Shaking up the status quo is what we are all about here in this year of change
The most frequently asked question I get before a general election is, "How should I vote on the state questions and judges?" People will default to a straight-party ballot in the absence of a compelling reason to split the ticket, but party gives them no clues when it comes to referenda and judicial retention.
Oklahomans will face four state questions on next Tuesday's ballot. All are four are amendments to Oklahoma's incredibly lengthy state constitution, which means they've been approved by the legislature but still require approval by the voters of Oklahoma.
Remarkably, all four deserve a "yes."
SQ 735: Would give an exemption from tax on household personal property to Oklahoma residents who are honorably discharged veterans of the U. S. Armed Forces or the Oklahoma National Guard and are permanently and totally disabled as a result of injuries received during military service. Four years ago, 84 percent of voters gave the same individuals an exemption from property tax on their homesteads.
SQ 741: Would require individuals and businesses seeking a property tax exemption to file an application with the County Assessor before claiming the exemption. They would not be able to seek a retroactive exemption for years prior to filing the application, even if they would have been eligible. The amendment was authored by State Rep. Randy Terrill (R-Oklahoma City) and State Sen. Jim Wilson (D-Tahlequah). It passed both houses unanimously.
SQ 742: Is the only ballot item with even a hint of controversy. It would enshrine in the Oklahoma Constitution the right of Oklahoma citizens to "hunt, fish, trap, and harvest game and fish, subject only to reasonable regulation as prescribed by the Legislature and the wildlife Conservation Commission." Traditional hunting methods would be protected, as long as the species involved is not classified as threatened.
The proposal was approved by a 97-2 vote in the State House and a unanimous 45-0 vote in the State Senate. It is opposed by the Humane Society of the United States, which claims it "would prevent voters from deciding on future initiatives to protect wildlife."
Proponents say that, on the contrary, it would ensure that the legislature could not ban forms of hunting without a vote of the people for a constitutional amendment.
You have only to look across the pond to Britain to see how centuries of tradition can be quickly bulldozed by animal rights lobbyists. Hunting, fishing, and trapping are no longer majority pursuits, making them easy targets for animal rights ad campaigns featuring fluffy bunnies and Bambi's mother.
We're not hunter gatherers around here, but if the economy keeps going south with a Demo administration and Congress, we'll need all the foodstuffs we can muster.
And Most Significant . . .
A yes vote on SQ 743 is important but probably futile given certain elements of the state's liquor lobby, dysfunctional appendages, no doubt carry-overs from Prohibition and bootlegging days at best.
At worst, status quo is holding back progress and certainly inhibiting local industry.
Way back in 2000, Oklahomans voted to allow small wineries in the state to sell their product directly to liquor stores and restaurants.
Liquor wholesalers, who enjoy a stranglehold over liquor sales in Oklahoma, sued successfully to overturn the law in Federal court, alleging that the law discriminated against out-of-state wineries.
SQ 743 is supposed to fix the problems with the earlier legislation, but it still contains bizarre restrictions which are likely to invite a court challenge, resulting, once again, in its invalidation.
If a winery chooses to sell directly to stores and restaurants, they can't also sell via a distributor. They have to deliver the wine using vehicles they own or lease -- they can't use a shipping company -- whether a common carrier like FedEx or a privately contracted company.
The amendment explicitly requires that the entire provision will be void if any part of it is declared unconstitutional. It's almost certain that the wholesalers will challenge this amendment and that at least one aspect will be found unconstitutional. The prohibition against the use of shipping companies is likely to run afoul of federal protections over interstate commerce.
So passing SQ 743 is not likely to make it any easier to enjoy an Oklahoma wine at your favorite restaurant or kitchen table. But it's still important to vote for it to send yet another message that Oklahomans want to be able to enjoy Oklahoma wines without having to drive to the winery.
There's an entire article of the Oklahoma Constitution, Article XXVIII, devoted to alcohol regulation. Ostensibly, it's there to protect the state against drunkenness and dissipation, but all it really does is guarantee profits to a favored few.
You can go to any bar on a Sunday night and have a few drinks before driving home, but you can't go to the store on a Sunday night and buy the same kind of alcohol to take home, where you can enjoy it without putting anyone's life at risk. Amy Winehouse on a bender makes more sense.
It's time we deleted the whole of Article XXVIII from the constitution and left any truly necessary regulation to state statutes.
Why isn't Oklahoma showing any initiative?
A state question can come about in one of two ways: The legislature can send it to the voters or citizens can circulate an initiative petition to put it on the ballot.
Legislative referenda are almost always constitutional amendments, but sometimes the legislature will send the voters a hot potato -- an issue so controversial that the legislature doesn't want to take responsibility for the final decision.
In election years past there has almost always been at least one initiative petition, but not this year. An Oklahoman editorial called this year's ballot "blander than dry toast."
It's likely that Attorney General Drew Edmondson's legal assault on the "Oklahoma Three" -- Paul Jacob, Rick Carpenter, and Susan Johnson -- has had a chilling effect on initiative petitions.
To qualify for the ballot in Oklahoma, a petition requires a certain number of signatures, which must all be collected by qualified electors of the state of Oklahoma within a 90 day period. If the petition involves amending the Oklahoma Constitution, the threshold is 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the last general election. If it would change the law, but not the constitution, 8 percent is the threshold.
This year that's about 140,000 signatures to collect in three months, more than 1,500 valid signatures every day to put an amendment on the ballot.
That's hard to manage with volunteers, particularly when a petition is controversial enough that opponents harass those volunteers, so nearly every successful petition campaign has hired paid petition circulators.
The Oklahoma Three were indicted and put in leg irons for doing for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) petition exactly what was done by the group petitioning to ban cockfighting: They brought in people from out-of-state to establish residency and work as paid circulators.
The Oklahoma Three followed the guidelines set out by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in their decision affirming the validity of the cockfighting question. Nevertheless, not only was their petition thrown out, they were locked up.
The Supreme Court's ruling on the petition smacked of favoritism. Unlike the cockfighting ban, TABOR's restrictions on the growth of the state budget threatened some powerful and entrenched interest groups. The court voted eight-to-one not to grant TABOR proponents a chance to have their appeal heard by the Supreme Court.
Only Justice Marian Opala voted in favor of fairness. That's why I'm voting against retaining any justice who was on the wrong side of that issue. This year that means voting against Chief Justice Joseph Watt and Associate Justice Tom Colbert. (The third justice on the retention ballot, John Reif, wasn't on the court at the time.)
Kick 'Em Out
I'm also voting against the retention of Civil Appeals Court Judge Jane Wiseman. As with the Supreme Court justices, the issue is impartiality.
In 2003, a lawsuit was brought against the Tulsa County Commission complaining that the Vision 2025 sales tax ballot violated the constitutional prohibition against logrolling. Logrolling is the practice of packaging unrelated items together, forcing voters to approve unpopular items in order to pass popular items.
Whether or not you approved of Vision 2025, you can't deny that unrelated projects were lumped together, pork-barrel style, to get voters to approve something they had twice turned down before.
Back in 1995, a Tulsa County sales tax for a new jail was thrown off the ballot for logrolling. The proposition included money to build the jail and money for "early intervention" programs to prevent young people from winding up in jail. Although everything in the proposition had to do with crime and public safety, District Judge Jane Wiseman ruled that it violated the Oklahoma Constitution's single-subject rule.
When Vision 2025 was challenged on the same grounds, for including higher education funding in the same proposition as a new arena, a lawyer friend warned me that the suit would only succeed if the plaintiff was someone who could help or hinder a judge's career -- maybe a congressman or a senator -- so powerful were the interests determined to get the arena passed.
Wiseman was assigned the Vision 2025 case, and I was hopeful that we'd get the opportunity to vote for the higher ed funding without having to swallow the arena. If Wiseman applied the same reasoning as in the 1995 case, the decision ought to have been a slam dunk.
Instead, my cynical friend was right. The sight of the great and the good massed in her courtroom sent a strong message to Wiseman. She ruled that, because all of the projects in Propositions 3 and 4 were related in some way to "economic development," the single-subject rule had been satisfied. Favoritism triumphed over common sense and the rule of law.
Judges who play favorites have no place in our court system.
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