Oklahoma news in 2018 (Part III): CapitolBeatOK designates more stories of significance: Horn’s Fifth District win, rural vs. urban divide, justice reform implementation, Opioid wars, and Greg Treat’s LOFT-y proposal
Published: January 3rd, 2019
Oklahoma City – This report completes a three-part series of stories identifying the top Oklahoma news stories impacting government and public policy in 2018.
Part I of the series presenting CapitolBeatOK’s list of Oklahoma’s top news stories for policy and government featured five stories.
In first place: the collapse of conservative governance under Mary Fallin, followed by the maintenance of Republican power in the November election, voter approval of medical marijuana, the robust recovery of the state economy and consequent growth in government tax revenues, and teacher strikes in the midst of vexing educational performance.
Read Part I here:
Part II presented the following as top state news stories: The “whimper” that ended the Health Department scandal, erosion of capital punishment in the state, Big Tribe power plays, The Oklahoman’s decline, and liquor law reforms.
Read Part II here:
Five remaining stories sketched below conclude this annual listing of the most significant news touching Oklahoma government and public policy. This analyst realizes others will disagree with this particular ranking and some of the stories included.
In eleventh place, CapitolBeatOK designates the dramatic victory of Kendra Horn in the Fifth Congressional District. She unseated incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, in what The City Sentinel newspaper designated the top Oklahoma City story of 2018 (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/the-color-purple-and-feminine-electoral-strength-oklahoma-city-s-top-10-stories-for-2018).
Final election results (official and certified) found Horn with 121,149 (50.3 percent) to Russell’s 117,801 (49.3 percent).
Thanks to elections in Oklahoma City/County, Democrats in the state Senate boosted their ranks by one, but as detailed below, rural electoral repudiation of many Democrats (including two House leaders) led, eventually, to a weaker (numerically, if not in passion) minority caucus.
The sharp rural vs. urban divide documented in the November general election results constitutes a story in and of itself, of course, and it garners twelfth place in this list The contrast between Oklahoma City/County (and to a lesser extent, Tulsa) and the rest of Oklahoma is perhaps best illustrated by the difference similar news events have in this statewide listing versus the standing in the local news rankings prepared for our news partner, The City Sentinel. While Oklahoma did not see a blue tide mirroring the strong Democratic gains around the country, in the community surrounding the seat of government there was a blue surge.
Not so long ago, cities were the source of Republican strength in Oklahoma, even when Democrats still dominated state politics. Eventually, the cities made the GOP a factor in every state election. By the 2000s, Republicans seemed on the verge of dominance, but in 2006, in the re-election campaign of Governor Brad Henry, the Democrats gained a four-year respite
In 2010, however, a young Republican activist named Matt Pinnell joined forces with U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn and Coburn aide Greg Treat to forge the powerful messaging and organization advocating limited government, traditional moral values and economic liberty driving that year’s sweep of every statewide election, and a rise to legislative dominance.
Pinnell is now lieutenant governor of the Sooner State, and Treat will soon formally hold the Senate President Pro Temp’s post.
Working with Gov. Kevin Stitt, they might be able to reawaken conservative governance from its recent slumber.
Firming up this analysis, election results from beyond the two major metropolitan areas were in a couple of cases baffling, at least at first glimpse.
Among defeated Democrats were two leaders known as more conservative than not, including then-Minority Leader Steve Kouplen of Beggs, and Rep. Donnie Condit of McAlester (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/as-democratic-rural-losses-increase-state-rep-tadlock-says-he-is-changing-parties-not-changing-sides).
After initially keeping his caucus aloof from GOP infighting over taxes, Kouplen last spring joined House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, in blending enough votes to enact the largest tax increase in state history (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/speaker-mccall-and-minority-leader-kouplen-cheer-major-tax-increase-approval-in-state-house).
In November, Kouplen garnered 4,763 votes in District 24 – 48.23 percent of the total. He lost to Republican Logan J. Phillips, who had 5,113 votes (51.77 percent). The 344-vote edge made headlines. Kouplen was heavily favored, and Phillips spent no money on the race. (https://newsok.com/article/5614309/dem-leader-lost-to-republican-who-didnt-spend-money-on-campaign)
Rep. Condit of District 18 was elected as a pro-life Democrat a decade ago, and remained consistent on abortion policy. He also was co-chairman of the bi-partisan Legislative Prayer Caucus (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/economics-may-dominate-capitol-discussion-but-social-issues-remain-important).
In November, Condit had 5,222 votes (48.42 percent) to 5,562 (51.58 percent) for Republican victor David Smith. (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/as-democratic-rural-losses-increase-state-rep-tadlock-says-he-is-changing-parties-not-changing-sides)
Democrats held their own in state House elections, but lost a reelected member in southeast Oklahoma — Johnny Tadlock, who switched to the GOP. In doing so, he pointed to his agreement with Republicans on pro-life and Second Amendment issues.
To sum up, Democrats gained some ground in the state’s urban areas over the past few elections, but their cumulative rural losses outnumber their urban gains.
The surge against Democrats in rural Oklahoma could be part of a grass roots response to national Democratic attacks on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation proceedings. Knowledgeable observers of politics in eastern Oklahoma described this writer’s theory as plausible. It might be the Oklahoma version of the uplift in some U.S. Senate campaigns that allowed Republicans to gain two seats in the midst of a bad year for the Grand Old Party.
Belated Criminal Justice Reform, Opioid Wars, and Treat’s LOFT-y idea
After long delays, implementation of criminal justice reform is the thirteenth top story in CapitolBeatOK’s ranking.
Governor Mary Fallin last month followed recommendations to commute the sentences of 30 state inmates (eight men and 22 women) to time served.
There were fewer intakes at the Oklahoma County jail for the first time in years. Local impact, at jail came in the wake of long-delayed implementation of state-level legislation.
However, as reported in The City Sentinel’s listing of top local stories, “the local lock-up remains under critical federal, state and local scrutiny amid worries about inmate deaths — and further reforms are widely supported. The shifting sands on criminal justice were further reflected in a range of state and local developments, including the exoneration of Johnny Tallbear in June. Newly-examined DNA evidence did not support Tallbear’s 1992 murder conviction, leading to a judicial order for his release.”
The slow motion progress is one of most frustrating and at times infuriating state stories of the past decade. Support for reform was bipartisan and widespread after Governor Fallin signed what were expected to be historic reforms in 2012.
The measures were guided to passage by then-Speaker of the House Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/steele-calls-passage-of-justice-reinvestment-initiative-a-significant-moment-reflects-on-a-quiet-wee). He has been the indispensable player in reaching the better place in which the Sooner State now finds itself.
Yet, the blunt truth is that Fallin and Republicans slow-played reform for years after Steele left the Legislature. Incremental shifts were characterized as significant, although some early ones were mere tinkering.
Finally, in 2016, voters approved a pair of ballot initiatives organized by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform under Steele’s stewardship (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/oklahoma-governor-mary-fallin-promises-to-sustain-renewed-momentum-for-criminal-justice-reform). Fallin reengaged, and by 2017-18 both fresh statutes and policy implementation emerged. Fallin even named Steele to the state Pardon and Parole Board in late summer of 2017. Steele, more patient than some of reform allies, was the steady voice for criminal reform during long years of policy lethargy within the state’s executive branch.
In fourteenth place is an important story – a saga that some deem the Opioid Wars.
In 2018, the state government of Oklahoma, some large tribes and eventually other communities joined a national movement to punish national pharmaceutical firms for alleged corruption in production, advertising and sales of powerful pain-killers.
Oklahoma’s litigation on the issue drew critical scrutiny when Attorney General Mike Hunter contracted, to carry the state’s case, the same outside firms representing large tribal interests. Hunter’s office refused to disclose the names of consultants in the litigation – in fact saying only the law firms knew those names. The lead firm with whom Hunter contracted could wind up netting millions of dollars from the double-boost of fees awarded if the litigation is successful (http://city-sentinel.com/2018/11/detailing-another-reason-i-do-not-support-mike-hunter-and-do-support-mark-myles-for-attorney-general-of-oklahoma/).
For all that, the way the litigation is structured here and elsewhere is less significant than fresh concerns about ways new law are being implemented.
Pharmaceutical companies and prescribing physicians remain under harsh critical scrutiny, but in the past year news stories appeared in every corner of America detailing that limits on pain-killer access will cause unnecessary pain to ailing Americans, including Oklahomans.
An excellent, brief and understandable outline of issues flowing from laws that took effect November 1 is found in a “Q&A” format by The Oklahoman’s reporter, Paula Burkes (https://newsok.com/article/5613554/opioid-prescribing-limits-impact-patients-as-well-as-doctors).
The last item in this list of 15 top stories that is one that did not get proper attention when it entered the public arena.
On November 15, Senate President Pro Temp Greg Treat (then pro temp-designate) sent CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations a press release announcing his plans to introduce Senate Bill 1 for consideration in the upcoming session.
S.B. 1 would create a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT). Announcement of this proposal gives hopes for substantive, recurring and methodical investigations (examinations might be a less confrontation word) of government agencies.
This development is the fifteenth top story of 2018 in the annual CapitolBeatOK listing of essential/important policy and government news.
Treat said at the time he announced his plans:
“Real numbers and objective data will help the Oklahoma Legislature make better informed decisions when writing the state budget, setting policy, and tracking whether programs are meeting or exceeding our expectations.
“The most important duty the Legislature has is to write the budget and provide oversight of agency spending and performance. In most cases, the Legislature depends on the agency itself or the executive branch to report data on spending and performance. Agencies present only the data they want us to see not necessarily what we need to see. Agencies tend to focus more on outputs and not outcomes. That’s not how we are going to turn Oklahoma around. The Legislature needs independent, objective data so that we can make better informed decisions.”
Sen Treat, R-Oklahoma City, is a serious man, and the legislation reads like a serious effort to assure real data is available concerning the real work that goes on day-in and day-out in our government.
A First Draft of History
Humbly submitted, 15 news items, with descriptions spread across three installments. In our considered and informed opinion these are the most significant stories touching state government and policy in the past 12 months.
Consider this CapitolBeatOK’s first draft of history, as news journalism is traditionally called. It is a “Baker’s Dozen of Top Stories, plus two.” Many of these stories are still unfolding; only a few truly are truly at an end.
Reporters report. Commentators reflect and analyze. In the long run,the people decide.
NOTE: The author of three books and editor of seven, Patrick B. McGuigan is an educator and journalist. He is the founder and editor of CapitolBeatOK.com, and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper.