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Saturday, May 27th, 2017Last Update: Thursday, May 4th, 2017 02:03:55 PM

Tidbits for Winter 2017

By: Constitution Staff

Oklahoma Voter Registration

Official voter registration statistics released in January showed the highest total number of registered voters in the state since 2009. The Oklahoma State Election Board does an official voter registration count each January 15. This year’s count showed 2,161,881 people registered to vote, falling about 20,000 short of the 2009 total. Voter registration numbers follow predictable cycles, with the highest peaks following presidential elections. The 2017 count was well above the 2,116,186 registered voters from January 15, 2013, a trend that was also evident in voter turnout in last November’s General Election.

Long term trends continued to show the share of voters increasing for Republicans and Independents at the expense of the Democratic Party. Republicans now make up 45.8 percent of the electorate, up from 44.5 percent last year. The Democrat share of the electorate fell from 42 percent last year to 39.4 percent in 2017, while Independents now account for 14.6 percent of registered voters. Libertarians make up just 0.2 percent of the electorate after returning as an officially recognized party last March.

Organizational Day for Oklahoma Legislature

Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the Oklahoma Senate convened on January 2. Organizational Day is a Constitutionally mandated day for the Legislature to convene and certify the election results from November, formally seat newly elected members and elect leadership. They will reconvene on Monday, February 6 to begin the 56th Oklahoma Legislature.

Oklahoma House Speaker

The full House of Representatives officially elected state Rep. Charles McCall to serve as Speaker of the House. Speaker McCall said he intends for his term to be marked by conservative policies, accountability, a willingness to listen to every member of the House and a leadership style that encourages input and the contribution of innovative ideas.“Our focus needs to be primarily on creating an environment that encourages the creation and expansion of small businesses, relocation of large businesses to our state and reduction in regulations that prohibit economic growth,” said Speaker McCall. “When state revenues are down, it is because the personal incomes of our citizens are down. All 101 members of the House need to devote our attention toward making Oklahomans prosperous again.”

McCall is only the eighth Republican speaker in state history, and the seventh consecutive since voters gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives in 2004. He is the first Speaker of the House from Atoka. Last year, 32 new members and 69 incumbents were elected to the House. McCall is one of the more conservative legislators to be elected to the top post in the House. McCall has a 74 percent cumulative average on the Oklahoma Conservative Index.

Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tempore

The Oklahoma Senate by an unanimous vote officially elected Sen. Mike Schulz as President Pro Tempore. The Altus Republican is the first Pro Tempore from western Oklahoma in more than 50 years. Schulz will lead a historic Republican Caucus that includes 42 members, the largest majority held by either party since 1965, when the Senate went from 44 seats to 48 to assure equal representation for citizens across the state. He previously served as Floor Leader of the Senate, a position he has held since 2011. He was first elected to the Senate in 2006 in a special election. During his time in the Senate, Schulz has compiled a 60 percent cumulative average on the Oklahoma Conservative Index, placing him among the more moderate Republicans in the Legislature.

Former Rep. Blackwell Fined

Former state Rep. Gus Blackwell (R-Laverne) is paying $10,000 in restitution to the state House to settle a criminal case involving his travel claims during his final years in the Legislature. Blackwell, 61, was accused in the criminal case filed in May with being reimbursed by the state and using campaign funds to pay for the same trips. He had faced eight felony counts of perjury, four felony counts of making a false claim against the state, 13 felony embezzlement counts, and 19 misdemeanor embezzlement counts. In January, Blackwell pleaded guilty to a single felony perjury count in a plea deal agreement with prosecutors. He admitted in the plea that his final campaign report was false. Under the deal, he agreed to pay the restitution and to spend five years on probation.

Legislators who live outside the Oklahoma City area can be reimbursed from the state for travel to and from the Capitol during the legislative session. They can also use campaign funds for expenses related to their duties, such as travel to meet with constituents. But, they are not allowed, to collect mileage reimbursement from the state and use campaign funds for the same trips. Blackwell served in the House for 12 years, leaving in 2014 because of term limits. He had a cumulative average score of 60 percent on the Oklahoma Conservative Index.

Rep. Kirby Rescinds Resignation

On December 23, state Rep. Dan Kirby (R-Tulsa) notified Oklahoma House Speaker-elect Charles McCall that he intended to resign, but the following week he rescinded his decision saying he was wrongfully accused and wanted to clear his name. “I would like to make it clear that the allegations of sexual harassment are untrue and I had no role in settling the claims against the Oklahoma House of Representatives,” said Kirby. Hollie Anne Bishop, 28, was his legislative assistant and claimed her termination by the House was retaliation for reporting harassment. Bishop, and her attorneys were paid $44,500 in state funds on November 22 to settle her wrongful termination claim filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The settlement was approved under the direction of outgoing House Speaker Jeff Hickman after a second allegation was made. A $23,000 payment was also made to attorneys hired by the House to handle the matter. Speaker-elect McCall has appointed a legislative committee to investigate the charges and the settlement. They will also investigate charges made against other members of the House.

Nichols Named To OU Post

In December, the Board of Regents approved University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s appointment of former state Senator Jonathan Nichols (R-Norman) as vice president for governmental relations. Nichols, an OU College of Law alumnus, will replace Scott Mason. Boren made the appointment at a critical time for OU and the state of Oklahoma, due to budget cuts to higher education. Boren said it’s limportant for OU to have a good relationship with state government. Since leaving the Senate in 2012, Nichols has served as the chief of staff and legal counsel for the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma State Senate. During his time in the Legislature, Nichols had a cumulative average of 65 percent on the Oklahoma Conservative Index.

J.C. Watts Leaves Feed the Children

In November, J.C. Watts left as CEO of Feed the Children, just 10 months into his three-year contract. The sudden departure is the latest challenge faced by the Oklahoma City-based charity. “Mr. Watts plans to devote his time and talent to other interests and pursuits,” the charity said in a released statement. Watts, 58, was the best known leader of Feed the Children since its founder, evangelist Larry Jones, was forced out of the organization in 2009. Watts, a Republican, was elected to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in 1990, and in 1994 to Congress in the fourth district, then went into politics after a football career. Watts was a quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, and then played professionally in Canada. Watts left after a vote of the board of directors and no reason was given for his departure. His salary as CEO was $300,000 per year. While working for Feed the Children, Watts continued in his position as chairman of Watts Partners, a government affairs firm based in Washington, D.C. which he founded after leaving Congress. There is speculation that freed of his duties with Feed the Children, the door is open to a possible return to elective office.

State Auditor to Stay In Capitol

Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector Gary Jones announced on Facebook that his office will remain in the State Capitol building. Jones’ brief November announcement simply said an agreement had been reached: “OK Auditor’s office and OMES reach agreement to keep Auditor in Capitol.” A couple of months earlier, Jones reported that his office had been informed that they would be evicted from their State Capitol office at the end of the upcoming legislative session (May 2017). According the Jones, the reason for the ouster was that the Secretary of State and the Office of State Finance needed more meeting space. Since Jones has ruffled a few feathers at the Capitol, some believed the ouster could be retaliation. But, Trait Thompson, the Capitol renovation project manager, insisted there was nothing retaliatory about the decision by House and Senate leaders and project officials to require the auditor’s office to move. He said the move was part of a reallocation of space taking place as the Capitol undergoes a $245 million renovation. However, Jones insisted that Article 6 of the state Constitution says that certain constitutional offices, including his, will be housed at the seat of government. And, a previous Attorney General’s opinion said the seat of government is the State Capitol, although other state officials, such as the State School Superintendent and the state Labor Commissioner do not office inside the Capitol.

Combs Named Chief Justice

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on November 14 elected Douglas Combs as chief justice. Noma Gurich succeeds Combs as vice chief justice. The Oklahoma Constitution requires that every two years the court to select from its member justices to fill these two positions. The new positions became effective on December 1. The chief justice presides at all court sessions, administers the judicial branch of state government and represents the court and judicial system in public appearances.

Combs, a native of Shawnee and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, has served on the Oklahoma Supreme Court since 2010. He was elected as a district judge in 2002 and 2006. Gurich has been a judge in Oklahoma for more than 25 years. She served on the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court and as a district judge before her appointment to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Oklahoma Bar Association President

In December, Trent England, host of a weekday morning radio program, The Trent England Show, called on Oklahoma Bar Association outgoing president Garvin Isaacs to resign because of comments about Attorney General Scott Pruitt who was nominated as EPA Administrator by President-elect Trump. Isaacs was quoted in The New Yorker as saying about Pruitt, “It’s the worst thing in the history of our environment! We are in danger. The whole country is in danger. Our kids are in danger. People have got to do something about the Citizens United decision that is turning our country into an oligarchy, run by oil-and-gas interests.” England is a Fellow and Vice President at the Oklahoma Counsel of Public Affairs (OCPA) which is a conservative/libertarian think tank. “Oklahoma attorneys deserve better, more responsible leadership than Garvin Isaacs has shown. By going out of his way to run down a popular fellow Oklahoma lawyer, Isaacs has used his position to politicize the Bar, needlessly so,” said England on his central Oklahoma radio program on KZLS 1640-AM. “Isaacs is Exhibit A for why the legislature should reconsider the Bar Association’s role in licensing attorneys and selecting judges,” said England said. “Nearly two-thirds of Oklahomans voted for Pruitt in 2010, and no one even filed to run against him in 2014. Garvin Isaacs isn’t fit to carry Scott Pruitt’s briefcase.” Bartlesville attorney Linda S. Thomas became the 2017 president of OBA on January 20. Perhaps she will be less controversial.

Heartland Flyer Study

The State Senate Transportation Committee held an interim study on October 26 to look at the both the costs and the benefits of the Heartland Flyer, the Amtrak line that brought back passenger rail service to Oklahoma on June 14, 1999. The Heartland Flyer provides daily passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas. Sen. Frank Simpson (R-Springer) requested the study. His district includes Ardmore, one of the stops on the Heartland Flyer line. “I have several concerns I wanted us to look at. Texas and Oklahoma used to each pay the same amount in state contributions – it was a 50/50 split. Now it’s closer to 60/40, with Oklahoma paying more, but Texas receiving more of the economic benefits,” Simpson said. “The daily schedule really favors Texas – it’s more convenient for riders traveling south than it is for those coming north. I’m also concerned that the contract only runs a year at a time. I think when we have cities in Oklahoma making major investments a longer term contract would be tremendously helpful.”

The state appropriates $2.85 million annually to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) to subsidize operation of the Heartland Flyer. Texas kicks in another $2.5 million. However, Amtrak, the national rail company that runs the service, has increased costs that have ODOT paying nearly $3.3 million a year. For the past few years ODOT has used money in a revolving fund to cover the additional cost. But as lawmakers worked to plug a $1.3 billion budget shortfall last year, $5 million was taken from the revolving fund, leaving ODOT without enough money to cover the operating cost much longer.

End Wind Tax Credits

Last year, Oklahoma was ranked 3rd in the country for total megawatt hours of electricity produced by wind farms. Obviously the state’s tax incentives have facilitated a significant amount of wind power facilities and megawatt capacity. In 2010, wind tax credits cost Oklahoma $3.7 million, but by 2015, the cost exceeded $100 million. With Oklahoma looking at a budget shortfall of at least $600 million for the next fiscal year, some are calling for a reduction or an end to wind energy tax credits. Some say the credit should be discontinued in 2017, rather than 2021. Under current law, a wind farm can receive the credits if it is placed in service before January 1, 2021.

Online Sales Tax Decision

State Rep. Chad Caldwell (R-Enid) was pleased by the December decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not hear a challenge to a Colorado law requiring online sellers to notify customers in the state how much they owe in state sales tax. The law is similar to Oklahoma House Bill 2531, authored by Caldwell and signed into law by the governor last May. The law created the Retail Protection Act, which requires online retailers that do not have a physical presence in Oklahoma to either begin voluntarily collecting sales tax at the point of consumer purchase or sending each of their consumers a notice at the end of each year stating the total amount of purchases with a reminder that a use tax remittance is required to be reported and paid on their state tax return. The law took effect November 1. “I am pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision. The intent of the law is to level the playing field for Oklahoma’s small businesses. The court’s refusal to interfere in a similar state law removes a cloud of worry and will help Oklahoma move toward the lawful collection of dollars to support core state services such as health care, education, roads and bridges and public safety.”

Turnpike Authority Cashless System

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) is introducing technology to bill drivers using the turnpike system even if they don’t have a PikePass. The system is called PlatePay and was placed in service on Janaury 5 at the Peoria/Elm interchange on the Creek Turnpike in Jenks. PlatePay scans a vehicle’s license plate, locates the tag number in the state database, and then sends a bill to the registered owner. The system will replace the familiar coin/cash toll stations. The PlatePay charge of $1.60 at the Elm/Peoria plaza is higher than what PikePass users pay. While it is expected to capture more money for the OTA, officials say it is being done for safety reasons. “The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority works to provide transportation services that benefit motorists by creating safer, easier and faster ways to travel,” said Tim Gatz, OTA executive director. “OTA’s PlatePay system at the Peoria/Elm interchange will improve safety by reducing traffic congestion and allow for non-stop travel in place of toll plazas.” If the pilot program proves to be effective, OTA hopes to eliminate all coin/cash toll stations and become a cashless turnpike system.

Government School Enrollment

The number of students enrolled in Oklahoma government schools continued to rise in 2016, increasing by more than 1,000 from the previous year. A total of 693,710 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade at the start of the school year, an increase of 1,040 over the 2015 total of 692,670 and 27,560 more than in 2011. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said the increase in enrollment does not come as a surprise.

“Oklahoma schools are educating more students than ever before. Over the past decade, student enrollment has risen steadily, as have funding challenges,” Hofmeister said. Districts record enrollment every year on October 1 and report the figures to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Currently, Oklahoma has 513 public school districts and 1,787 school sites, including 13 charter schools not sponsored by a district.

Statewide, student population percentages shifted slightly this year. Most significantly, the percentage of white students dipped below 50 percent in the first time in state history. The number of Native American students also decreased, while the percentage of Hispanic students and students of two or more ethnicities increased. This school year, Oklahoma’s student population is:

49.36 percent white

16.81 percent Hispanic

13.94 percent Native American or Alaskan Native

8.77 percent black

8.78 percent two or more races

2.34 percent Asian, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander

Planned Parenthood Opens Abortion Center

Planned Parenthood has opened a new abortion facility in the Oklahoma City area. This is the second abortion provider to open a facility in the state’s largest metropolitan area in recent months. The Kansas-based West Wind Women’s Center opened a new abortion facility on Oklahoma City’s south side in September. It was the first new abortion facility to be licensed in the state since 1974. Planned Parenthood Great Plains says the new center in Warr Acres, a suburban community in northwest Oklahoma City, opened in November. While Planned Parenthood operates several health clinics in Oklahoma, this new facility is the first to provide abortion services. The organization’s President and CEO Laura McQuade said in a statement that they are opening the facility despite Oklahoma having some of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion laws. When Outpatient Services for Women closed in 2014,Oklahoma City became the largest metropolitan area in the United States without an abortion facility. There are only two other abortion centers in the state, one in Tulsa and one in Norman.

Death of Larry Derryberry

Former Oklahoma Attorney General Larry Derryberry died on November 19, 2016. Derryberry, 77, was elected in 1962 to the Oklahoma House of Representatives and served four terms. He was elected Attorney General in 1970, serving two terms. He ran for governor in 1978, but lost the Democrat nomination to George Nigh who went on to be elected governor.

Death of Frosty Troy

Frosty Troy, Founding Editor of the Oklahoma Observer newspaper, died on January 19 in Oklahoma City after an extended illness. He was 83. Troy’s more than half-century career in journalism began in his hometown of McAlester, OK with the school newspaper. Then, as a soldier in the Korean War, he filed stories for the McAlester News Capital. He later wrote for the Lawton Constitution, the Muskogee Phoenix and the Tulsa Tribune. The Oklahoma Observer, for which he is best known, gave a platform from which the liberal, yellow dog Democrat sought to inform and influence generations.

With Troy as editor, the monthly began publishing on Oct. 17, 1969, launched by Father John Joyce with a subsidy from the Catholic Archdiocesan Council. When church leaders pulled their support because of his vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War, Father Joyce sold the publication to Troy and his wife Helen for $1. The Troy’s ran the newspaper for nearly 40 years. In September 2006, they sold it to journalist Arnold Hamilton and his wife Beverly, also for $1. Helen retired in January 2007 and died later that year, but Frosty continued to write for the publication until May 2013 when his last column appeared.

Troy was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame in 1977. Even though a product of Catholic education, Troy regarded government-run education as America’s most important institution. An entertaining speaker, he was often paid by education and other groups, which provided much of his income. The Oklahoma Constitution newspaper came on the scene in 1979 partly to counter the Oklahoma Observer and the two publications exchanged many barbs over the years. In our early years, he referred to us as a newspaper put out by “some college kids.” Those college kids have since grown up.

In the early years of the OKLAHOMA CONSTITUTION, Troy referred to our general manager, Ron McWhirter, as proof that not all squirrels live in trees (something about gathering nuts). Editor Steve Byas has said that when he was in college, one of his goals in life was to be blasted by Frostry Troy. He was able to fulfill that goal in life many times in the pages of Troy’s paper. After Troy’s retirement, we missed the spirited exchanges with Frosty.

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