A measure approved this week in a state House committee would let Oklahoma voters decide an issue that lawmakers refuse to. It's only the latest example of legislators punting on their responsibilities.
A joint resolution by Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, would let voters decide whether the state should seek a $200 million bond issue to fix the Capitol and other buildings in the Capitol complex. The Legislature has spiked previous bond issue efforts over concerns about the state incurring additional debt.
An idea similar to Hickman's was floated during the 2012 session but didn't materialize. The argument was that the Capitol is “the people's building” and so they — not the men and women sent to Oklahoma City to represent them — should make the decision.
Last year a legislative task force abruptly stopped studying the idea of letting grocery stores and convenience stores sell wine and high-point beer. Off it went to a potential vote of the people. Lawmakers have shown no appetite for changing state law to allow cities and towns to enact their own smoking-related ordinances. Bills went nowhere last year and again this session. So now Gov. Mary Fallin is leading a petition drive to send the idea to a vote of the people.
Legislators have no problem pandering and passing feel-good bills, but they too often lack the fortitude to make the difficult choices their jobs require.
Doak faces lawmakers
State Insurance Commissioner John Doak's tenure has been marked by controversy. Now lawmakers appear ready to rein him in. Senate Bill 8, which prohibits investigators from operating specialized motor vehicles equipped and marked differently than other department vehicles, gained unanimous approval in a state Senate committee this week. Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, said the legislation was in response to Doak having purchased police vehicles for his anti-fraud unit. Doak may have to sell those vehicles if SB 8 becomes law. Senators also discussed amending the legislation to prevent Doak's investigators from carrying firearms because of the precedent it would set for other state agencies. We were among those who questioned the need for Doak to spend more than $180,000 on everything from shotguns to police-package vehicles for his anti-fraud unit, noting his predecessor got the job done without such extravagance. It appears lawmakers had the same reaction.
In siding with Rex Duncan, district attorney for Osage and Pawnee counties, Oklahoma County Special Judge Donald Easter made a good call. In declining to appeal the judge's decision, Attorney General Scott Pruitt made a better one. After beginning his term as district attorney, Duncan was mobilized for military service in Afghanistan with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. A legal opinion issued by Pruitt's office declared Duncan vacated his elected position when he went on active duty, claiming it violated a state constitutional prohibition on holding two offices at the same time. Duncan took the issue to court, where Easter ruled that a federal law pre-empted state law and allowed Duncan to serve in the military without vacating his elected office. This is a victory for those serving in the military and for common sense. We're glad Pruitt isn't spending more taxpayer dollars on an appeal.
An exception for every rule
While urging lawmakers to allow cities to impose stricter regulations on smoking in public, advocates rightfully noted the health risks associated with tobacco, including secondhand smoke. We supported that bill, but every rule has an exception. The Daily Mail reports England native Clara Cowell just quit smoking (after 82 years) at age 102. Cowell had averaged two to three cigarettes per day — a lifetime total of 60,000 cigarettes. She only quit because relatives feared the ash might start a fire. Cowell lives independently, doesn't believe in medication, drinks a cup of tea with whiskey every day, and still enjoys dancing. We wouldn't recommend emulating Cowell's smoking habit; she's clearly beaten the odds. But her story shows why caution should be used before citing extreme individual cases to justify enactment of health policies impacting the entire public. For every horrible worst-case scenario, there's also an unbelievable-but-true best-case scenario.
The effort to ban text-messaging while driving has resumed at the Capitol. The Legislature hasn't warmed to this common-sense idea, which has been tried several times in recent years. Three Democrats are trying again. Reps. Curtis McDaniel of Smithville, Jeannie McDaniel of Tulsa and Jerry Shoemake of Morris are behind House Bill 1503, which made it out of a House committee this week. It bans texting while a vehicle is in motion, and exempts texts to emergency response operators, medical providers, firefighters and law enforcement. This really shouldn't be a partisan issue but has become one — Republicans view such a ban as government intrusion on individual rights. But driving a car isn't a right. It's a privilege. Texting while driving endangers not just the driver but other motorists. It's time Oklahoma join the many states that have made texting at the wheel illegal.
Judges are supposed to be impartial, but this doesn't extend to sentiments expressed during the sentencing phase of criminal proceedings. Once a jury has declared a defendant guilty, remarks by judges are appropriate. In the case of Christopher Travis Baker, the remarks by Oklahoma County District Judge Kenneth C. Watson were deserved. “You are a disgrace to your family,” Watson told Baker, convicted of shooting an off-duty sheriff's deputy making a bank deposit for a restaurant. The victim survived the shooting but is permanently affected by it. Watson sentenced Baker this week to life in prison plus 30 years. Fellow judge Ray Elliott is known for his post-conviction remarks. He said this to a convicted embezzler: “You're a thief, plain and simple.” After another trial, Elliott's response to a defendant trying to justify her criminal behavior was to say, “I'm not buying it.” Justice may be blind, but judges aren't deaf and dumb. They're human and entitled to give a lecture on occasion.
Legislative spring cleaning
We've previously praised lawmakers who are seeking to remove outmoded, obsolete or even unconstitutional laws from the books. The unenforceable blasphemy law is the most notable example targeted for repeal this year. So we also like an idea promoted by state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City. His Senate Bill 310 creates a “Spring Cleaning Commission” that would identify obsolete or duplicative laws so legislators could repeal them. The commission would also identify archaic language that needs to be updated, and would recommend streamlining statutes where possible. Perhaps most importantly, the group would identify regulations impacting business activity whose original purpose is no longer justifiable. The nature of our legislative process allows laws to accumulate in an ad hoc fashion that can have unintended results. It makes sense to conduct a top-to-bottom review to ensure the system is as consistent, cohesive and sensible as possible.