ANALYSIS – Capitol Review: Budget still murky, death penalty controversy deepens, Costello presses mental health policy reforms

OKLAHOMA CITY – House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said on October 27 that House Republicans were ready to move on to alternative options for addressing the $215 million budget shortfall after a vote that day on a revenue package in a Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB) meeting. Although the Legislature planned to try again on Halloween Eve (October 30), the budget picture remains murky and contentious as the special session renews. 
The proposal McCall referenced was the latest in efforts to increase government revenue by more than enough to bridge funding challenges for several state agencies, included an increase in the motor fuel tax, cigarette tax, tobacco tax, a 3.2 beer tax – and an increase in the gross production tax received “almost no” backing from House Democrats and limited support from House Republicans.
In a press release, McCall said, “It is clear after today’s vote in the JCAB and after discussing the package further with House Republicans that there is no bipartisan support in the House for this package. The reality is, State Question 640 is working exactly as Oklahomans intended it to when they passed it two decades ago. They wanted to make it really hard for the Legislature to raise taxes, and I can assure them it is.
“At this point, it has become increasingly evident that there are likely no options that require 76 votes that can pass in the House. If additional revenue is needed, we are prepared to use the other provision in State Question 640 and send those revenue raising options to the citizens to let them decide at the ballot box whether they want their taxes raised or not.”
McCall’s comments came after a tense week at the Capitol, during which House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, announced he would resign from the Legislature early next year. In the on-again, off-again special session, Republican leaders have pressed several small revenue boosts, totaling enough to cover the $215 million in short-term needs, but Democrats have demanded an increase in the gross production tax on oil and gas exploration.
Senate Republicans late in the month signaled support for a GPT rate hike, but the idea languished over  internal legislative debate about whether it should be included as part of comprehensive package, or voted on separately. 
Over the weekend, state Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the majority floor leader, assailed the House for what he called “cowardice” in not advancing a budget measure. 

While not presently a front-burner issue at the state Capitol, death penalty policies and procedures linger on the minds of voters and elected officials. 
Nationwide, support for the Ultimate Sanction has declined to 55 percent in the annual survey of the Gallup organization, the lowest level in 45 years ( Other opinion polls find support slightly higher or slightly lower than that percentage. 
Much of the decline appears attributable to a shift against capital punishment among conservative Republicans. ( A group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty has driven discussion and concern over the issue, including here in Oklahoma.
Among many opponents of executions, recently published analyses of disparate racial impact have intensified opposition. New attention to that has arisen in the Oklahoma case of Julius Jones, an African-American man convicted of killing an Edmond businessman in 1999. Although state courts have rebuffed attempts to allow a fresh look at evidence in Jones case and consideration of broader issues of racial factors in sentencing, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission included a wide range of reform ideas in its final report.  
Among the bipartisan commission’s long list of recommendations was to revise state law to allow, when a human life is at stake, introduction of new information for judicial review. This would assure, prominent national attorney Dale Baich reflected, that the legal value of “finality” in proceedings (an objective worthy of due respect, in this reporter’s considered opinion) would not undermine the legal system’s core value of justice. 
Baich and his colleague Amanda Bass continue to work on the Jones case, trying to prevent a new round of executions in a state haunted by government policies and practices that call into question the entire system of capital punishment. 

Driving new concern on the death penalty issue is release of a major new study of the death penalty as actually applied in individual cases. The study is “Race and Death Sentencing for Oklahoma Homicides Commited Between 1990 and 2012.” The investigation, published in Volume 107 of The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, was written by Glenn L. Pierce, Michael L. Radelet, and Susan Sharp, hereafter referenced as “The Pierce Study.”
In the words of the authors’ summary, “This Article examines 4,668 Oklahoma homicide cases with an identified suspect that occurred during a twenty-three year period between January 1, 1990, and December 31, 2012. “Among these, we identified 153 cases that ended with a death sentence. Overall we found that while the defendant’s race did not correlate with a death sentence, there was a strong correlation with the race of the victim, with cases with white victims significantly more likely to end with a death sentence than cases with nonwhite victims. Homicides with female victims were also more likely to result in a death sentence than other cases.”
In a series of detailed data reviews, The Pierce Study examined death penalty cases in these circumstances: “1) having a white female victim, 2) having a white male victim, 3) having a female victim from a minority race or ethnicity, 4) having one additional legally relevant factor, and 5) having two additional legally relevant factors present are statistically significant predictors of a death sentence.”
In summary form, The Pierce Study concluded, “Overall, the data show that the odds of a death sentence for those with white female victims are 9.59 times higher than in cases with minority male victims. The odds of a death sentence for those with white male victims are 3.22 times higher than the odds of a death sentence with minority male victims. “Finally, the odds of a death sentence for those with minority female victims are 8.68 times higher than the odds of a death sentence with minority male victims. All these race/gender effects are net of our two control variables (multiple murder victims and the presence of additional felony circumstances). 

In other news, state Labor Commissioner candidate Cathy Costello traveled last month to the Garden State, speaking to members of the New Jersey Legislature on mental health issues and health policy reform. Her late husband, Mark, held the job for five years, before their mentally-ill son Christian murdered Mark in late summer 2015.
Since that time, she has spoken across Oklahoma and elsewhere about needed reforms in federal and state laws, advocating for the Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) program. The Oklahoma Legislature  last year passed the Mark Costello Act, incorporating reforms that allow families more involvement in treatment of mentally handicapped loved ones.
“Mental illness is the leading cause of work performance loss, the second-leading cause of absenteeism and accounts for 30% of disability claims,” Costello said. Absent further reforms, “In just three years, the leading cause of workplace disability will be mental health issues, not physical injuries. This is a devastating loss of productivity and we must solve this problem if we want America to prosper in the 21st century.  Everyone has a stake in this crisis whether they know it or not.” Costello speaks frequently at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) gatherings. 
In addition to the mental health issues, Costello has stressed licensing policy reforms (removing unncessary roadblocks to entrepreneurship, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, workers compensation and workforce issues in her “meet-and-greets” with voters, and frequent stops at county-level GOP events. She visited Southeastern Oklahoma State University for discussions with President Sean Burrage in late October. 
Costello will face state Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, and former state Sen. Leo Kingston in next year’s Republican primary.