OKLAHOMA Republicans who typically oppose affirmative-action programs are nonetheless leading the way to greater diversity in state government.
Gov. Mary Fallin is the state's first female governor. State Rep. T.W. Shannon will soon be the first black speaker of the Oklahoma House. And he just appointed the first woman to serve as House floor leader — state Rep. Pam Peterson of Tulsa.
Peterson is a staunch conservative noted for seeking to reduce and provide alternatives to abortion, but her resume also includes work on Department of Human Services' reform and the battle against human trafficking.
More importantly, Peterson is known for her willingness to take the heat on tough issues. In 2010, she debated against a bill allowing open carry of firearms, warning its unintended consequences could include an increase in privately owned businesses banning firearms on store property. Peterson, a concealed-carry permit holder with an NRA “A” rating, noted this would effectively reduce the ability of citizens to protect themselves.
Although she supported subsequent versions of the gun proposal, the episode demonstrated her willingness to carefully critique issues and take a stand even in the face of heated opposition from interest groups. That's a good quality for a floor leader, who largely determines what bills are heard on the House floor, and it speaks well of Shannon for appointing Peterson.
Citizens may not always agree with Peterson, but they will know where she stands and that she conscientiously weighs policy decisions.
Bridges in a hurry
Coming soon to a location near you, perhaps: bridge repair that doesn't inconvenience motorists for nearly as long as usual. The state Department of Transportation is implementing a rapid bridge-building program on a project-by-project basis. Under this program, all or parts of the new bridge will be constructed not far from the original bridge, then moved over and assembled. First in line is a State Highway 51 bridge that spans Cottonwood Creek west of Mannford. Normally this job would take nine months to complete and traffic would be diverted for the entirety of that. But under the rapid-building program, work will last six months and motorists will be redirected for just 21 days. The rapid-building program is likely to cost more than traditional projects, but our sense is taxpayers will be glad to trade that for added convenience.
Debate has been vigorous regarding the design of a future downtown boulevard, and much more will be said before a decision is made. The boulevard will follow the path of the old Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway. Should traffic move quickly along the new boulevard, to better help motorists get into and out of the city? Or should it move more slowly, and thus be more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists? How much will the end product foster retail and residential growth? All these issues and more are being bandied about. The fact that about 400 people turned out this week to voice their concerns to designers — who tweaked an earlier proposal after public feedback — is a sign of just how important the boulevard is to residents. More public meetings are planned in the months ahead. Some folks are sure to be disappointed no matter the final design, but they won't be able to say they weren't included in the process.
Riding the metro
Metropolitan-area clout is increasing in the Legislature, one of the predicted results of redistricting after the 2010 census. But the decline of traditional rural dominance of the state House and Senate was happening already. Incoming House Speaker T.W. Shannon is from Lawton. He's named two Tulsans to key leadership posts. Another top job went to a Norman legislator. The Senate is run by a man from Sapulpa. Recent House speakers have been from Shawnee, Tulsa and Harrah. Prior to that, speakers hailed from such places as Okemah, Frederick and Stillwell. The first speaker, “Alfalfa” Bill Murray, was from Tishomingo. Other early speakers included men from two towns that no longer make the map. Despite declines in rural dominance, the last speaker who actually lived in Oklahoma City was J.D. McCarty. He left office in 1967 and was one of only four men from either Oklahoma City or Tulsa to be speaker.
Early paroles on hold
We like the approach being taken by Marc Dreyer, chairman of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, on the issue of inmates being considered for early parole. The board's previous practice of not clearly indicating on its agendas which inmates were being considered for early parole or commutation resulted in a criminal investigation by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. Last month the board discussed changing its procedures. This week Dreyer said the board wouldn't make any changes for several months, in order to allow folks plenty of time to register their thoughts. That's a smart move. Citizens can take Dreyer up on his offer by emailing comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailing them to Tracy George, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, First National Center, 120 N Robinson Ave. Suite 900W, Oklahoma City, 73102.
Counterterrorism? Not quite
A report this week by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, highlights questionable spending of federal anti-terrorism grants. Coburn's report would be funny if it weren't so infuriating, and it's not the least bit surprising. The Department of Homeland Security has distributed $7 billion in grants to state and local governments since 2003. Oklahoma got $32 million of that. The city of Tulsa, Coburn found, used some of its funding “to harden a county jail and purchase a color printer.” Keene, N.H., and other cities and towns bought armored vehicles. Columbus, Ohio, bought an underwater robot. Arizona installed a video monitoring system at a spring training sports complex. Illinois spent $45.6 million in grant funds to install security cameras in Chicago and Cook County — worthwhile, except that the project was abandoned without the cameras ever working. Coburn said it's Congress' duty “to ensure that this grant program does not become a parochial, pork-barrel entitlement program.” Good luck with that.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court this week struck down two state laws regulating abortion. One required that patients be allowed to review the pre-surgery ultrasound; the other required doctors to follow guidelines when prescribing abortion-inducing drugs. The rulings were largely substance-free and surprising — other courts upheld a similar ultrasound law in Texas and a similar drug law in Ohio. Our state Supreme Court is clearly taking a very expansive view of abortion rights that prevents regulatory oversight that's routine in other industries. Consequently, those seeking to reduce abortion must now focus on other approaches, such as providing tax breaks to offset the high cost of adoption and encourage it. Given the court's current leanings, future regulatory restrictions are unlikely to generate anything but legal bills. Those opposed to abortion should continue to wage the battle for hearts and minds, but the court's rulings require tactical adjustment.