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Monday, June 17th, 2019Last Update: Tuesday, May 7th, 2019 11:03:32 AM

Voters to Consider State Questions

By: Constitution Staff

Voters will find seven state questions on the November ballot. Three of the measures – SQ 779, 780, and 781– reached the ballot by initiative petition, while SQ 776, 777, 790, and 792 were placed before voters by the Legislature. There are some gaps in the numbering of the State Questions since some sponsors of proposed State Questions either withdrew their petitions or failed to gather enough signatures to secure a place on the ballot. State Question 788, the medical marijuana initiative, apparently did get enough signatures, but they were not submitted in time to be included on this year’s ballot. That initiative still faces several steps in the process and if it survives it could be voted on in 2018. Unfortunately, the vast majority of voters think very little about these questions until they actually read them in the voting booth. We offer the following summaries of the state questions that voters will find on the General Election ballot.


The Constitutionality of the Death Penalty

The state Constitution presently prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” Some opponents of the death penalty have argued that this wording, similar to that found in the federal Constitution, makes capital punishment unconstitutional. This state question makes it clear that capital punishment is not, in and of itself, “cruel and unusual punishment.” It also stipulates that it is the Legislature, and not the courts that determine methods of execution. Furthermore, if a method is, for some reason found invalid, the death sentence will remain valid, to be carried out by another method.


Freedom to Farm

This proposal has been called the “Right to Farm” by its supporters and “Right to Harm” by opponents. The measure is modeled after an initiative approved by voters in North Dakota in 2012 and Missouri in 2014. The proposal would declare that “the rights of citizens and lawful residents of Oklahoma to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.” While any regulations already enacted through the end of 2014 would remain in place, any regulation enacted later than that by the Legislature would require a “compelling state interest.” Conservatives are found on both sides of this state question.

The proposal is being supported by agricultural groups such as the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, and the Oklahoma Pork Council. Opponents include the Oklahoma Municipal League representing mayors and city councils in the state, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative which represents small farmers. Some say it is the big corporate farms that would benefit most if the measure passes. A number of cities are opposing the proposal because they believe it could limit the their ability to pass ordinances restricting livestock in the city limits.


779 Sales Tax Increase for Education

This proposes to increase the state sales tax by an additional one cent. The extra revenue derived from this increase would go to a special fund, out of which 69.5 percent would go to school districts according to the present formula, and 19.25 percent would be sent to the coffers of state universities and colleges. Additionally, 8 percent will go to the State Department of Education for early childhood education, and 3.25 percent to the Department of Career and Technology Education. School districts would be mandated to increase teacher salaries by a minimum of $5,000.

If passed, power would be given to the State Board of Equalization so as to ensure the Legislature will use the increased tax revenue to increase spending levels for state education and not use the money to replace current education funding. If the Oklahoma Board of Equalization determines funding has been replaced, the Legislature is barred from making any other appropriations until the amount of replaced funding is returned to the fund. Considering that the main power of the Legislature is the “power of the purse,” voters should understand that this would strip a large amount of that power and give it over to another body.

This massive tax increase is projected to raise an estimated $615 million per year for state education, and raise Oklahoma’s average statewide sales tax to the second-highest in the nation. And, instead of directing all the money to common schools, the state universities have demonstrated their clout by claiming a substantial share of the revenue derived from this huge tax hike.

Many cities have passed resolutions opposing the measure. Since their primary source of funding comes from sales taxes, they are concerned it will be more difficult to pass bond proposals for roads and other development projects supported by sales taxes.


Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act

This proposal would change present state law as it concerns certain drug and property crimes. Possession of illegal drugs could only be punished as a misdemeanor, not a felony, although manufacturing and selling of illegal drugs would remain felonies. A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail, while a felony is a crime that leads to a year or more of incarceration in the state’s prison system. This measure would also increase the threshold dollar amount used for determining whether certain property crimes are considered a felony or misdemeanor. Currently, the threshold is $500. This measure would increase the amount to $1,000. Property crimes covered by this change include: false declaration of a pawn ticket, embezzlement, grand larceny, theft, receiving or concealing stolen property, taking domesticated fish or game, fraud, forgery, counterfeiting, or issuing bogus checks. Crimes like robbery (taking of property by force) would remain felonies.


County Community Safety Investment Fund

If SQ 780 passes, and this proposal also passes, this measure would create the County Community Safety Investment Fund, consisting of any calculated savings that accrued by reducing the number of felony convictions which would otherwise be spent on incarceration. Funds would be distributed to counties in proportion to their population to provide community rehabilitative programs, such as mental health and substance abuse services. While this redirection of money is logical, it is another example of reducing the appropriations power of the Legislature, and voters should take that into consideration before voting yes to this question.


Repeal of Oklahoma’s Version of the Blaine Amendment

If passed, this measure would remove this language from the state’s Constitution: “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”

In the latter part of the 19th century, Congressman James Blaine of Maine, supported an amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would explicitly prohibit states from using any tax dollars to support religion. While Oklahoma’s language is often called the “Blaine Amendment,” it is actually a milder form of the original Blaine language. But in 2015, this provision of the state Constitution became an issue because the Oklahoma Supreme Court used it to force the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the grounds of the Capitol. Admitting that the monument did not violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the court used the stricter wording found in Oklahoma’s state Constitution to order the monument’s removal. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the display of an identical monument at the Texas Capitol in Austin. The ballot title of the state question states that if this measure is passed, the government would still be required to comply with the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

Those advocating passage of this state question argue that this would overturn the court’s decision. Some in opposition to its passage counter that doing so would be a tacit admission that the court was correct in its ruling, a position few who want the question to pass actually accept. Some are concerned that an overly strict reading of the Oklahoma Blaine language could prevent a future school voucher program from allowing payment directly to a religious school.


Alcohol Sales Regulations

This proposal is promoted as “modernization of alcoholic beverage laws” and would repeal and replace Article 28 of the state Constitution, which regulates alcoholic beverages. First, it would eliminate the distinction between “low point” beer and stronger beers with more than 3.2 percent alcohol content. Secondly, it would end the present prohibition against the selling of refrigerated alcoholic beverages. (The argument against the selling of refrigerated alcoholic beverages being that individuals are much more likely to buy them and drink them while driving, if the beverages are already cold). It would also allow grocery stores to sell beer and wine, but they would have to obtain a liquor license, and follow most of the regulations placed on liquor stores.

Of course, liquor stores fear the end of their monopoly on the sale of stronger alcoholic beverages, but liquor stores would also get some things they want. The Legislature would be able to designate the days and hours when alcoholic beverages may be sold. So, liquor stores might be able to stay open until midnight rather than closing at 9 P.M. And, liquor stores would be allowed to sell non-alcoholic products like soda, ice, chips, pretzels, and corkscrews, as long as these items do not exceed 20 percent of their sales. Additionally, consumers could receive direct shipments of wines for personal, but not commercial use.

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