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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019Last Update: Wednesday, August 7th, 2019 12:21:15 PM

Voters Reject Four of Five State Questions

By: Constitution Staff

Six statewide ballot measures were certified for the 2018 elections in Oklahoma. One measure, the medical marijuana initiative, was included on the June 26 Primary Election ballot. That State Question was approved. The other five State Questions were on the General Election ballot on November 6. One was approved and four were defeated.

Measures can reach the ballot by Initiative Petition, or as a Legislative Referendum. An Initiative Petition for a change in the state Constitution required the collection of 123,725 valid signatures of voters. A proposed a change to state statutes or laws, required only 65,987 signatures. A statutory change can be repealed by the Legislature, while amending the state Constitution makes it harder for future legislatures to repeal the changes. A Legislative Referendum must pass both houses of the Legislature, but does not require approval by the governor. Once a State Question qualifies to be on the ballot, the governor sets the election date. The Secretary of State then notifies the State Election Board of the State Question number, the ballot title, and the date of the election.

State Question 788, the medical marijuana initiative, was approved with 57 percent of the vote. That initiative was for a statutory change. There are some gaps in the numbering of the State Questions, since some sponsors of proposed initiatives either withdrew their petitions or failed to gather enough signatures to secure a place on the ballot. At the time that State Question 788 was up for a vote, two petition drives organized by Green the Vote were in progress for other marijuana initiatives. Their Medical Marijuana initiative, which would have been State Question 796, fell short of the required signatures. Unlike the one approved by voters which only made changes to statutes, that initiative would have been a change to the state Constitution. The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office counted only 95,176 valid voter signatures on the initiative petition. The other marijuana initiative, which would have been State Question 797, would have permitted recreational use of marijuana. This second petition effort also fell short with just 102,814 valid signatures.

Of the five State Questions before voters on the November 6 ballot, only one was the result of an initiative petition. The other four questions were legislative referendums.

SQ 793 – Allowing Optometrists, Opticians, and Eyewear Retailers in Big Box Stores

Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom, a group supported by Walmart, gathered and submitted signatures for Initiative 415 which appeared on the ballot as State Question 793. The Secretary of State confirmed 249,451 valid signatures, over twice the number required. The proposal would have allowed optometrists or opticians and eyewear retailers to operate within large retail stores like Costco, Target, or Walmart. Only Oklahoma, Delaware, and Rhode Island prohibit the sale of prescription optical goods in such stores. Current laws and regulations prohibit retail establishments from selling prescription glasses and contacts unless a majority of the establishment’s income comes from the sale of those products. This is the requirement that prevents the Big Box Stores from selling glasses in the state. Oklahoma would have also joined 34 other states in allowing an optometrist’s clinic to be located within and considered part of such a retail establishment. The measure would have allowed the Legislature to restrict optometrists from performing surgeries within those establishments, limit the number of locations at which an optometrist may practice, maintain optometric licensing requirements, require optometric offices to be in a separate room of a retail establishment, and impose health and safety standards. Supporters said that Oklahoma consumers would benefit from lower prices due to the more competitive market.

This was the only State Question to faced an organized opposition campaign. Opponents of the measure, the Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians, spent $1.9 million to defeat the initiative. The campaign against State Question 793 was mostly a scare campaign which worked. The measure was narrowly defeated with the No votes getting 50.24 percent of the vote. “While we are disappointed in tonight’s outcome, we are excited that we have brought this to the attention of voters. Even the most vocal of opponents have repeatedly indicated they have no problem with the basic concepts of allowing these functions in retail settings, but [were] just opposed to the Constitutional nature and one specific line. We are ready to remove that line and seek a legislative remedy for those Oklahoma families who desire additional choices,” read a statement issued by the Yes on 793 campaign.

SQ 794 – Expand Crime Victim Rights

This measure was a legislative referendum. Senate Joint Resolution 46 was approved by the Legislature and appeared on the ballot as State Question 794. The measure was authored by Sen. Anthony Sykes (R-Moore) and Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha). Known as Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma, the proposal amends the state constitution to elevate the rights of crime victims to mirror the rights granted to the accused and convicted. It was named for the sister of its strongest proponent, Henry T. Nicholas, a businessman in the semiconductor field. His sister, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Days later, the accused killer was out on bail and confronted Henry Nicholas and his mother at a grocery store. The family did not know the man had been released. Nicholas made it his mission to require that crime victims and their families receive notification of similar decisions and founded a group, Marsy’s Law for All, to advocate for such a law in all states. Six states – California, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Ohio – had passed a version of Marsy’s Law prior to the Oklahoma vote. Opponents of the measure charged that the extensive notification requirements place an unreasonable financial burden on local court systems that lack the funds for a dedicated victims’ rights staff. The measure would require tracking and notifying thousands of crime victims about criminal cases. Last June, voters in South Dakota placed curbs on that state’s 2016 law after counties incurred substantial costs in implementing the new rights for victims.

The coalition of support for SQ 794 included a range of victims of crime and their families, law enforcement, advocates and general supporters of the cause for equal rights for crime victims. Statewide voices of support include endorsements from Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, Oklahoma Fraternal Order of Police, Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, and YWCA of Oklahoma City.

The measure had virtually no organized opposition, but supporters ran a multi-million dollar campaign to get it passed. It was approved by voters with 78.01 percent of the vote.

SQ 798 – Elect Governor and Lt. Governor on a Single Ticket

This was another of the legislative referendums. Senate Joint Resolution 66 was authored by Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) and Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore). State Question 798 would have amended the state constitution to elect the governor and lieutenant governor together on one ticket starting in 2026. In 17 states, including Oklahoma, the lieutenant governor is elected separately from the governor. The neighboring states of Texas and Arkansas also have separate elections.

In 26 states, the lieutenant governor is selected on a ticket with the governor, meaning the lieutenant gubernatorial candidate serves as the running mate to the gubernatorial candidate, with the winning gubernatorial candidate’s running mate becoming lieutenant governor. In 18 of those 26 states, candidates for governor pick their own running mate in a similar fashion to presidential candidates. In eight of those 26 states, there are separate primaries for governor and lieutenant governor, with the winning candidates in each party appearing on the general election ticket together.

The lieutenant governor is the first in line to become the new governor of Oklahoma upon the death, resignation or removal of the governor. The lieutenant governor also serves as the president of the Oklahoma State Senate, presiding over joint sessions of the state Legislature, and can cast the tie-breaking votes in the Senate. The lieutenant governor also presides over, appoints a designee, or is a member of 10 state boards and commissions.

The main argument for the proposal is that having the governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket would prevent them from being from different parties. At various times, Oklahoma’s governor and lieutenant governor have belonged to different parties. The last time this happened was during the first term of Democrat Gov. Brad Henry from 2003 to 2007when Republican Mary Fallin was lieutenant governor. If approved, it would would have been up to the Legislature to pass legislation to determine how the governor and lieutenant governor would be elected on a single ticket. This was perhaps the greatest flaw in the proposal, and likely caused its defeat. Voters were faced with voting to place them on the same ticket, without knowing how that would be done. The measure failed with the No votes receiving 54.09 percent of the vote.

SQ 800 – Create Oklahoma Vision Fund

This legislative referendum was sponsored by Sen. John Sparks (D-Norman) and State Rep. Charles McCall (R-Atoka) as Senate Joint Resolution 35. This measure would have set aside 5 percent of revenue from the state’s oil and gas production tax each year into a fund called the Oklahoma Vision Fund that would be invested by the Oklahoma State Treasurer, including investments in private companies and stocks and subject to what is known as the prudent investor rule. Between July 1 and September 30 each year, 4 percent of the average of the money in the fund over the previous five years – calculated annually on June 30 – would be transferred to the state’s general revenue fund. The amendment was also designed to prohibit any more than 5 percent of the money in the fund from being spent to pay bond debt or to pay back other financing mechanisms.

The state already has a Constitutional Reserve Fund, often called the “Rainy Day Fund,”which was created in 1985. That fund holds surplus funds taken in by the state and can be tapped by the Legislature for emergencies and at times of a budget crisis. Also, in 2016 the Legislature created the Revenue Stabilization Fund to help save even more money for economic downturns. Opponents said another fund was not needed, and would divert taxes needed to fund current government services into a permanent fund from which only a small fraction of the money could be accessed each year. The new fund was rejected with the No votes getting 57.22 percent.

After the failure at the ballot, Sen. John Michael Montgomery (R-Lawton) and Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow) announced their intention to reintroduce the concept. “What I heard during this past campaign from those opposed to the Vision Fund was not an opposition to the concept, but an opposition to certain details within the proposal. I am committed to working with stakeholders on all sides to take this from a concept to reality,” said Montgomery.

SQ 801 – Use School Ad Valorem Taxes for Operations

This legislative referendum was enabled by the passage of Senate Joint Resolution 70. It appeared on the ballot as State Question 801. It was authored by Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-Oklahoma City) and Rep. Elise Hall (R-Oklahoma City). The measure would have amended the state constitution to allow certain local voter-approved property taxes, known as ad valorem levies, to be used to fund school district operations rather than only for building construction and maintenance. Schools would be able submit property tax issues for voter approval to pay for utilities, teacher pay, textbooks, and new technology, just as they do now for construction or maintenance of school buildings. The 5 mill limit for school support would remain, so the combined total for buildings and operations could not exceed the 5 mill cap.

Critics said the amendment could allow the Legislature to reduce appropriations for education and enable teacher unions to push for tapping local property taxes for salary increases. Keeping funds reserved only for building and maintenance are beneficial to schools, and without the restriction, school districts may be pressured to put off necessary maintenance in order to be competitive on teacher pay. Both the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) and the Oklahoma Educators Association (OEA) warned that it could make voters think districts had more access to money, when in reality, they said, both the building funds and operating funds were limited. The measure narrowly failed with the No votes receiving 50.4 percent of the vote.

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