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Tuesday, August 20th, 2019Last Update: Wednesday, August 7th, 2019 10:21:15 AM

Voters Decide State Questions

By: Constitution Staff

Voters found seven state questions on the November election 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 the 2016 ballot. That initiative still faces several steps in the process and if it survives it could be voted on in 2018.


The Constitutionality of the Death Penalty

The state Constitution 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 determines methods of execution. Furthermore, if a method is for some reason found invalid, the death sentence will remain valid and can be carried out by another method. The measure approved by state voters, receiving 942,504 “YES” votes (66.36%) and 477,717 “NO” votes (33.64%).


Freedom to Farm

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

The proposal was supported by agricultural groups such as the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, and the Oklahoma Pork Council. Opponents included the Oklahoma Municipal League which represents 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 said it would be the big corporate farms that mostly benefit if the measure passed. A number of cities opposed the proposal because they believed it could limit the their ability to pass ordinances restricting livestock in the city limits. The proposal failed, receiving 864,827 “NO” votes (60.29%) and 569,668 “YES” votes (39.71%).


Sales Tax Increase for Education

This initiative proposed to increase the state sales tax by an additional penny. The extra revenue derived from this increase would have gone to a special fund, out of which 69.5 percent would go to school districts according to the present formula, and 19.25 percent to the coffers of state universities and colleges. Additionally, 8 percent would have gone 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 have been mandated to increase teacher salaries by a minimum of $5,000. Former Oklahoma Governor, U.S. Senator, and current University of Oklahoma President David Boren spearheaded the measure.

If passed, power would have been given to the Oklahoma Board of Equalization to ensure that the Legislature would use the increased tax revenue to increase spending levels for state education and not use the money to replace current education funding. If the Board of Equalization determined that funding had been replaced, the Legislature would have been barred from making any other appropriations until the amount of replaced funding was returned to the fund.

This massive tax increase was 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. Many cities passed resolutions opposing the measure. Since their primary source of funding comes from sales taxes, they were concerned it would be more difficult to pass bond proposals for roads and other development projects typically supported by sales taxes. The initiative failed, receiving 853,573 “NO” votes (59.40%) and 583,429 “YES” votes 40.60%).


Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act

This initiative changes state law as it concerns certain drug and property crimes. Possession of illegal drugs will only be punished as a misdemeanor, not a felony, although manufacturing and selling of illegal drugs 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 also increases the threshold dollar amount used for determining whether certain property crimes are considered a felony or misdemeanor. Currently, the threshold is $500. This measure increases 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. The initiative passed, receiving 831,123 “YES” votes (58.23%) and 596,070 “NO” votes (41.77%).


County Community Safety Investment Fund

With passage of SQ 780, this companion initiative creates the County Community Safety Investment Fund, consisting of the calculated savings that accrues by the reduction in the number of felony convictions which results from the changes made by SQ 780. These funds are to be distributed to counties in proportion to their population to provide community rehabilitative programs, such as mental health and substance abuse services. The proposal passed, receiving 795,475 “YES” votes (56.22%) and 619,580 “NO” votes (43.78%).


Repeal of Oklahoma’s Version of the Blaine Amendment

This measure would have removed 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 stated that if the measure 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 argued that it would overturn the court’s decision. Some supporters were 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. Probably because of claims that removal of the language would mean that devil statues would have to be placed on public grounds, the measure was defeated with 809,254 “NO” votes (57.12%) and 607,482 “YES” votes (42.88%).


Alcohol Sales Regulations

This measure was promoted as “modernization of alcoholic beverage laws” and repeals and replaces Article 28 of the state Constitution, which regulates alcoholic beverages. First, it eliminates the distinction between “low point” beer and stronger beers with more than 3.2 percent alcohol content. Secondly, it ends the 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 also allows grocery stores to sell beer and wine, but requires them to obtain a liquor license, and follow most of the regulations placed on liquor stores.

Of course, liquor stores feared the end of their monopoly on the sale of stronger alcoholic beverages, but liquor stores did get some things they wanted. The Legislature would be able to designate the days and hours when alcoholic beverages may be sold. So, liquor stores may be able to stay open until midnight rather than closing at 9 P.M. And, liquor stores will 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 will be able to receive direct shipments of wines for personal, but not commercial use. The measure was approved passed, receiving 939,848 “YES” votes (65.62%) and 492,422 “NO” votes (34.38%).

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