On the Capitol Beat: Top 10 Oklahoma government stories of 2012

Emerging over the past decade as a Republican bastion in electoral politics, the Sooner State is now dominated by the Grand Old Party, but some conservatives wonder if the performance of elected officials is really all that grand.

While the governing party and its leaders are edging the state in a conservative policy direction — including Gov. Mary Fallin’s decision to stay out of the health insurance “exchange” business — there have been disappointments for voters who envisioned lower taxes and smaller government after the 2010 elections. 

Below, CapitolBeatOK surveys the top stories in Oklahoma government for 2012.

The “epic fail” of Republicans to achieve any income tax reduction at all – let alone put the state on a glide path to elimination of the unpopular levy – stands as the top news story in Oklahoma government for 2012. 

Last winter, economist Arthur Laffer worked closely with analysts at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) to make the case for the “supply side” impact of a phased-in reduction of the personal income tax over a ten-year period. Gov. Mary Fallin broadly endorsed the idea in her State of the State address, and a version of the “Laffer Plan” was introduced with a majority of the House Republican caucus as co-sponsors.

In the end, however, the only tax “cut” still alive at the end of the legislative session would have increased taxes on many income tax payers, and the wheels came off the vision.

If the failure of tax reduction is the first place story, it closely aligns with #2 – the lack of significant progress in “right-sizing” Oklahoma state government.

State government spending increased by $331 million, or 5 percent, this fiscal year.

Only minor consolidation of some agency functions occurred. Most of the state government structure remained in place, other than in information technology changes that might bear long-range fruit in savings. Business subsidies were unaltered despite concerns about their effectiveness, and tax exemptions favoring key businesses were continued without significant revision. 

The third most significant story for state government is Gov. Fallin’s decision, with strong support from legislative leaders, not to create a state health insurance exchange system, and to explicitly reject the Medicaid spending increases envisioned in the Affordable Care Act, AKA “ObamaCare.” 

After decades of spiraling growth in prison populations with little evidence of significant impact on crime rates, Oklahoma in the past two years enacted a cluster of criminal justice reforms that have been deemed “Justice Reinvestment.” 

In light of the lack of progress in several areas, the recasting of state priorities to seek alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders is arguably the most significant policy achievement of the 2012 legislative session. In any case, it is CapitolBeatOK’s choice as the fourth top story of the year. 

The fifth top story is the Sooner State’s impressive continuance of strong economic growth. The private sector here is creating jobs at a dramatic clip, keeping unemployment 2.5 percent below the national average. Among the 50 states, per capita personal income in Oklahoma had the third fastest growth rate over the last few years. In some months, Oklahoma City boasted the lowest unemployment rate of any large metropolitan area (that rate is presently 4.9 percent). 

Education policy reform and tumult is the sixth top story. School choice was upheld – at least technically – in a restrained state Supreme Court decision slapping down the efforts of two school districts to kill the state’s special needs scholarships

State Superintendent Janet Barresi’s A-F grading system for all public schools and public school districts was unveiled amidst strong criticism from local superintendents, yet the designation of the state’s two largest districts (Oklahoma City and Tulsa) as earning “Ds” struck many analysts as accurate. Turmoil and local academic achievement in the capital city’s schools continued, even as an historic upgrade of school physical plants neared completion. 

After years of controversy over child deaths and staff incompetence in protective services, resignation of a long-time director, and a growing administrative bureaucracy, the state Department of Human Services seems on the verge of major reform. Unveiling of the DHS “Pinnacle Plan” and final resolution of years of litigation is the seventh top story on Oklahoma’s capitol beat. 

The departure of U.S. Rep. Dan Boren from his Second Congressional District seat marks the end of an era, and that is our eighth top story. While conservative policy achievements remain scattered, there is no disputing Republican dominance of state politics.

Assuming current trends continued, Republicans will within two years or so have a plurality of state voters, surpassing the Democrats not only in applied power, but also in registration. Every statewide elective post is held by a Republican, and with Boren’s exit and election of a Republican in his place, the congressional delegation is 100 percent in GOP hands. 

Meanwhile, third party efforts continued to be thwarted in Oklahoma– the only state in the country without an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats for the past three presidential elections. 

The ninth top story is the role of the state judiciary – perhaps not as divisive here as in some other states, but consequential nonetheless. The state Supreme Court proved its relevance with those decisions slapping down abortion restrictions, not to mention rulings that will put practical limits on state bonding practices.

For the first time in history, serious resources were devoted to critical analyses of the state judiciary, yet all four Supreme Court justices (as well as lower court appellate judges) facing retention votes gained strong popular support.

Voters did reverse one three-year-old Court decision allowing taxation of intangible property, but seemed not to hold a grudge as they considered the jurists themselves. Not even controversy surrounding a judicial spouse who used state resources to encourage a “yes” vote on the jurists could dissuade citizens from retaining the judges

Finally, in tenth place, is the ongoing collapse of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest labor union. The group’s leadership dumped a staff lobbyist who had proven her ability to work with Republicans, a former top lobbyist defected to join the staff of state Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, and the NEA affiliate appears to be inflating its membership numbers as its clout declines. 

Other Notable Stories of 2012

While several other stories of note did not make CapitolBeatOK’s top 10 — an admittedly subjective listing – they were certainly important. 

After a run of success over several years, passing varied statutes limiting access to abortion, pro-lifers in the state Legislature hit a decided rough spot this fall. The state Supreme Court struck down provisions requiring that women considering abortion view ultrasounds of the unborn child, and barring the use of certain abortion-inducing drugs. Additionally, a state court decision preventing circulation of a Personhood Initiative was validated in the federal courts. 

Relations between the state and various Indian Nation governments have improved, but remain tense when it comes to Choctaw and Chickasaw tribal claims to water rights in southeast Oklahoma. It now seems likely that 2013 will bring either a grand compromise on that issue, or intensification of the legal fight that pits Oklahoma City’s current and projected water needs against asserted rights of the two tribes.

The collapse of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in the Oklahoma Republican primary was one of the most surprising electoral stories of 2012, with at least part of the blame assigned to his controversial state chairman, Al Gerhart of the Sooner Tea Party. He devoted much of his energy to alienating fellow conservatives, including other Tea Party factions and many supporters of the libertarian Republican from Texas. 

Secretary of State Glenn Coffee’s retirement is another major development, coming at the halfway point of Gov. Fallin’s first term – presuming she runs for reelection in 2014.

In a related vein, despite home front disappointments with Gov. Fallin’s policy achievements (see above), she has developed a broad national reputation. A speech at the Republican National Convention, her election as vice chairman of the National Governors’ Association and representation of NGA at a “fiscal cliff” meeting with President Barack Obama, and frequent appearances on Fox and other national networks, have kept the attractive chief executive in the public eye. 

A national story in which CapitolBeatOK’s reporting made a contribution to the narrative arose in April. Former Oklahoma Democratic state Chairman Jay Parmley – longtime executive director of the North Carolina Democratic party until his resignation on April 15 — transmitted AIDS to a Oklahoma party activist. He had not informed the young lady he was carrying AIDS during the relationship. 

After the story broke in national coverage, the woman’s Oklahoma City attorney told CapitolBeatOK she wanted to prevent Parmley — who had also been her instructor at Oklahoma City Community College — from doing the same thing to someone else. However, she stressed through her lawyer that she had no plans to sue the Democratic party, either in Oklahoma or North Carolina. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on
Twitter: @capitolbeatok.