Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

It’s (past) time for Oklahoma to raise its minimum wage

Last week, Missouri and our next door neighbor, Arkansas, passed minimum wage initiatives. Arkansas voters approved $11 by 2021, while those in Missouri went with $12 by 2023. It’s time (past time!) for Oklahoma to join the many states that have exceeded the federal rate. BTW, AR’s minimum wage was ALREADY higher than OK’s. (OK has $7.25, which is the federal rate.) There is no longer a rational excuse about regional differences.

Let’s not let this economic justice bandwagon rush along without us!

The campaign for higher minimum wages originated years ago in blue cities like New York and Seattle, but it’s proving pretty popular in Trump country as well.

Voters in both Arkansas and Missouri, two states that went strongly for President Donald Trump in 2016, passed ballot initiatives to increase the state minimum wage during Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Both measures enjoyed overwhelming support, with 68 percent of Arkansas voters and 62 percent of Missouri voters voting in favor.

Minimum wage ballot initiatives have also won handily in red and purple states, such as South Dakota, Nebraska and Arizona, in the past two election cycles.

At least two groups are actively talking about getting the issue on the ballot for voters to decide, but the clock is ticking for a 2020 initiative to happen. Time to stop talking and start organizing!

Our Revolution Oklahoma has been studying the matter for about a year, researching how other states have handled increases through a phased in approach, resulting in up to a $15 minimum over time. Consulting with business owners who would be impacted by the change has been part of the process.

“We are forced to look at a single statewide figure, since our legislature, in its wisdom, in 2014 passed a bill that prevents municipalities from raising local minimums that are more appropriate for the economics of the area,” said Susan McCann, chair of OROK’s Ballot Initiative Committee.

This preventative action was in response to efforts by labor organizations to increase the Oklahoma City rate to $10.10. It may come back to bite the conservatives who backed the bill. Across the nation, when presented with the question, voters have overwhelmingly approved wage increases in both blue and red states.

 

Photo by Tim O’Conner, shows 2013 demonstration in Oklahoma City before the campaign was shut down by the legislature.

State Question 788: Medicinal Marijuana Legalization

On June 26, 2018, the state of Oklahoma will vote on State Question 788. This could be one of the most important State Questions in modern Oklahoma history.

For anybody that doesn’t know, State Question 788 is the Medical Marijuana Legislation initiative. A vote yes, would support the measure to legalize the licensed cultivation, use and possession of cannabis for medicinal purposes. A vote no, would oppose the same measure.

Let’s go into a little bit deeper depth of what this measure would do if it was, in fact voted into law. While it would legalize the medical use of cannabis, a person couldn’t just walk into their doctor’s office and get a prescription.

You would first need to obtain a state issued medical marijuana license. To get one, you would first need a board-certified physician’s signature.

A license would cost 100 dollars and it would last a total of two years. A person under the age of 18 would need the signatures of two physicians instead of just one and approval from his or her parents or guardians.

There would be no specific qualifying conditions to be able to get a license. A person who gets a license would be able to possess up to three ounces of cannabis on their selves and up to eight ounces in their home.

A seven percent tax would be placed on all cannabis sales. The revenue that would be collected from this tax would first go towards covering regulatory costs. Any surplus from the tax would be split between education and the Oklahoma State Department of Health for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

However, it wouldn’t be an even split. 75 percent of the surplus would go towards education and the remaining 25 percent would go to the Department of Health.

For those wondering if employers would be able to penalize you, if you have a medicinal marijuana card, you don’t have to worry. The initiative would forbid employers, landlords and schools from doing so. Employers would only be able to take action against you, if you possess or use cannabis while on the job.

Now that we know the specifics of the state question, let’s discuss why this is in the best interest for Oklahoma.

This initiative will not only bring in much needed revenue for the state, but it’s also patient oriented. Cannabis can be used to treat way more conditions than just glaucoma and cancer.

It’s absurd to think that people suffering from chronic pain, among other conditions, are being prescribed opioids that are highly addictive and dangerous, when they could be using a medication that’s not physically addictive and hasn’t killed anybody in recorded history.

Now let’s take in to account that Oklahoma lawmakers as well as its citizens are currently facing a 611-million-dollar budget hole. I can only imagine how much money is being spent by the State policing, litigating and incarcerating its own citizens for a drug that could be used for such good.

If this initiative passes, that money will be freed up. Combine that money with the money that will be collected through the seven percent tax and I think that budget hole will lessen over time. Whether through in person conversation, or through social media I constantly see Oklahomans brag about how they are always for individual freedoms and how big government shouldn’t infringed upon those rights.

Why shouldn’t the ability to use cannabis be one of those rights? A person using cannabis in their own home has never affected anyone but the person using it. Why should the government continue to try to prosecute individuals for doing something that makes them happy, while at the same time, not hurting anyone else?

Oklahoma is also facing a problem with the overcrowding of prisons. fifty percent of the prison population are individuals doing time for non-violent drug offenses. If this state question passes on June 26, then I believe those serving time for non-violent drug offenses should be pardoned.

Not only will this help solve the problem of overpopulation, but that would free up YOUR tax dollars that are used to house them. Then that money can be used on stuff that we desperately need, like better education and to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

I’ve read the arguments being pushed on the “Vote NO OK788” Facebook page and they simply don’t make sense. They claim this isn’t about medicine, but for a full-blown legalization of cannabis. That simply isn’t the case. As I mentioned above, in order to obtain a medical marijuana card, you have to go through a board-certified physician.

They claim that this bill makes it so if a person has a medicall card, a potential employer won’t be able to drug test them. Again, that isn’t the case at all. They will still be able to drug test them, they just won’t be able to discriminant against a cannabis user if they have a license to use it.

It’s just like now, if a person has a prescription for opioids or any anti-anxiety medicine, an employer is still able to drug test them.

In January 2018, a poll was conducted by “Sooner Poll” and found that 44.6 percent of those asked, strongly supported the initiative and 17.2 percent somewhat supported it.

While around 31 percent of those that were asked, either somewhat opposed or completely opposed the initiative.

Whether you support or oppose state question 788, please register and get out and vote on the 26th. Every vote matters, let your voice be heard.

GOP majority suppresses bills from Democratic legislators as punishment for Step Up failure

GOP Committees Hear Lowest Number of Minority Bills in Recent Memory

OKLAHOMA CITY – Republican-controlled committees have once again put party over state by only passing 30 measures authored by House Democrats through the committee process.

At a time when Oklahomans from both sides of the aisle expect their voices to be heard, House Republican leadership has elected not to listen to the people but instead have used committees to retaliate against Democrats who have chosen to listen to their constituents and stand against big business and special interests.

Specifically, the minority caucus was notified that members who voted against the package would need to transfer their bills to other caucus members who were in favor of Step Up. One such measure, House Bill 2615, authored by Rep. Will Fourkiller (D-Stilwell), was transferred to another Democrat all due to Rep. Fourkiller’s ‘no’ vote on Step Up – a vote requested by a majority of the constituents that contacted him. The measure simply commemorated soldiers buried at the Fort Gibson National Cemetery.

“I have spent seven years at the Capitol, representing the people of Norman and I have never before seen this level of partisan denigration, especially based on a measure that was widely rejected by both parties,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “Several members of the Democratic caucus filed legislation requested by constituents to help make the government more responsive to their needs or to fix problems with our current laws and none of their bills were heard.”

Of the measures denied a hearing, four measures would have provided teacher pay raises of $5,000 or more and five measures would have restored the gross production tax to a rate more equitable for all of Oklahoma. Overall, 38 of the 140 measures introduced by Democratic members and not granted a hearing would have benefitted public education and helped to dramatically improve the state’s fiscal situation.

“When I filed House Bill 2842 to restore the gross production tax rate and dedicate the revenue to a long-term teacher pay increase, I knew I was facing an uphill battle,” states Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah. “But, I also knew that there were several members, both Democrats and Republicans, that supported both of the objectives in this bill.”

Retired educator Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, filed HB2617, which sought to make a tax credit available for teachers that have paid for classroom supplies like reams of paper and pencils. The bill was assigned to a budgetary subcommittee and not granted a hearing.

Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, filed HB2929 to help place a timeline for dealing with the backlog of nearly 7,000 untested rape kits in the state, which is an essential step in stopping serial rapists.

“The victims of sexual assault and rape continue to be ignored in our state,” Nichols said. “Many law enforcement agencies across the state failed to comply with the Governor’s audit request on untested rape kits and now because of politics we are once again showing them justice doesn’t matter. Untested kits leave us with the threat of a rapist walking free. This is an urgent and dangerous problem, it should be bigger than politics but thanks to a few committee chairs, it is not.”

Other measures presented by House Democrats that failed to receive a committee hearing:

HB2531 – Authored by Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, would have restored of the historic gross production tax rate, boosting state revenue by over $300 million.

HB1368 – Authored by Rep. Johnny Tadlock, D-Idabel, approval of dedicated, per-pupil funds for books and supplies.

HB2611 – Authored by Rep. Johnny Tadlock, D-Idabel, created a tiered gross production tax.

HB2741 – Authored by Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, would restore the state standard deduction.

HB2746 – Authored by Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, would increase transparency of the Legislature by subjecting it to the same rules of other public bodies.

HB1876 – Authored by Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, would allow a spouse or family member paid leave to care for veterans returning home with disabilities.

“It’s stunning that we have people elected to serve the citizens of Oklahoma that would refuse to hear good legislation from a member based on a previous vote,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City. “That kind of petty behavior from House leadership effectively silenced the voices of the thousands of Oklahomans who put their faith in their legislators.”

Source: Press release from Democratic Caucus

2017 Special Session Budget Crisis: Democratic Caucus Urges Path Forward

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Mediocre “Bargain,” House Bill 1054X, failed yesterday due to the efforts of House Republican leadership. The House Democrats delivered over 80 percent of its caucus on yesterday’s vote because Democrats trusted Republican leadership would deliver on what was promised time and time again—75 percent of its own caucus.

House Republican leadership failed to deliver Republican votes to protect children, the disabled and the elderly from devastating cuts while rank and file members supported the measure. Twelve committee chairs and 10 vice chairs voted against the measure.

“It is disturbing to see Republican members who have been designated by House Republican leadership as leaders in public education, veterans, public health and long-term care oppose a measure that would provide funding for impending loss of critical services to their constituents,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “If House Republican leadership is intent on passing revenue raising measures, they alone have the ability to leverage the votes of their leadership team.”

After a heated exchange via press release in July 2017, House leadership made a change in chairmanship in the House Committee on Appropriations & Budget over a disagreement regarding cuts to the Department of Human Services prior to the Supreme Court decision on the cigarette fee. This action shows Republican leadership is clearly willing and able to remove committee chairs when there is a disagreement. The fact that similar changes have not been made to committee chairs who voted against HB1054X illustrates Republican leadership never intended for this bill to pass in the first place.

House Democrats are now urging Republican leadership to find a path forward by renegotiating a truly Grand Bargain. The House Democrats stand ready to deliver 100 percent of its members for a true Grand Bargain — a revenue package that includes a restoration of the gross production tax and the income tax restoration on high-earners that was included in the Restoring Oklahoma Plan.

“We look forward to working with our colleagues across the aisle to come together on this Grand Bargain that will prevent impending immoral cuts and put our state on a more solid fiscal path in the years to come,” said Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City.

Special Session promising to be more of same BS from Republican majority

If you don’t think the Republican caucus in the OK State legislature are going to dedicate the special session — starting Dept. 25 — solely to more cuts and “efficiencies” then you are a political neophyte, or simply brainwashed by our horrendous state media.

Here’s a news release issued Sept. 14:

Moore, Cleveland Issue Republican Budget Challenge

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Reps. Lewis Moore and Bobby Cleveland announced today they are challenging Republican lawmakers to prepare for a line-by-line budget review ahead of a pre-session Republican Caucus meeting in December. Moore and Cleveland hope lawmakers will each find $50 million to $100 million in budget reductions and efficiencies.

 “We have spent too much time and energy lately finding creative ways to increase revenue,” said Moore, R-Arcadia. “This Republican Budget Challenge is a way for us to shift our focus back to conservative principles: eliminating waste, streamlining government and finding efficiencies that benefit Oklahomans. It can and has to be done.”

 “We understand going line by line through agency budgets is a tedious task,” Moore said. “But, if we spent even half as much time rooting out waste as we have trying to increase revenue through the legislative process, I bet we could find some real savings. For the past few years, the legislature has allocated money to agencies in block grant form, with agencies determining how they would allocate funds within their agencies.  The legislature, which represents the citizen’s will, to include how much money to raise and spend, should go through each agency budget, line-by-line, prioritizing needs and dictating spending.  I believe each agency and our citizens will be better served with greater scrutiny.”

 After the December caucus meeting, Moore and Cleveland hope to release results outlining the top ideas to the public ahead of the 2018 session.

 “We urge all of our members to participate in this challenge,” said Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. “We are hearing from Oklahomans across our state who believe there are inefficiencies in state government. It is our job to ensure a more efficient system, and the Republican Budget Challenge allows us to do just that.

 “We are excited to see the great ideas that this challenge produces. At the end of the day, we cannot expect taxpayers to bear the brunt of higher taxes when we all know there’s plenty of waste to be found in our system. Our citizens deserve better,” Cleveland said.

Of course, that was only an echo to the release Speaker McCall issued on Sept. 6 which sought to redirect blame for the whole problem the Republicans refuse to acknowledge, much less deal with — insufficient income:

Speaker McCall Announces Solution for Special Session and $215 Million Gap 

OKLAHOMA CITY – House Speaker Charles McCall today said House Republicans will consider raising the cigarette tax in special session but will send it to a vote of the people if  House Democrats again refuse to support the measure.

McCall said the Legislature will likely take up the cigarette tax and use existing cash to address the $215 million budget hole created when the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the cigarette cessation fee the Legislature enacted in May. The cigarette tax, if passed in special session, would generate approximately $122 million for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. The House also likely would use a combination of $70 million of the $83 million available in Fiscal Year 2017 prior year cash and $23 million from the Rainy Day Fund, which would backfill the $215 million hole and prevent cuts to education, health care and other agencies.

“The cigarette tax is the only feasible tax option Oklahomans have said they would support. It would help us replace the funds lost when the Court rejected the cigarette fee,” said Speaker McCall, R-Atoka. “Unlike our Democratic colleagues, House Republicans have no intention or desire to tax the life out of Oklahomans just to grow government – especially at a time when our citizens are living on less. We are not going to raise a billion dollars in taxes to fill a $215 million budget hole.”

McCall said if the cigarette tax fails the Legislature will send it to a vote of the people and use targeted cuts to make up the difference in the budget hole.

“House Democrats have shown time and again they are not going to help pass the cigarette tax despite it being the most feasible among Oklahomans,” said McCall. “They have not supported the cigarette tax during either of the last two legislative sessions, and we have no reason to believe special session will be any different. If they refuse to support the cigarette tax again, any further cuts to state agencies will be on them. The Court struck down the cigarette fee, so the easiest path to replacing the funds is to pass the cigarette tax.

“House Republicans will convene in special session, as we are obligated to do. But we have to make decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens who sent us here, not what is in the best interest of special interests or bureaucrats.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats point again to their proposed budget from March, during the regular session, which includes revenue increases that are themselves modest compared to the dire need to reestablish funding to core state services, including education, which the legislature is constitutionally required to support.

For some sane and workable budget ideas that will help Oklahoma progress in addressing serious needs in education, infrastructure and criminal justice, see the ongoing work of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Democrats respond to Supreme Court ruling on cigarette fee

The Oklahoma Democratic Party and Oklahoma Senate Democrats quickly released statements after the announcement of the state Supreme Court’s ruling that the “cigarette fee” passed during the last week of the session in May is unconstitutional.

First, the Senate leader’s office sent this press release

Senator John Sparks

Oklahoma Senate Democrats Issue Statement on Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Declaring “Cigarette Fee” Unconstitutional

The Oklahoma Senate Democratic caucus issued a statement Thursday through their leader, Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, commenting on the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the “cigarette fee” and declaring it an unconstitutional tax:

“The opinion issued today by the Oklahoma Supreme Court finding that the so-called “cigarette fee” passed by the legislature was, in fact, an unconstitutional tax comes as no surprise. We knew this tax was unconstitutional when it was passed by the legislature back in May. We made the same arguments that the Court has articulated in today’s opinion when Republican leadership at the Capitol was playing partisan political games and pushing this desperate revenue measure through during the last hours of the 2017 regular session.

“This kind of unconstitutional legislation is nothing new from the Republican leadership at the Capitol. Unfortunately, we are used to wasting money paying lawyers to defend their unconstitutional bills. What makes this situation new, and worse, is that now we are going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in a special session doing the job that should have been done back in May.

“We need to approach a special session thoughtfully with real plans for revenue measures that can fill the $215 million budget hole which has been created at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority and the Department of Human Services. We need to set clear priorities, take hard votes and make tough choices with all revenue options on the table for open, transparent discussion and debate. This is a time for cooperation and compromise. This is the time for a plan of action, accountability and real results. This is what our constituents demand of us and what they deserve from us with no exceptions and no excuses.

“We cannot continue to let the most vulnerable Oklahomans suffer because of a continued lack of leadership among the Republicans at the Capitol and their unwillingness to do the hard work and take the hard votes necessary to properly and fully fund our healthcare agencies.”

 

And from the party HQ:

Special Session Around the Corner

In light of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s cigarette “tax” fee ruling, the Oklahoma Democratic Party insists that Governor Fallin call for a special session to address the budget hole crisis that was never resolved earlier this year.

Republicans have failed Oklahomans. The Republican-Super-Majority had a chance to work together with Democrats on developing sustainable recurring revenue during session, but they instead chose to knowingly push through unconstitutional bills, wasting tax payer’s time and money.

Oklahomans shouldn’t have to pay for Republican failures. It’s time for Republicans to step up and prove they care about Oklahomans and do their job. It’s time for Republicans to work with Democrats on a long-term sustaining recurring revenue plan.

Is Oklahoma coming around on legalization of marijuana?

While there is still strong resistance to legalizing marijuana from current state government leaders, as well as prosecutors and law enforcement in our state, there is evidence that the average Oklahoman is ready to reform the harsh laws that harken back to the War on Drugs of the Reagan era.

In 2016, two ballot initiatives aimed at criminal justice reform passed overwhelmingly, with voters recognizing that putting nonviolent offenders in prison, sometimes for lengthy sentences, is neither effective or financially responsible.

But again, legislators at the Capitol decided they knew better and found ways to squelch the reforms. For now.

Activists are pushing forward with a ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana in Oklahoma, and this time the state’s voters may be ready. But maybe a majority is ready to go even further. The general success of legalization in states like Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and California, with others allowing medicinal use, has begun to erode the alarmist arguments of the past decades.

Rather than the old saw about marijuana being a gateway drug, I think things have evolved to the point that medical marijuana is the gateway reform. I think it’s time to go for the whole enchilada, and in fact, that discussion is already starting on the federal level, thanks to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. It might turn out that by the time Oklahoma approves the less controversial approach, the conversation across the country will be well ahead of us.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

But I don’t think the many old fogey pols in Oklahoma will be able to use those outdated arguments much longer and not get laughed at, and they won’t be able to avoid the issue entirely either. Really, the time has come to put this self-defeating drumbeat of doom to rest and listen to the science and the personal experience of millions of users.

Political and community leaders, even in Oklahoma, need to be bolder about taking a stand to bring a saner approach to drug use in general, to stop arrests for possession of small amounts of pot, or growing for personal use or to treat medical conditions. And this is sure to become an issue in 2018 state elections with the question on that same ballot.

Connie Johnson, currently running for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and Joe Dorman, former gubernatorial candidate and currently CEO of Oklahoma Institute for Children Advocacy both were quoted with full or tentative support, respectively, in an August 4 story in The Tulsa World about New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s proposal for federal level legalization.

Both have been involved in past efforts to allow medical marijuana in Oklahoma. They were interviewed for an August 3 story in the Tulsa World by Siandhara Bonnet about Booker’s bill.

“I believe the federal government should get out of the … illegal marijuana business,” Booker said. “It disturbs me right now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not moving as the states are, moving as public opinion is, but actually saying that we should be doubling down and enforcing federal marijuana laws even in states that have made marijuana legal.”

Neither Johnson nor Dorman defended the current approach in Oklahoma, of course, because they are ahead of the curve, and have been for several years. They should not be the ones quizzed, in my opinion. Where do the current crop of candidates for governor and other state positions stand — that’s what we need to know.

It’s time for other state leaders and candidates to acquaint themselves with the realities of our times, and stop promoting easily-refuted claims of cultural calamity. crime, eventual escalation to opiates and other such myths, and support making marijuana legal in Oklahoma for both medical AND recreational use.