TIDBITS FOR SPRING 2023
Equalization Board Certifies Revenue
On February 17, the Oklahoma State Board of Equalization certified its final revenue figure for the state Fiscal Year 2024. The certification means the Oklahoma Legislature will have approximately $12.6 billion available to appropriate. The amount is $611 million less than the preliminary estimate that the board certified in December. The certification is approximately $1 billion more than the current FY-23 budget of approximately $10.6 billion. The state 2024 fiscal year begins July 1 and runs through June 30, 2024.
Gross Receipts to the state Treasury
Gross Receipts to the state Treasury paint a picture of a sound but moderating Oklahoma economy as total collections climb to a new high, State Treasurer Todd Russ announced in April. The 12-month record total of $17.64 billion is $1.77 billion or 11.2 percent more than the year before. However, when reviewing the monthly comparison, the difference between this March and last March of $16.6 million or 1.2 percent is the lowest level of growth seen since June 2022. “The results continue to reflect an expanding Oklahoma economy,” said Treasurer Russ. “With that said, rising interest rates are adversely impacting economic activity for both consumers and businesses.”
VW Chooses Canada for Battery Plant
In March, Oklahoma lost out to Canada in a bid to lure German automaker Volkswagen to build a battery plant for their Electric Vehicles (EV) at the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor, Oklahoma. Last year, Governor Kevin Stitt worked with the Legislature to craft a $698 million incentive package to lure Panasonic to build a similar battery plant at the same location. Oklahoma lost out to Kansas in that effort, but state leaders then turned their sights on Volkswagen. The Large-scale Economic Activity and Development Act, also known as the LEAD Act was passed by the Oklahoma Legislature and signed by Gov. Stitt in an effort to lure Panasonic to build here. To qualify for the incentives, a manufacturer had to agree to invest at least $3.6 billion and create 4,000 new jobs in the state within five years. A statement from the Volkswagen Group on March 13 said, “The Group and its battery company PowerCo have selected St. Thomas in Ontario, Canada to establish Volkswagen’s first overseas gigafactory for cell manufacturing, which will produce sustainable unified cells.”
Panasonic Battery Plant 2.0
Last year Panasonic chose Kansas instead of Oklahoma to build an Electric Vehicle (EV) battery plant. And in March, Oklahoma lost out to Canada in a bid to lure Volkswagen to build a battery plant. But, in April, it was reported that Panasonic was looking to build another EV battery plant and that Oklahoma was again in the running. However, there may be some complications in that Panasonic is asking for more incentives which could raise the deal to nearly $1 billion. But, many lawmakers are expressing some hesitation to do so saying it is just too much money. Regardless of the dollar amount, others are opposed to this and other schemes on principle. They say Oklahoma should instead concentrate on eliminating corporate income taxes and create a favorable business climate to attract all businesses, not just a select few large companies. That would also help those businesses already here to survive.
Charges Dropped Against Rep. O’Donnell
On April 6, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond announced the dismissal of all charges against state Representative Terry O'Donnell (R-Catoosa) and his wife. O'Donnell introduced a bill in 2019 that removed from state law a prohibition on the spouses of legislators serving as tag agents. Three months after Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law, the Oklahoma Tax Commission appointed Teresa O'Donnell to take over the Catoosa Tag Agency. Drummond cited political motivations by former AG Mike Hunter for the 2021 indictments which included conspiracy against the state. In 2019, Hunter settled with opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma and O'Donnell questioned how much of that settlement was paid to outside attorneys by Hunter. O'Donnell stepped down from his position as No. 2 leader in the House after the indictment. He was reelected last November and serves as majority whip in the House.
House Censures Rep. Mauree Turner
On March 7, the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted 81-19 to censure Rep. Mauree Turner (D-Oklahoma City) for impeding a law enforcement investigation. The censure means the legislator is removed from her positions on the House Criminal Justice & Corrections and Rules committees until a formal apology is made to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Following the censure, Rep. Turner said: “I just provide my office as space of grace and love for all the folks in all communities that seek refuge from the hate in this building. Trans people don’t feel safe here,” Rep. Turner said.”I think an apology for loving the people of Oklahoma is something that I cannot do. It’s something that I actively refuse to do.”
Rep. Turner was accused of harboring a fugitive during a February 28 protest concerning House Bill 2177. The legislation would prevent sex change surgeries and hormone therapy of those under the age of 21. One of the protesters was wrestled to the floor by an Oklahoma State Trooper after the individual assaulted two Oklahoma State Representatives. Another individual attempted to prevent the arrest by grabbing the troopers hands in the incident and then fled to Rep. Turner’s office. Rep. Turner repeatedly lied to officers and rejected multiple requests by law enforcement to question the individual.
House Censures Rep. Dean Davis
On March 27, the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted 81-9 to censure Rep. Dean Davis (R-Broken Arrow) for “conduct unbecoming a member.” The legislator was arrested for alleged public intoxication around 2:15 A.M. on March 23 at a bar in the Bricktown area near downtown Oklahoma City. Davis was among several legislators who had gone to the establishment. The bar called the Oklahoma City police after the legislator failed to leave the bar when it closed at 2:00 A.M. He tried to get out of the arrest by informing the officer that he was a member of the Oklahoma Legislature.
Rep. Davis made a public apology on the House floor on the same day as the arrest and did not admit any wrongdoing. “I dispute any wrongdoing. However, I do want to take this opportunity to apologize to this body for creating this unnecessary distraction from the important work of the House. Thank you members for allowing me this time. Thank you Mr. Speaker,” he said. This was Davis’ second arrest for alcohol-related charges since taking office following his election in 2018.
Rep. Turner Receives ACLU Award
State Rep. Mauree Turner (D-Oklahoma City) received the Angie Debo Civilian Libertarian of the Year award from the Oklahoma branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at their annual meeting on April 22. The award is given to a person or organization that displayed tremendous leadership in protecting the civil liberties of Oklahomans. Rep. Turner is “non-binary,” which means she does not identify as either male or female. Biologically she was born female, and her first name is a shortened version of “Maureen.” The media release from the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus used Rep. Turner’s preferred pronouns – their and they – which makes the pronouncement somewhat confusing:
“Rep. Turner will be honored because of their unyielding advocacy for human rights for two-spirit LGBTQ+ Oklahomans and their commitment to criminal justice reform centered around principles of restorative justice ...
Rep. Turner is the first Muslim elected in Oklahoma, and the first non-binary person elected to a state office in US history. They have worked with the NAACP of Oklahoma, CAIR Oklahoma, Freedom Oklahoma, and a continuously growing number of grassroots organizations in the state ... They have championed legislation for accurate and equitable documentation for our community members who live beyond the binary, repealing nuisance laws that gives law enforcement more access to our already vulnerable communities.”
State Election Board Elects Officers
The Oklahoma State Election Board members met on April 3 to elect a new Chairman and Vice-Chairman. Heather Mahieu Cline (Oklahoma City) was elected the Chairman of the Board and Dr. Tim Mauldin (Norman) was elected Vice-Chairman. The Board also welcomed new member Mignon Lambley (Hooker). The Board consists of three members and two alternate members selected from lists submitted by the two largest political parties in the state and appointed by the Governor, upon advice and consent of the Senate. The alternate Board members are Jerry Buchanan (Tulsa) and Debi Thompson (Carney).
Members of the Oklahoma State Election Board serve a four-year term and are responsible for actions such as certifying state and federal election results, appointing the members of each county election board, and deciding contests of candidacy. The board was established under the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma in 1907.
Gov. Stitt Restructures Cabinet
On April 11, Governor Kevin Stitt signed Executive Order-2023-08 restructuring the Executive Cabinet.
The restructuring includes the creation of two new cabinet positions, and the elimination of another. Pursuant to state statute, the cabinet system can consist of no more than 15 cabinet areas. With the creation of the new positions, one had to be eliminated. Gov. Stitt had previously announced that Elizabeth Pollard, the Science and Innovation Secretary, had submitted her resignation effective March 15, 2023. Gov. Stitt decided to eliminate that cabinet post to make room for the new one.
A new position is the Secretary of Operations and Government Efficiency. “As governor, I believe in less taxes and smaller government. Creating a Secretary of Operations and Government Efficiency is a targeted effort to ensure my administration stays focused on shrinking the size of government and providing the most efficient services for the taxpayer. Within just weeks of my executive order on reducing the state vehicle fleet, we have saved taxpayers an estimated $2.8 million annually. I know there are more ways to save taxpayer money throughout state government and I look forward to taking additional action with this new cabinet position,” said Gov. Stitt. The new post will be filled by State Chief Operating Officer John Suter.
Another new position is the Secretary of Workforce Development. “I continually hear concerns from across the state as to what we are doing to build up our workforce, so I am looking forward to appointing a new Secretary of Workforce who will be focused specifically on workforce issues. This distinct effort, in addition to working with the Secretary of Commerce, will be critical in our vision to make Oklahoma the most business-friendly state in the nation,” said Gov. Stitt. The Secretary of Workforce Development will be formally announced following the recommendation of the Governor’s Workforce Transformation Task Force.
The 15 cabinet positions are: Secretary of Agriculture; Secretary of Budget; Secretary of Commerce; Secretary of Education; Secretary of Energy and Environment; Secretary of Heath and Mental Health; Secretary of Human Services; Secretary of Licensing and Regulation; Secretary of Operations and Government Efficiency; Secretary of Public Safety; Secretary of State and Native American Affairs; Secretary of Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage; Secretary of Transportation; Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Military, and Secretary of Workforce Development.
Walters Cannot Serve as Secretary of Education
After Ryan Walters was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Gov. Stitt appointed him to continue to serve as Secretary of Education. But, serving as education secretary required Senate approval. Some senators question if Walters could be Superintendent of Public Instruction and Secretary of Education at the same time. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat asked Attorney General Gentner Drummond to weigh in on the matter. AG Drummond wrote in the letter that he has had numerous conversations with legislators concerning Walters holding both offices, and determined that Walters could not hold dual offices. Gov. Stitt withdrew the nomination and made a new appointment.
This would not have been the first time that a Superintendent of Public Instruction also served as Secretary of Education. Former Superintendent John Folks had both roles when Gov. George Nigh created the education secretary position in 1986. Former Superintendent Sandy Garrett was education secretary from 1988 to 1995 under two governors, Henry Bellmon and David Walters.
Some suspect that this move is more to do with some of the more moderate Republican legislators, like Rep. Mark McBride of Moore, who said he would like to put Ryan Walters “in a box.”
New Secretary of Education
On April 11, Governor Stitt announced the appointment of Dr. Katherine Curry as Secretary of Education. The post oversees 41 boards, agencies, and commissions including the Governor’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Council, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, the State Board of Career Technology and Education, and the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.
Katherine Curry earned her undergraduate degree from West Texas State University in 1984 before earning her masters in educational administration from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 2002. She later obtained a doctorate in Educational Administration, Curriculum, and Supervision in 2011 from the University of Oklahoma. She taught high school English in Texas for three years before moving into administrative positions at the building and district levels. After a graduate research position at OU, Dr. Curry accepted a tenure track faculty position at OSU in 2011. At OSU, she taught masters and doctoral courses in the College of Education and Human Sciences, most recently as a professor and program coordinator of the Educational Leadership/School Administration Program.
“I am excited to have Dr. Curry on our team,” said State Superintendent Ryan Walters. “The governor and I are passionate about improving K-12 for all students, improving higher education, and supporting our great teachers to make Oklahoma a Top Ten state for education. We are all committed to transparency and accountability to ensure all education institutions are in line with Oklahoma values.” Walters has served as Secretary of Education since September 2020, more than two years before he was elected as state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Rebuff of Proposed Title IX Change
During a special meeting on April 12, the State Board of Education approved a plan to gather information on school districts’ sports programs as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters prepares to challenge a change in the Title IX rules. Walters wants the information on which schools offer athletic programs and to which sexes. He plans to use the data to fight a proposed rule by the Biden Administration that would prohibit public schools and colleges from banning transgender athletes.
In a first step toward rebuffing the rule, the State Department of Education is asking all Oklahoma school districts to report data on their sports programs, broken down by gender and grade level. Schools must also provide information about whether any of their athletic programs violate the state law (Save Women’s Sports Act) enacted last year that prohibits transgender athletes from participating in female sports at public schools and colleges. Oklahoma is one of more than a dozen states that have such a law. If the federal rule takes effect, Oklahoma school districts could face a federal civil rights investigation or lose federal funding if they violate the updated Title IX rule.
Lawsuit Against EPA Over WOTUS Rule
On April 12, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond made the following remarks after a federal district judge in North Dakota granted a preliminary injunction of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The injunctive relief blocks the EPA from implementing the rule in Oklahoma and 23 other states that have challenged it. “I am pleased by the injunctive relief granted today,” Drummond said. “The Biden Administration routinely infringes on the 10th Amendment rights of Oklahoma and other states, but today the Court put that overreach on hold. I will continue fighting to defend Oklahoma’s sovereignty in this matter.” Instead of supposedly clarifying the Clean Water Act, the recent rule proposed by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would spur confusion and uncertainty by significantly broadening the EPA’s jurisdiction.
Lesser Prairie Chicken
On April 12, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond with the attorneys general from neighboring states in a lawsuit against the Biden administration over a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) rule that designates the Lesser Prairie Chicken as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The rule, which took effect the previous week, places burdensome restrictions on Oklahoma ranchers who graze livestock and unnecessarily impedes the development of energy pipelines, oil drilling, wind farms and roads. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Texas by Drummond, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Drummond noted that his office is uniquely equipped to fight federal overreach due to the steadfast resolve of legislative leaders who have appropriated funds for the sole purpose of defending Oklahoma’s sovereignty.
On April 20, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) denied the motion by Attorney General Gentner Drummond to vacate the conviction of death row inmate Richard Glossip and remand the case back to district court. In addition, the Court denied the State’s motion for a stay of execution. “While I respect the Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion, I am not willing to allow an execution to proceed despite so many doubts. Ensuring the integrity of the death penalty demands complete certainty,“ said Drummond. On April 6, Drummond released the final report from Independent Counsel Rex Duncan on the same day he filed a motion to vacate the conviction. While the report did not declare Glossip is innocent, it documented multiple instances of error that cast doubt on the conviction, even though many of these issues have been previously addressed by the OCCA. After OCCA denied his motion, Drummond asked the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to recommend clemency for Glossip. But, on April 26 the board voted down the request. Glossip is scheduled for execution on May 18.
Glossip has been on Oklahoma’s death row for nearly 25 years. He was initially charged with accessory to murder on Jan. 15, 1997, after the murder of his boss, Barry Van Treese. A co-worker of Glossip’s confessed to beating Van Treese to death in an Oklahoma City motel room. As part of a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, the co-worker testified that Glossip offered to pay him for the killing. As a result, Glossip was charged and eventually convicted of first-degree murder in 1998. The co-worker, who was the prosecution’s key witness against Glossip and the murderer of Van Treese, was convicted and received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned Glossip’s conviction for ineffective assistance of counsel. He was convicted and sentenced to death again at a 2004 retrial.
Appeals Court Judge Appointed
Governor Kevin Stitt appointed Jim Huber to the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. He is a Tulsa County District Judge. Judge Huber has served as a Tulsa County District Judge since 2020 and is the Chief Judge of the Family Court Division where he supervises six special judges while presiding over a family court docket and youthful offender criminal docket.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Judge Huber graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1990 and received his law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1993. Huber began his professional career as an associate with Malloy & Associates. In 1995, he opened his own firm and later served as the managing partner of Collier and Huber representing businesses and individuals in employment and commercial litigation matters. Huber left private practice in 2019 upon being selected by the District Judges of Tulsa County to serve as a Special Judge.
New State Park Restaurant Vendor
The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) is going with restaurant operator and caterer La Ratatouille to manage its restaurants in six state parks. Operations are set to begin on Memorial Day Weekend.
“Reopening these restaurants has been a top priority of mine since joining the agency,” OTRD Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt. “Our goal from day one was to conduct the process with integrity and transparency, while also giving the citizens of Oklahoma a dining experience they would enjoy and be proud of. We can’t wait to work with La Ratatouille to offer excellent food and service inside our state parks.”
La Ratatouille owns and operates Falcone’s Pizzeria, Joni Cakes Bakery, and also has food trucks, and a catering service. La Ratatouille replaces Swadley’s BBQ, which was accused of overcharging the state for renovations and other preparations for its Foggy Bottom state park restaurant concept.
OTA Halts ACCESS OK Plan
Citing lawsuits and an investigative audit that has interfered with the agency’s ability to sell the bonds, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) has announced a stoppage of all work on its $5 billion long-range plan called ACCESS Oklahoma. The stoppage, effective Friday, April 14, includes work on the Turner Turnpike as well as the widening and interchange additions on other turnpikes in the state. “I have mentioned several times, including during the recent board meeting, that our continued ACCESS Oklahoma project work would be impacted or even stopped due to our inability to enter the bond market,” Secretary of Transportation and OTA Executive Director Tim Gatz informed the board. In recent months, legal matters pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, including the “validation” case, and an impending state investigative audit, have prevented access to the bond market. Gatz said the OTA can no longer continue funding work without a clear timetable for access to the bond market. The OTA will continue normal operations and maintenance to existing toll roads as well as moving forward with the conversion to cashless tolling. OTA will also continue to service its existing debt. All of these activities are funded through toll receipts that are consistently meeting or exceeding financial projections. The ACCESS Oklahoma projects are funded through the sale of bonds.
National Teacher of the Year
On April 19, Oklahoma math teacher Rebecka Peterson was named the 2023 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (CCSSO). This is the first time since 1964 that an Oklahoma teacher has earned this distinction. She was selected from a group of five finalists who were selected from among a group of 55 State Teachers of the Year. Peterson has taught math, ranging from Intermediate Algebra to Advanced Placement Calculus, for the past 11 years at Union High School in Tulsa. Peterson will spend a year as an ambassador for students and teachers, where she will travel across the nation to encourage and attract more teachers to the profession.
House Democrats Reelect Leaders
In April, the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus announced that House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City) was reelected for a second term as Minority Leader of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. She is the first Asian-American elected as House Minority Leader. Munson will serve as Minority Leader through 2026. Munson said that during her reign the Democratic Caucus expanded for the first time in two decades. House Democrats returned every member who ran for re-election last year and gained one seat. Democrats now hold 20 seats in the 101 member Oklahoma House. Munson said she looks forward to continuing her work with Chairwoman Trish Ranson (D-Stillwater) and Vice Chairman John Waldron (D-Tulsa) on the House Democratic Caucus Leadership Team. Both were also reelected to an additional two-year term. Their terms were set to expire in 2024. “I am proud of our caucus, and I am humbled by their support to continue to serve as House Minority Leader. The House Democratic Caucus is the most diverse caucus in state history. Our diversity is our strength.” said Munson.
A.C. Hamlin Gala
The Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus held the 2023 A.C. Hamlin Gala in Oklahoma City on April 18.
The gala, named in honor of political trailblazer and the first Black member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, A.C. Hamlin, was a celebration of his life and achievements. The event raised funds for academic scholarships for students attending Oklahoma’s only Historically Black College – Langston University. Ironically, the caucus is composed of Democrat legislators, but A.C. Hamlin was a Republican. Perhaps they did not know.
State Party Conventions
Both of Oklahoma’s two major parties will be holding their off-year state conventions in Tulsa this year. The 2023 Oklahoma Republican State Convention will be in Tulsa, on Friday and Saturday, May 5th and 6th. It will be at the UMAC (Union Multipurpose Activity Center ). Democrats will hold their state convention on Saturday and Sunday, June 3rd and 4th, at the Tulsa Cox Convention Center. The state parties elect their party leaders in the odd numbered years so the leaders will be in place to organize for the even numbered election years. Oklahoma’s third officially recognized political party, the Libertarian Party held their convention in March.