State Questions give Oklahomans a chance to govern ourselves (Capitol Updates)

Photo by Noelia / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo by Noelia / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

For a state with a well-deserved reputation for loathing government, we Oklahomans sure spend a lot of time, energy and money governing ourselves. In addition to the candidates we have on the ballot next month, we’ll have seven state questions to discuss, debate and decide. Four of the questions were referred to the people by the state Legislature while three were started by citizens through circulating an initiative petition. Plus, there were ten more state questions that, for one reason or another, failed to even reach the ballot.

It doesn’t take a sophisticated analysis to discern what’s driving most of these questions. State Question 776 says the legislature can change the method of implementing the death penalty and declares that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment. It’s unnecessary because the legislature already can change the method of executing people, which it has done several times. And if the Supreme Court ever rules the death penalty unconstitutional, this provision will be meaningless.

State Question 777, the so-called “right-to-farm” amendment, is unnecessary to give agricultural producers a right to farm, but it is far from meaningless. The amendment puts a special constitutional burden on the state when it’s trying to limit the activities of a producer. Essentially, in balancing the interests between the producer and the environment, personal comfort, or safety of the community, it gives extra weight to the interest of the farmer. Proponents say it protects Oklahoma from interference by out-of-state interests. Opponents fear it limits the community from protecting itself against water, air, or noise pollution by corporate agricultural interests.

State Question 790 would remove the prohibition against using state money or property for religious purposes. It’s a reaction to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to remove the Ten Commandments from the Capitol grounds. It could have some consequences for tax support of private religious institutions or activities.

State Question 792 is a proposal that was crafted in the legislative process with input from the various interests involved with the production and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. It is billed as a modernization of antiquated liquor laws. Naturally, there are perceived winners and losers as with most changes in the law. It’s on the ballot because that’s what’s required to change the Constitution.

The three questions initiated by the people deal with issues that a significant number of people want to see dealt with, but the Legislature is unable or unwilling to address. State Question 779 is a penny sales tax to give teachers a raise and add funding for higher education, career tech, and public schools. This is a choice between doing what ought and needs to be done for education and not doing it because the sales tax is regressive. A lot of strong public education supporters are the same people for whom tax equity is also important, so this is a painful decision for some.

Finally, State Questions 780 and 781 deal with drug penalties. SQ 780 makes simple possession of drugs a misdemeanor. SQ 781 takes the savings and allocates them to local communities for mental health and drug treatment. As more families have seen the destructive effects of both drug use and harsh criminal penalties, the fervor for using felony laws to fill prisons with drug users has diminished. Taking someone with a problem and compounding it with another problem is not an answer for those who favor these proposals. Treatment is a better answer. Drug dealers and traffickers will still be prosecuted as felons.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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