Capital Punishment and the Capitol Beat: 2015’s Top Ten stories in Oklahoma state government

OKLAHOMA CITY – Here are the top ten stories in Oklahoma government for the past calendar year, from the perspective of, an online news service founded in 2009.

The top story of the past year is the dramatic erosion of public support for the death penalty.

Capital punishment is still on the law books of Oklahoma, but there will probably not be an execution before 2017.

Eighteen years after he was sentenced to die for his purported role in a murder-for-hire scheme, Richard E. Glossip’s repeated brushes with execution drew national and then international attention. Doubts about his guilt increased through the work of several skillful attorneys, then with the emergence of apparently new information about the role of Justin Sneed, the admitted murderer of Oklahoma City innkeeper Barry van Treese in 1997.

As the conflagration of controversy grew around the Glossip case, fuel for the fire came from revelations of serious process errors in at least two prior executions, including direct contravention of the government’s execution protocols.

Ultimately, state Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Governor Mary Fallin asked judges for an indeterminate stay in Glossip’s execution. By year’s end, two rank-and-file state officials (a warden and the Corrections Director) had resigned. And, there’s more to come as a multi-county grand jury investigation continues.

The drumbeat of criticism for the penalty of death came primarily, but not exclusively, from the liberal end of the spectrum. Nationally-known foes of executions such as Sister Helen Prejean and Colorado attorney Don Knight brought decades of advocacy to bear, dramatically enhancing and magnifying the efforts of Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP).

By year’s end, many conservatives had added their voices to the opposition ranks.

Long will the debate rage as to whether the death penalty lost its cachet because of opposition determination, or public awareness of shocking problems within the legal system, or a mix of both. Regardless of what historians ultimately think about all that, there is no debating this: In 2015, the politics of capital punishment in Oklahoma changed, perhaps forever.

The budget and spending crisis is the second top story for state government.

The last budget crunch comparable to the present one came in 2008. Democratic Governor Brad Henry (whom the GOP’s Mary Fallin replaced in 2010) and a Republican Legislature made a few tough choices during the Great Recession.

Still, as 2016 begins, the fundamentals of governing in Oklahoma have not changed. The fiscal “right-sizing” Republicans promised in the 2010 campaign has never taken place.

As the third top story, the deaths of Mark Costello and David Dank took from the stage of state government the two conservative politicians most determined to align policies with the mix of beliefs a majority of voters thought they had put into power in 2010.

A successful entrepreneur who faced a credible young conservative opponent (Jason Rees), Costello ousted a liberal Democrat incumbent and went on to forge an enviable record as Commissioner of Labor. He closed the state Labor Department’s Tulsa office early in his tenure, surrendering all of the full-time positions there. In the eclectic mix of issues the agency handles, Costello and his right-hand man, Jim Marshall, enhanced efficiency and actually reduced spending.

Costello was murdered by his mentally ill son, Christian, in August, and died in the arms of his wife, Cathy. Mark Costello’s unusual gifts as a man and a politician were illustrated when several of his most determined policy opponents joined a chorus of conservatives to praise his manner and style, a combination of attributes rarely seen in the years since Ronald Reagan.

David Dank served nine years at N.W. 23rd and Lincoln, succeeding his wife Odilia, who ably served 12 years as an Army of One for school choice and other vital reforms.

David led substantive legislative hearings to make the case for significant limits on business subsidies and tax incentives of dubious merit. When he died last spring, the Legislature lost its most effective advocate for broad reforms in state government.

A more-than-rhetorical question, with a pending answer, is the fourth top story of the year: What should government do? 
The serious men and women who work at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), the leading free-market think tank in the state, and at the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy) offer different answer to questions about government functions, yet they find common ground on issues such as prison reform and openness in government.

Illustrating the difficulty of answering that question is that when Republicans finally came to hold a plurality of all registered voters late last year, it did not seem all that significant a milestone – because, almost a decade after the GOP took the reins of every non-judicial center of power in the state – so little had actually changed.

Top story number five: The clout of Indian Gaming operations in the Oklahoma economy.

The Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association set the table with the hard data in a report issued in November.

Love it or hate it, tribal-owned casinos and affiliated operations have become major employers, providing good benefits to employees and plowing more than $1 billion into public education coffers in less than a decade.

In sixth place – many will place it much higher in the top ten – is the mix of issues attendant to the state’s most significant heritage industry – oil and gas. A change had come to Oklahoma once so strong an ally of fossil fuels as Gov. Fallin said this: “We all know now there is a direct correlation between the increase in earthquakes we’ve seen in Oklahoma and the disposal wells, based upon many different factors, whether it is volume or location or whether it is on a fault line, how deep that disposal well goes into the earth itself.” 

We’re going to hearing more and more about injection wells and fracking, unless the frequency of earthquakes drops off as a result of a variety of new policies restricting certain industry practices, or some other scientific explanation is provided for unprecedented seismic activity. The importance of recent and near-future events to the Oklahoma economy seems impossible to overstate.

In seventh place is Mary Fallin’s consolidation of executive power. She and her team have guided three years of delay for implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and gained judicial consent to significant limits on government transparency. These are consequential matters. It is not clear this is what Fallin set out to accomplish, but it is what has happened.

Top story number eight is common education policy in the Sooner State. A quarter-century ago, the Legislature enacted the largest state-level spending boost for education in our history. More than 15 years ago, Oklahoma City voters approved the largest local-level increase of spending in state history (MAPS for Kids).

A decade after the education lottery was envisioned as a way to permanently boost resources, educational achievement remains unsatisfactory to most Oklahomans.

Rare exceptions to the near-monopoly educational system have emerged, including charter schools, opportunity scholarships and the Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarships for children with special needs.

 But the future of these reforms is uncertain as legal attacks, especially on the latter, continue.

In ninth place, the University of Oklahoma’s handling of art stolen by Nazis from Jewish families during the early years of the Holocaust has kept President David Boren and the state’s best-known institution of higher education embroiled in controversy.

In May, a unanimous Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a measure pressed by state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Oklahoma City, calling for the return of such art.

Although the university contends it is near an accord with descendants of the original owner of one work, the issue seems unlikely to fade any time soon.

The role of the state judiciary is CapitolBeatOK’s tenth top story for 2015, likely to gain a much higher designation one year from now.

A controversial decision to require removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the state Capitol grounds, along with a wide range of controversial federal decisions, put the nine-member state Supreme Court in the center of a firestorm.

The forceful personality behind some of that firestorm is state Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City, himself an attorney. 

Calvey is a serious and knowledgeable man. In intellect and mental acuity, he is the equal of those members of the bar who worry about judicial independence in the years ahead.

An important debate about the judicial function, and judicial selection patterns in the state, is just getting started.

Not quite breaking in the top ten, but garnering “honorable mention” categories are two seemingly unrelated stories.

The continued erosion of professional journalism in Oklahoma is a sub-set the a sad world-wide story, as we witness the collapse of business models that once provided significant resources for serious reporting on issues important to all of us.

Now a chorus of shouting heads populate television news programs, and local institutions of news devote to news operations a fraction of what was once typical.

It is what it is. What the future will bring is not certain, but likely troubling.

One sign of where things stand for the news media came a few weeks ago, when members of the Oklahoma City Gridiron announced they would end their annual parody of politicians and culture. The local Gridiron Show performed every year since 1928, save for three years during the Second World War.

In the past three decades or so, the Gridiron Club and its affiliated foundation raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide scholarships to aspiring journalists attending institutions of higher education in the state. After the spring semester, that will no longer be the case. However, Gridiron members and officers plan to bequeath the group’s remaining financial resources to those who will continue to carry the torch.

On a brighter note, success on another kind of Gridiron – the football field – has put a smile on the face of most Oklahomans. The OU Sooners are competing for a national title, while the Oklahoma State University Cowboys return to the Sugar Bowl on a New Year’s Day for the first time in 70 years.

The job now, to borrow from a turn of phrase uttered by a distinguished Oklahoma educator long ago, is to create a state the football teams can be proud of.

To be sure, that last sentence ends in a preposition, violating a rule of grammar Winston Churchill memorably criticized as “a rule, up with which, I shall not put.”

A preposition comes before something else, just like this essay, which is humbly submitted for broader consideration. 

In Oklahoma, let’s cuss and discuss, and find our way to a brighter future.

NOTE: McGuigan is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.