Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

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.

Private School vouchers for foster children a predictable result of SB301

Well, well, well. The front page of the Seminole Producer has an article [State-Funded Private School Vouchers Expand to Foster ChildrenOklahoma Watch report July 14, 2017] proving just what I predicted last year would happen has come to fruition. SB 301 authored by Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie and Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman expand eligibility for funds to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses to “… foster children, adopted foster children and children in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. The students are eligible if they have an individualized services plan, which ALL foster children receive within 30 days of being removed from home….”

Oh, how I was attacked for saying such a far fetched thing. Ha! I could see that writing on the wall a mile away. One more reason I adamantly opposed the local charter school being approved in Seminole. I was the only HD candidate who went to the appeal hearing at the State level and spoke against the decision to overturn the local school board’s decision.

People, according to the last report of the court monitors there were almost 17,000 children in the DHS foster care system. Imagine all the money that number could drain from your local school funds. What a loss for Seminole County.

Seeing the Light at the End of the Oklahoma Budget Debacle?

If more Oklahoma Republicans can be cured of their tax increase phobia, maybe we can get back to funding critical services in this state. Some real solutions are starting to be discussed at 23rd and Lincoln. Baby steps, but still!

Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer, but he also writes a regular guest column for The Journal Record. His latest op-ed addresses the foundational problem that has decimated our state’s budget in recent years: an out of date and unfair tax code.

In “Political spin, special interest cooks and future prosperity” (Behind paywall) Hamilton commends a handful of legislators who are trying to seriously review Oklahoma’x complex (and obviously broken) tax policies, and seek out solutions.

[I]t’s both notable and laudable that senators – led by Okemah’s Roger Thompson – took the first steps toward possible overhaul of a tax system that disproportionately burdens the working class and poor and undermines core state services whose funding is over-reliant on volatile revenue sources like oil and gas.

Noting how previous attempts to raise more revenue – like Gov. Fallin’s expanded service tax idea last year – have fizzled, optimism is not easy to come by, but the dire situation Oklahoma has in seems to have “woke” some Republicans to some realities that don’t mesh well with long-standing GOP dogma.

Thompson’s three-hour hearing this week served as a primer for senators of both parties seeking to better understand Oklahoma’s revenue picture. It also signaled that the Senate’s Republican majority has taken note of Kansas’ failed “trickle down” experiment – cutting taxes do not magically generate more income.

To me, that alone is cause for some ray of hope, but it’s a long way from the interim study currently underway and a supermajority required by State Question 640 to radically reform our tax code by changing rates and thus raising income taxes on high-earning groups. That will mean more than a handful of Republicans will have to recognize that “tax reform” doesn’t always mean cutting taxes for the wealthy and making the poor and middle class pick up the slack and suffer the effects of service cuts. Because, as Hamilton notes,

what helps create sustainable, predictable revenue streams to underwrite vital public services is a fairer, more broadly applied tax code that ensures the working class and poor have more to spend, the economy’s uber stimulant.

Slowly, it appears that this — the only real alternative to our current crisis — is getting through to those who make these decisions on our behalf. Perhaps the winning streak of reality-based Democrats in several recent special elections is playing a part in the new insights by the Republican majority.

We can hope!

What seems to Hamilton – and me – to be a very sane solution that will serve to tamp down Republican politicians’ nervousness about violating the Grover Norquist rule of polcymaking, is, yes, handing the job off to a bipartisan panel, an idea proposed recently by State Treasurer Ken Miller.

Such a group could tackle comprehensive reform – everything from income tax rates to sales taxes on services to gross production and motor fuel taxes – then present a plan for an up-or-down legislative vote.

That won’t be easy (thanks, Yes on SQ640 voters!) but can perhaps cushion the political pain for members of the majority running this state.

Because some of them are coming to the light and getting introduced to reality too. Hamilton quotes Miller, who, unlike some stubborn Norquist-bamboozled state legislators, reads the state’s books: “We need to have a modernization of our tax code,” he says. “It was built for an economy that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Ya think?!

 

Weekly News Roundup

On July 14, Our Revolution Oklahoma, a chapter of the group formed by former staffers and supporters of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, had a well-attended organizational meeting in Moore. 80 people from across the state attended. A followup meeting will be held on August 15.

The reconvene of the Oklahoma Democratic Party on July 15 went pretty smoothly once a quorum was present. Anna Langthorn was pretty universally commended for her facilitation of the event, though, afterward, she was seeking out recommendations for orthopedic shoes.

Democratic State Representatives are being pro-active about a possible constitutional showdown over the state budget and resulting special session.

Senator seeks to nail down state’s cost for defending unconstitutional laws – By Barbara Hoberock, Tulsa World, July 23 2017

A new study shows that Oklahoma is dead last in funding for higher education. Add that to the deepest cuts to K-12 public education in the country. Isn’t full Republican control of Oklahoma government great?

Tom Guild, candidate for OK-5, did a 2.5 hour AMA on Reddit.

Meanwhile, Kendra Horn, also running for OK-5, was interviewed by Red Dirt Report‘s Chelsea Copeland.

Most Republicans hold negative view of higher ed  by Ben Felder, published in the Oklahoman, July 23, 2017

Oklahoma delegation in DC works to decimate federal government – DC Report column by Randy Krehbiel in Tulsa World, July 23, 2017.

USGS in Oklahoma showed how following the dots can be really frightening!

Election Board records show voter fraud rarely occurs in Oklahoma

Through an open letters request, The Frontier obtained a January letter from three Democratic Congressmen to the Oklahoma Elections Board, asking about voter fraud incidents in the state.

The result of the Election Board’s nearly three-month investigation into possible voter fraud in the 2016 general election? Nineteen possible instances of potential voting crimes, 17 of which were instances of double votes, such as when a person votes via absentee ballot, then attempts to vote in person on Election Day.

All 19 instances were forwarded to local district attorneys for potential prosecution, said Election Board spokesman Bryan Dean.

“I have no idea what the disposition (of each case) is,” Dean said. “Most of the time double voting is not prosecuted because it happened by accident and they (the DAs) don’t want to go after a little old lady who voted twice.”

The article also looks at the more recent effort by a Trump administration commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach to investigate what they say is rampant voter fraud and other irregularities.

The commission, formally referred to as the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity,” had sought a bevy of information on Oklahoma voters, including full names, addresses, birth dates, political affiliations, the last four digits of each voter’s social security number, voting history beginning in 2006, felony convictions, any information about voting history in other states, military information and “overseas citizen information.”

Many states are refusing to participate, saying the effort is a veiled attempt at voter suppression and violates privacy of voters, and no state has yet found any evidence of fraud any different than the minimal levels in Oklahoma.

These Three Things for Oklahoma

Republished with permission from One World House

In conversation with hundreds of Oklahomans over the past couple of years and after years of analysis concerning systemic change in the Oklahoma context, I am convinced that Oklahoma needs three things to happen before we will be able to begin digging ourselves out of our current crisis, and these things are:

1.) the Repeal of State Question 640,

2.) the Restoration of the 7% Gross Production Tax on Oil and Gas, and

3.) the Implementation of Ranked Choice Instant Run-Off Voting. All three of these together will not fully get Oklahoma where it needs to go for the creation of a flourishing human community, but without these three things, we will remain a glaring example of what happens to our social fabric when we cut taxes for the wealthy to the detriment of the common good and encourage the economic and political hegemony of the oil and gas industry.

The repeal of Oklahoma State Question 640 would allow the Oklahoma Legislature flexibility to raise state taxes to address Oklahoma’s budget crisis. State Question 640 was passed by a vote of the people in 1992 and requires a 75% vote in both the senate and the house of representatives of the Oklahoma Legislature in order to raise taxes. The effect has been multiple tax decreases over the past 25 years, mainly for the wealthy and large corporations, and no tax increases, even in times of severe revenue failure and budget crisis. Only one other state (Arkansas) has a threshold that is this high for approving tax increases. At the very least, we need to lower the threshold for approval, if not revert back to a simple majority vote. (See https://www.facebook.com/RepealOKStateQuestion640/)

Restoration of the 7% Gross Production Tax (GPT) rate on oil and gas is needed to save our schools and save our state from its revenue failure. Oklahoma’s effective tax rate on oil and gas production is 3.2%  and is one of the lowest in the country. Restoration of the 7% rate is essential to raising teacher pay and reversing the largest decline in general state spending on public education in the entire country since 2008. Oklahoma has the lowest teacher pay in the nation, and ranks fourth lowest in the nation in per pupil spending. Our neighbor Texas, by contrast, has an effective tax  rate of 8.3%  on oil and gas production and pays its new entry-level teachers about $20,000 more than Oklahoma. Over time Oklahoma has lost billions of dollars of revenue owing to our unnecessary tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. (See https://www.facebook.com/OklahomansForRestoring7PercentGrossProductionTax/)

Ranked Choice Instant Run-Off Voting would strengthen participation in our democracy by allowing persons to vote for their candidate of choice in elections with three or more candidates without the concern that their vote would be wasted or contribute to the election of their least favorite candidates. This would allow political parties outside of the Democratic and Republican parties to gain more traction and to be taken more seriously in the political debate. It would likely also increase political participation of those citizens who do not feel represented by the two major parties. In such a system, you could give first preference to the candidate you really want elected. If he or she does not have enough votes to make the instant run-off,  your vote would go to your next preference on the ballot. (See https://www.facebook.com/RCVOklahoma/)

These three things (repeal of 640, restoration of the 7% GPT, and ranked choice voting) will at least give us a fighting chance for systemic transformation in our state, and for that very reason, those who benefit from the established environment will do almost anything to keep these three things from happening. If Oklahoma is to have a future other than becoming even more of a commodity colony than it already is, the people must take back their power through sustained participation in the political process to achieve these three things and then press on towards more systemic change for a more just, peaceful, participatory, and sustainable Oklahoma.

Once these three things happen, it will be more possible to do what is necessary to generate adequate revenue for education, infrastructure, basic services, public safety, environmental protection, healthcare (including mental healthcare), and care for the least vulnerable among us.

Once these things happen, we can begin to focus on diversifying our economy and break the dominance that the oil and gas industry has over our economic and political processes.

Once these three things happen, we can build on the increased political participation that will come when people have more political choices and are able to vote for their first choice in elections without hurting their second choice or helping their least favorite candidate. Vibrant third parties will finally be able to gain traction to allow more diverse voices in our political process.

You can see why these three things will be resisted, which is the very reason we must do all we can to begin with these three things. It is possible…