year's end, federal district court ruled the state's execution process is constitutional, but no one expects that to end legal debate. In a related vein, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, along with the governor, is seeking to block some media scrutiny of execution processes.

A federal court ruled unconstitutional Oklahoma's legal provisions supporting traditional marriage and preventing gay marriage. Thus far, the precedent has remained in place and the shift in U.S. legal practices has largely been ratified in court proceedings beyond Oklahoma. Odds are the U.S. Supreme Court will still have to resolve disputes between courts of appeal.

State courts, citing both state and federal precedent, have left in place policies allowing traditional displays of faith, including the Ten Commandments, on public property. A vandal's destruction of the Decalogue's display at the state Capitol grounds seems unlikely to change any state court's mind on allowance of such monuments, but it not clear how federal courts might ultimately rule.

The strength of free market medicine and the ground-breaking work of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma together constitute the ninth top statewide public policy story. The inaugural meeting of the Free Market Medical Association was held, appropriately, in Oklahoma City in 2014 – and Oklahoma County government is saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars through an agreement with the center for provision of common medical procedures for public employees.

In tenth place is the start of long-delayed maintenance and repair work on the exterior and interior of the state Capitol. Speaking of the judiciary, the legislative and executive consensus to get started on the repairs remained in limbo until the state Supreme Court gave the green light to the underlying law this month.

Significant matters falling short of the top ten from this analyst's perspective were Gov. Fallin's re-election in the face of state Rep. Joe Dorman's comparatively strong showing in defeat. Despite Fallin's weaker-than-anticipated harvest of votes, the bottom line is she is only the fourth two-term governor in state history. 

The others were George Nigh, Frank Keating and Brad Henry. Fallin is the first female chief executive in history, period.

Beyond her controversial expansion of executive branch secrecy, Gov. Fallin quietly made an un-controversial decision when she combined the Cabinet portfolios of Energy and Environment. For starters, it is the first time in state history these portfolios have been conjoined. And, increasingly, the two issues are intertwined in policy analysis, debate and decision-making. Fallin's decision seemed curious when she made it, but just a few months later it seems prescient.

As for Republicans in general, despite large majorities in both chambers there were not many significant achievements in the 2013-14 legislative sessions. 

Nonetheless, the Grand Old Party held on to a wide margin in the state House, and moved to unprecedented 40-8 dominance in the Senate.

Dorman's strength was driven in part by strong showings in urban areas, and outright victory in the heart of Oklahoma City. Democratic strength is shown in the emergence of legislative leaders such as Senators Kay Floyd and Anastasia Pittman, as well as the continued relevance of the House Democratic caucus under the leadership of Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City.

Pension reforms are edging the state's retirement systems toward sustainability, with state Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City, leading the way. The executive branch under Fallin and her state health officials have launched and sustained a vigorous attack on use of e-cigarettes, while the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) manages hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

Indian Country issues may move to the forefront in 2015, as the Fallin administration presses to finish new compacts with the major tribes. Smaller tribes continue to press their vision of treaty rights, including Cheyenne & Arapaho aspirations to regain land promised to them more than a century ago.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt is passionately pressing state prerogatives in courts, pushing back against what conservatives regard as Obama administration excesses. The historic victory he fashioned in federal court, putting in jeapordy parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “ObamaCare”) could easily be listed in many top 10 news lists.

Wrapping things up, in years to come, the contemporary role of “think tanks” in development of state policy will continue to unfold. Oklahoma Policy Institute, on the liberal or progressive end of things, has emerged as an important source of information and a contrarian set of assumptions in a building dominated by Republicans.

On the other side, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs remains Oklahoma's leading defender of free market legislation, tax reduction, liberty and limited government. With plans for expanded meeting space on N.E. 13th street just south of the Capitol, OCPA is advancing toward the kind of status enjoyed by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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