Urban vs. Rural, and divided parties: measure to hike petition burden proves controversial in Senate debate
By Patrick B. McGuigan
Legislation to place new signature-gathering burdens on ballot initiative proponents, sponsored by the second-ranking Republican in the state Senate, drew critical scrutiny in debate this week. The measure nonetheless secured four more votes than needed for a bare majority in the upper chamber.
With several members not voting, Senate Joint Resolution 37 passed 28-15 on Thursday, but not until after the author, Sen. Mike Schulz of Altus, faced questions from members of both parties. Schulz is the Senate Majority Leader, second in command to Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa.
Presently, initiative petitioners must gather a number of signatures equal to 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. That number represented a reform of the process, shifting the signature numbers away from presidential elections, when turnout is highest. It was intended to ease the burden on petitioning groups.
S.J.R. 37 proposes a constitutional amendment that would require initiative petitioners to reach the 8 percent threshold in all five congressional districts. As a practical matter, that means advocates would have to develop five (not one) sets of assumptions about possible “bad signatures,” rather than one. The would mean a hefty increase in signature goals for all initiative petition drives.
Schulz insisted the measure would bring “equality” to the petitioning process, by forcing circulators to work throughout the state. Sen. Clark Jolley, an Edmond Republican, closely questioned the shift. Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, leader of Democrats, also challenged Schulz’s assertions.
Jolley reminded colleagues of last year’s reform to make petition burdens easier, and contended, “I fear we are doing the exact opposite of that today.” He reflected that petition campaigns already face 90 circulation windows, a tight timeframe. He contended, “Doing an initiative campaign is not easy. If we do this, it will become a lot harder.”
The strongest arguments against the bill came from state Sen. Jim Reynolds of Oklahoma City, a conservative Republican, who was in rare agreement with state Sen. Tom Adelson of Tulsa, a leading liberal Democrat.
Reynolds told colleagues, “This is a pretty significant bill. We are putting a stronger restriction on the people on Oklahoma, I don’t think that can be debated.”
Schulz drew support from several rural legislators, including state Sen. Earl Garrison of Muskogee, a Democrat, and Sen. Frank Simpson of Springer, a Republican who insisted the measure is “not exclusionary, but inclusionary.” Sen. Roger Ballenger of Okmulgee, also a Republican, supported Schulz’s arguments.
Schulz insisted the bill was “not something I just took on a whim.”
If the constitutional measure ultimately makes it through the Legislature, it will have to approved by voters before taking effect.
Outside of Senate debate, some advocates of the new measure have expressed disdain for the Oklahoma Education Association, which pushed for last year’s controversial State Question 744 through the initiative device. Others say the Schulz bill could protect rural interests, and at least two senators made reference to the searing cock-fighting initiative battle of the last decade, saying they wanted to preclude measures that could limit hunting, rodeos or other staples of rural life.
Countering these arguments, several conservative groups expressed concern at the drive to limit a device that has helped to advance principles of limited government, including the historic State Question 640. That measure came to the ballot through citizen petitioning, and has mandated all tax increases must be approved by voters.
Republicans joining Reynolds in opposition included Jolley, Aldridge, David Holt of Oklahoma City, Mike Mazzei of Tulsa, Jonathan Nichols of Norman, and Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City. Democrats joining Adelson against the measure were Rice, Judy Eason McIntyre of Tulsa, Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City, John Sparks of Norman and Jim Wilson of Tahlequah.
Republicans supporting the new limit on initiative petition rights were Senators Schulz, Simpson and Ballenger, along with Bingman, Mark Allen of Le Flore County, Patrick Anderson of Enid, Don Barrington of Lawton, Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, Harry Coates of Seminole, Brian Crain of Tulsa, Kim David of Wagoner County, Eddie Fields of Wynona, John Ford of Bartlesville, James Halligan of Stillwater, Ron Justice of Chickasha, David Myers of Ponca City, Dan Newberry of Tulsa, Steve Russell of Oklahoma City, Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, and Anthony Sykes of Moore.
Democrats backing the new restrictions were Garrison, as well as Randy Bass of Lawton, Sean Burrage of Claremore, Tom Ivester of Elk City, Charlie Laster of Shawnee, Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, Susan Paddack of Ada, and Charles Wyrick of Fairland.
Listed as “excused” from voting were Cliff Branan of Oklahoma City, Bill Brown of Broken Arrow, Jerry Ellis of Valliant, Rob Johnson of Kingfisher and Bryce Marlatt of Woodward. All are Republicans except Ellis, a Democrat.
The proposal now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
A knowledgeable initiative activist, politically a conservative Republican, told CapitolBeatOK on Friday, “The bill’s requirement to gather signatures in all five congressional districts would appear to make it almost impossible” to gather sufficient signatures in a timely way.