Friday, October 15, 2010

Only Four Proposals Worth Their Salt

With the November 2 election fast approaching, Oklahoma voters must digest the longest list of questions of any state in the nation.

Eleven measures are on the ballot, ten of which are proposed amendments to the Oklahoma Constitution. All but one were sent to the voters by the Oklahoma Legislature; the only one coming from a citizens’ petition is the proposal to raise Oklahoma’s education spending to the regional average, something Republican legislators are loathe to do on their own.

A lot can be learned by understanding who is behind the proposals. Representatives Sue Tibbs and Mike Reynolds cosponsored six of the ten legislative measures, with Leslie Osborn, George Faught and former Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Randy Brogdon signing on to five. Senators Coffee, Ford, Jolley and Sykes and Representatives Duncan, Kern, Randy McDaniel and Terrill endorsed at least three.

In all, 65 of the 149 legislators cosponsored at least one of the measures; 56 of those 65 are Republicans. Only the proposal to increase the Rainy Day fund cap received good bipartisan support. Two other Democrats supported the proposal to lower the number of signatures required for initiative petitions. Other than those two measures, no Democrats cosponsored any of the legislative proposals.

That means that eight of the ten measures submitted by the Legislature are purely part of the Republican agenda to change Oklahoma government.

This legislature doesn’t have a good track record for well-written laws. In March the Supreme Court found one of their bills to be unconstitutional. In 2009, the Court had ruled the same way twice in three months, to no avail. Having ignored earlier admonitions, the Court added, “We are growing weary of admonishing the Legislature for so flagrantly violating the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution. It is a waste of time for the Legislature and the Court, and a waste of the taxpayer's money.”

In August, the Supreme Court agreed with Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland that a bill taxing health insurance claims was unconstitutional, stripping $78 million from an already-tight state budget. Fortunately, federal economic stimulus funds filled the gap, avoiding an expensive special session to fix the problem. But those federal dollars won’t be available forever to cure the incompetence of the Oklahoma legislature.

Several of the state questions will face legal challenges. SQ 746, requiring a voter to produce identification, may conflict with the state constitution, which provides that “No power, civil or military, shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage by those entitled to such right.” That was one reason Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the proposal when it crossed his desk; the Republicans overrode his veto and placed it on the ballot anyway.

SQ754 includes a provision that claims it cannot be repealed or amended, even if Oklahoma voters unanimously wanted it changed. That’s inconsistent with the Constitution’s original language, which guarantees that the people “have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it.” In effect, Republican lawmakers seek to strip Oklahoma voters of their fundamental right of self-governance. That one will be tied up in litigation for years, when we should be addressing real problems facing Oklahomans.

The same is true for SQ756, by which Republicans seek to deny Oklahomans the benefits of reforms in health care passed by Congress earlier this year. As the ballot language makes clear, under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal law preempts conflicting state law. You can bet there will be lawsuits over this one if it is passed.

The only ones worth their salt, besides SQ744 on funding for common education, are SQ748, SQ750 and SQ757.

SQ748 restructures the eternally-imperfect system of redistricting. If the legislature reaches an impasse over redistricting, the process is entrusted to six bipartisan appointees rather than the current three elected officials who may all be from the same party.

SQ750 would lower the number of signatories required to put a question to the voters by initiative petition. I don’t think it should ever be difficult for Oklahomans to propose changes to their system of government.

SQ757 would increase the amount of the Rainy Day fund from 10% to 15% of available funds, creating a deeper savings account for future tough times. We don’t have money to set aside today, but someday we will, and we need to be prepared.

As for term limits, we have them already. If the voters step up to the plate and do their job, SQ747 is unnecessary. Let the voters decide who they want to serve in public office.

So there you have it. In this humble writer’s opinion, only four questions merit a “yes” vote on November 2 – State Questions 744, 748, 750 and 757. The rest deserve a “no” vote. Hopefully we’ll survive this mind-numbing process until we get a smarter legislature.

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