By: Constitution Staff
State Auditor Being Evicted
State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones says his office was informed they will be evicted from their State Capitol office after the next legislative session ends in May. Jones said: “Since the Oklahoma State Capitol was built the Oklahoma State Auditor’s office has had an office there. Sadly we were just notified that after the next legislative session we are being told to vacate and find rental space somewhere else. We are not happy! This decision was made by the House, Senate, and Office of Management Services with no input from our office.” According the Jones, the reason for the ouster is that the Secretary of State and the Office of State Finance want more meeting space.
Jones has ruffled a few feathers at the Capitol in recent years and some believe the ouster could be in retaliation. But, Trait Thompson, the Capitol renovation project manager, insisted there is nothing retaliatory about the decision by House and Senate leaders and project officials to require the auditor’s office to leave. He said the move is part of a reallocation of space that is taking place as the Capitol undergoes the $245 million renovation. Jones says there could be a little kink in their plans. Article 6 of the Constitution says that certain constitutional offices, including his, will be housed at the seat of government. And, a previous Attorney General’s opinion says the seat of government is the state Capitol. Of course, the state Supreme Court and the Labor Commissioner have also been moved out of the Capitol building in the past, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, also a constitutional office, does not office in the Capitol, either.
SQ 787 Signatures Fall Short
An initiative petition to place a measure on the ballot to extend the period to collect initiative petition signatures failed to make the November ballot. In August, Secretary of State Chris Benge reported that his office counted a total of 59,981 signatures on the petitions. But, for State Question 787 to qualify for the ballot, 65,987 valid signatures were required. State law requires a certain number of signatures based on the voter turnout of the previous gubernatorial election. The initiative proposed to extend the time allowed for petition signature drives from 90 days to a year.
Medical Marijuana Not On Ballot
While the Medical Marijuana initiative petition apparently collected enough signatures, it won’t be on the ballot in November. On August 23, Secretary Chris Benge said his office counted 67,761 signatures for State Question 788, which is more than the 65,987 needed to qualify for the ballot. It then went to Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt who reviewed the ballot title and submitted a substitute on August 25, well before the time allowed. But, supporters object to the way it was rewritten, which will further delays approval. The public also has a chance to challenge the signatures and the proposed ballot title. Since the deadline for the State Election Board to include it on this year’s ballot was August 26, it won’t be on the upcoming General Election ballot. It could be another two years before voters will have a chance to decide the issue, unless the Governor decides to call a Special Election which would cost about $1.2 million.
GOP Voters Increase
As the October 14 deadline to register to vote in Oklahoma approached, data from the Oklahoma State Election Board showed a surge of Republican numbers. About 16,000 voters have changed their party affiliation since September 1, with more than half switching to the Republican Party. Meanwhile, only about 3,000 voters switched to the Democrat Party. Also, about 3,900 dropped their Republican or Democrat affiliation to become Independents. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the number of Independent voters,” said Bryan Dean, spokesman for the state Election Board. “There are almost as many new Independents as Democrats in the last few weeks. The trends that we’re seeing are pretty much continuing the trends we’ve seen of late. For the last few decades, we’ve seen the number of Democrats is slowly decreasing and the number of Republicans is steadily increasing.”
There has also been over 41,000 new registrations. Over 46 percent of those new registrants are identifying as Republicans, compared to 26 percent identifying as Democrats and 25 percent as independents. About 2 percent have registered with the Libertarian Party which regained ballot status earlier this year. Since voter registration applications postmarked by midnight of the October 14 deadline remain to be processed, the final numbers will not be known until shortly before the November 8 election.
Oklahoma Voter ID Law
On August 15, an Oklahoma County District Court Judge upheld Oklahoma’s voter identification law. Over 74 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 746 on the November 2, 2010 ballot. Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons ruled that the law meets constitutional requirements, rejecting the contentions of Tulsa attorneys James Thomas and William Thomas, that the law was unconstitutional. The lawyers, representing Delilah Christine Gentges, argued that the law disenfranchises poor, minority, elderly, disabled and women voters because they are less likely to have Oklahoma photo driver’s licenses or other approved forms of photo identification. Another district court judge had dismissed the case in 2012, ruling that Gentges lacked standing to bring the challenge. But, that decision was overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2014 and sent it back to the district court. James Thomas said they planned to appeal.
“The attorney general is pleased that the court dismissed the challenge to Oklahoma’s voter ID statute,” said Will Gattenby, spokesman for state Attorney General Scott Pruitt. “As the court correctly found, the state law does not infringe on any citizen’s right to vote. The law, passed by a vote of the people to prevent voter fraud, ensures that the person who appears at the poll is registered to vote, and the law provides for several easy and free avenues to show proof of identity.” Showing a valid Oklahoma driver’s license or other approved forms of photo identification, such as those issued by the federal government or Indian tribes, is one of the options the law gives Oklahoma voters to provide proof of identity. Voters who don’t have photo identification, or who don’t wish to show it, can vote by showing their free voter registration card issued to all voters. More than 30 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. Courts have struck down some of those laws, while others have been upheld.
School Bathroom Ruling
A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Obama administration’s order that requires public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity. In a temporary injunction signed on August 21, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the federal education law known as Title IX “is not ambiguous” about sex being defined as “the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.” The judge’s order, which applies nationwide, was not about the policy issues of transgender rights but his conclusion that federal officials simply did not follow the rules. “This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students’ rights and that of personal privacy ... while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school,” Judge O’Connor wrote in his opinion.
The injunction was praised by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt who is part of the coalition challenging the federal rules. The lawsuit was filed in May by Texas, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia, and the Republican governors of Maine, Mississippi and Kentucky. “This injunction is the first step to preventing the Obama administration from holding hostage every single school district, nationwide. The executive fiat passed down by the Department of Education and Department of Justice threatened the Title IX funding that Oklahoma schools, as well as all others across the nation, depend on. The thinly veiled threat is first and foremost unlawful, as we will continue to prove in court,” said Pruitt.
Devon Abandons OIPA
Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy will not renew its membership in the5,000 member Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association (OIPA). Devon said that the decision arose from serious concerns with OIPA’s ability to be an effective advocate for the significant capital investments Devon is making in Oklahoma. They said the current governance structure at OIPA does not equitably distribute board memberships based on any operational or membership level criteria, so the voice of active operators is diluted in any decision making process. This inequity in the organization’s structure led to what Devon considers to be adverse public policy positions from OIPA that do not advance Devon’s interests. Devon will instead be focusing their support of an association that better represents their interests.
Tribes Pay Record Gaming Fees
In October, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) released its annual report on tribal gambling compliance for the fiscal year that ended on June 30. According to the report, the State of Oklahoma received a record $132 million in tribal gaming exclusivity fees during the last fiscal year which was an increase of than $3.6 million over the previous fiscal year. OMES says the tribes paid the exclusivity fees to the state based on nearly $2.2 billion in revenue generated from Class III electronic games and non-house-banked card games. Class III games are the ones typically played at Oklahoma casinos, such as slot machines and blackjack. Almost $116 million of the fees went to a fund dedicated to support of public education, with the remainder being deposited in the General Revenue Fund.
State Revenues Fall Below Estimates
With personal income tax and other revenue making a correction and sales tax continuing to decline, total General Revenue Fund (GRF) receipts were 12.4 percent below the September estimate. As state government’s main operating fund, the GRF is the key indicator of state government’s fiscal status and the predominant funding source for the annual appropriated state budget. GRF collections are revenues that remain for the appropriated state budget after rebates, refunds and mandatory apportionments. GRF collections in September totaled $452.6 million, which is $64.2 million below the official estimate upon which the Fiscal Year 2017 appropriated state budget was based and $91.5 million, or 16.8 percent, below prior year collections. Total GRF collections through the first three months of FY 2017 are $1.2 billion, which is only $16.8 million, or 1.4 percent, above the estimate , but that is $130.2 million, or 9.5 percent, below prior year collections.
In September, total income tax collections of $216.8 million were $46.2 million, or 17.5 percent, below the estimate and $89.7 million, or 29.2 percent, below the prior year. Individual income tax collections fell to $184.6 million, or $12.9 million, or 6.5 percent, below the estimate. Corporate income tax collections of $32.3 million were $33.3 million, or 50.8 percent, below the estimate and $48.8 million, or 60.2 percent, below the prior year. The other revenue category had $60.3 million in collections, which is $9.7 million, or 13.9 percent, below the estimate. September sales tax collections were $9.3 million, or 5.9 percent, below the estimate and $6.6 million, or 4.2 percent below the previous year. Sales tax collections have remained below the estimate now for 19 of the last 20 months and below the prior year for 18 of the last 20 months. Sales tax collections typically comprise about 35 percent of the GRF’s annual collections.
Skyrocketing Cost for ObamaCare
Health insurance premiums will likely increase by an average of 76 percent for Oklahomans who buy individual coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s (ObamaCare) marketplace. The increases for individual market plans range from 58 percent to 96 percent. “These jaw-dropping increases make it clear that Oklahoma’s exchange is on life support,” said Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak. “Health insurers are losing massive amounts of money. If they don’t raise rates they’ll go out of business. This system has been doomed from the beginning.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, the only health insurer offering plans through the federal exchange in 2017, submitted the increases to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). CMS will determine if the increases are reasonable. The increase requests follow many insurers reporting significant losses, lower than expected enrollment by the younger population and new customers being sicker than expected. ACA-compliant off-exchange individual plans sold by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma will see the same increases as plans sold on the exchange.
Oklahoma, along with Texas, Missouri, Alabama and Wyoming, is a direct enforcement state and has no authority to enforce provisions of the Affordable Care Act. At the end of 2016, UnitedHealthcare will exit the individual market in Oklahoma. It had five percent of the state’s 130,178 federal exchange enrollees for 2016. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma had the other 95 percent. The increases apply to people buying individual plans, about six percent of the Oklahoma population. Most Oklahomans purchase insurance through an employer plan, a large group plan or through a government program such as Medicare or SoonerCare.
Opt Out Workers Comp Unconstitutional
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on September 13 that a workers’ compensation law is unconstitutional. The Opt Out Act allows a company to not participate in the state’s workers’ comp system, if they provide their own system to treat injured employees.
The case involved a Dillard’s employee who was lifting shoe boxes when she injured her neck and shoulder. She filed for benefits under Dillard’s Opt-Out plan, those requests were denied and she appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Commission. The Commission decided for the employee and Dillard’s appealed to the Supreme Court. The decision will have ramifications for the new workers’ comp system and the various Opt-Out plans in Oklahoma. The State Chamber of Commerce is calling the decision an overreach of power by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The Opt-Out provision was passed in 2013. The Supreme Court ruled that it is a “special law” which creates a class of people. The ruling was a 7-2 decision with Justices James Winchester and Steven Taylor dissenting. Several other challenges to the Opt-Out Act are in various stages within the Commission and the court system. Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the ruling will lead to bad outcomes. “Unfortunately, today’s decision is yet another action by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that dismantles these reforms piece by piece. This result is out of touch with our current economic climate, threatening to return our state to a system with exorbitant awards, high premiums, and hostility toward employers, ultimately hurting all working Oklahomans.” About 60 Oklahoma employers have opted out of the state’s workers’ compensation program, including Dillard’s, Swift Transportation, home health care company ResCare and Big Lots. They must now secure coverage through the state’s administrative workers’ comp system.
Oklahoma Supreme Court Vacancy
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor is leaving the state’s highest court at the end of the year. He submitted his retirement letter to Governor Mary Fallin on July 2. Justice Taylor’s seat was scheduled to be on the judicial retention ballot this year. He has been an Oklahoma judge for nearly 33 years and was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Gov. Brad Henry in 2004. The Judicial Nominating Commission will accept applications for nominees to the court and provide three names to the governor to make a selection for his replacement. The nominees must be from the 2nd Judicial District which encompasses much of southeastern Oklahoma. This will be Gov. Fallin’s first appointment to the high court.
Murphey Present for 100% of Votes
State Representative Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie) made sure that he was representing House District 31 citizens by being present to vote for all 867 roll call votes during the 2016 legislative session. During the ten-year time frame since being elected to office, Murphey voted in 11,887 out of 11,956 roll call votes, or 99.4% of the time. This is the first time in 11 years in which a House member has successfully made every single vote. Murphey has a policy of never “walking” or intentionally missing a vote. Legislators sometimes walk off the floor in order to avoid casting a tough vote. When legislators walk a vote their constituents are unable to hold them accountable for that vote. Rep. Murphey has also maintained a ten year perfect attendance record by never missing a day of session since being elected in 2006. Each year, Murphey has attempted to make 100% of the votes only to have this goal thwarted by quickly closing procedural votes that were sometimes closed just seconds after they had been opened. He finally reached his goal this year. Murphey is also the only legislator to receive a perfect 100% score on the Oklahoma Conservative Index published by the Oklahoma Constitution newspaper every year since elected.
National Native Caucus Vice-Chair
State Senator Anastasia Pittman (D-Oklahoma City) is the new national Vice-Chair of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASL). Pittman is a member of the Seminole Nation and has served as the Secretary and Chair of the Oklahoma branch of the organization. “I want to support the Chairman, Senator John McCoy from Washington, as well as the goals and objectives of NCNASL,” said Pittman. “By creating a ‘gathering of voices,’ we can foster communication among Native American legislators, both past and present. While developing opportunities to support the sustainability of state and tribal relations, we can also promote partnerships, cooperation and dialogue to move our economic and civic engagement efforts forward.” Pittman has served as chair of the NCNASL Education Policy Committee.
Mitchell Out at KOKC-AM
Radio host Scott Mitchell, of Mitchell in the Morning, is out at News Talk 1520 KOKC. The station’s morning show host since March 2014. Previously the station carried a nationally syndicated talk show for that time slot. Mitchell conducted a show focused on state and local issues, often inviting political news makers as well as artists, chefs, members of the media, and other people of interest. Mitchell said he appreciates the opportunity Tyler Broadcasting gave him during his tenure at KOKC. The show has been renamed the “OKC Mornings” and has been featuring guest hosts. There was no annoucement on why Mitchell’s show was cancelled or when a permanent replacement will be named. Mitchell will continue his weekly TV segments at KWTV-9 in Oklahoma City.
Inhofe on Trump Advisory Council
The Donald J. Trump campaign announced that U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe is a member of its National Security Advisory Council. Sen. Inhofe responded to the appointment: “Sec. Clinton, and this Democratic administration, has shown us that a disarmed America matched with a failed foreign policy of appeasement has been a recipe for disaster. With Sec. Clinton at the helm, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has resulted in a $1.7 billion cash payout to the single largest state funding terrorism, Iran. With Sec. Clinton at the helm, Syria became a hot bed for the most violent terrorist group in our world’s history and created the greatest refugee crisis since the World War II. With Sec. Clinton at the helm, this administration couldn’t reach a status of forces agreement in Iraq and now ISIL is on the rise. With Sec. Clinton’s ‘strategic patience strategy’ in North Korea, the world now faces a more volatile nation who has become increasingly aggressive with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. With Sec. Clinton’s Russia ‘reset’ button, we now have Russia invading Eastern Europe and we have former national security leaders in the Obama administration calling Russia the ‘greatest challenge to the Alliances since the Cold War.’ Sec. Clinton’s methods for world peace have clearly failed. Trump has promised to rebuild our military so that we can reestablish President Reagan’s vision of peace through strength throughout the world. I am proud to be a part of helping our Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, make America’s national security great again.”
Southwestern Bell Case Dismissed
On September 7, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission rejected efforts by a group of citizens to reopen a 1989 case which had been decided by a bribed vote. The group said that $16 billion should be paid to customers who had Southwestern Bell (now AT&T) telephone numbers dating back to the late 1980s. But, the commission voted 2-1 to dismiss the request to reopen the case. Commissioner Bob Anthony was the only vote against the dismissal. Commissioners Murphy and Hiett voted to dismiss the case.
The application involved a Corporation Commission decision back in 1989 after federal income tax rates were lowered for corporations. The decision let Southwestern Bell reinvest the tax savings in the network in Oklahoma rather than give it back to customers by reducing rates. But, in 1995, Commissioner Bob Hopkins was found guilty of accepting a bribe of $15,000 from the attorney for the phone company, William Anderson, in exchange for his deciding vote to let Southwestern Bell reinvest the money.
In 1990, Commissioner Anthony made headlines with his public announcement that he had been assisting the FBI in uncovering corruption at the Commission. While only Anderson and Commissioner Hopkins were convicted, there were allegations made against the executives of several utilities regulated by the Commission.
The Death of Ron Miller
The recent effort to reopen the case involving Southwestern Bell brings back interest in another case which had links to the death of an Oklahoma businessman who was scheduled to testify to congressional committee investigating the Clinton administration. In the middle of October of 1997, Oklahoma businessman Ron Miller was prepared to implicate President Clinton’s Chief of Staff Thomas F. McLarty III in an Oklahoma-related scandal. On September 12, interviews with Ron Miller and Commissioner Bob Anthony were broadcast on a segment of the PBS Frontline television series entitled “Follow the Money.” Miller’s sudden and strange death on October 12, 1997, prevented his testimony about McLarty.
In the week prior to Commissioner Anthony’s 1990 announcement of working with the FBI, Miller, a principal owner of GAGE Corporation, was visited by the FBI. After Anthony’s announcement, Miller knew why GAGE came out empty handed in past Commission proceedings. Miller vowed to “vigorously pursue those who directed the conduct of Mr. Anderson.”
Commissioner Anthony received covert payments from ARKLA senior executives at the same time that ARKLA had multi-million dollar rate cases before the Commission. Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty was was Chairman of ARKLA (Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company) which had gas interests in Oklahoma and also used Anderson to represent it in matters before the Commission. A friend of Bill Clinton since kindergarten, McLarty was Treasurer of the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign, and served as the President’s Chief of Staff in the White House until June 1994, when he became Clinton’s Counselor on political and legislative matters.
Miller eventually sold his GAGE Corporation to Dynamic Energy Resources which dropped its actions related to rulings at the Commission. Miller would learn that Dynamic Energy Resources was created by Clinton fund raisers, apparently to acquire his interests and stop his efforts. Miller then aided news reporters and government authorities and the congressional Government Reform and Oversight Committee investigating illegal Clinton fund-raising. Miller made 165 tape-recordings of his conversations and turned that information over to the FBI in 1997, and was interviewed by the congressional committee staff. The Oklahoma Constitution ran a series of articles following Miller’s strange death. A compilation of those articles is found in the Special Reports section of our website: www.oklahomaconstitution.com
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