The governing commission of the state Department of Human Services would be abolished under one of the six state questions Oklahomans will be asked to vote on Tuesday.
Few if any issues have evoked more raw emotion in Oklahoma than the state's repeated failure to prevent the deaths of abused and neglected children after they have come into state custody.
Part of the Legislature's proposed solution is restructuring of the agency through State Question 765.
The ballot language has created some confusion because it calls for abolishing the state Department of Human Services, the state Commission of Human Services and the position of agency director without specifying what would replace them.
What voters need to know — but isn't on the ballot — is that the Legislature has passed a law that will take effect if the state question passes. That law calls for the governor to appoint the agency's director and would require four citizen advisory panels to be created to oversee DHS operations and administration.
Gov. Mary Fallin and many legislative leaders have been encouraging Oklahomans to vote for the question, saying it would improve agency accountability, since the governor is elected and must be responsive to constituents.
A number of child advocates have come out in favor of the state question.
But not everyone is supportive. Former DHS Commission Chairman Richard DeVaughn has argued it would return the agency to the “old political patronage system so that every time you get a new governor, you're going to get a new director.”
“The governors are going to hire their friends or people, whether they are capable or not, to run the job. So then you're going to have another layer of bureaucracy,” he said in May.
The other five state questions would:
• Limit property tax increases by placing a 3 percent annual cap on the amount county assessors can raise appraisals of agricultural land and property with homestead exemptions. The current cap is 5 percent.
• Prohibit affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment based on race, color, gender ethnicity or national origin, with certain limited exceptions.
• Remove the governor from the parole process for persons convicted of certain crimes classified as nonviolent offenses.
• Exempt all intangible personal property from ad valorem property taxation.
• Authorize the state Water Resources Board to issue bonds to finance a reserve fund for water resource and sewage treatment funding programs.
Here are summaries and some key issues about these five state questions:
State Question 762 (parole process).
A “yes” vote on this would remove the governor from the parole process for persons convicted of certain nonviolent offenses.
Its legislative authors say it could save the state tens of millions of dollars by eliminating unneeded delays in the release of nonviolent offenders.
Fallin was for the state question but is now against it. She switched positions after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater raised questions about whether state Pardon and Parole Board members have acted illegally by placing inmates on a docket for early release consideration while using a vague agenda item that did not adequately inform the public.
“Recent events have led me to believe now is not the right time for the governor's office to be removed from its oversight role of the Pardon and Parole Board,” Fallin announced in October.
She also expressed concerns that State Question 762 would define nonviolent offenders by only their current offenses.
State Question 759 (affirmative action).
Lawmakers passed a bill in May to let voters decide whether the state should still use affirmative action policies in hiring and awarding contracts. If passed, State Question 759 would prohibit the use of affirmative action in state government, including at the state's universities.
Exceptions would be allowed in cases where gender is a bona fide qualification, court orders require preferential treatment or federal funds would be lost if affirmative action policies were abandoned.
Affirmative action refers to policies that give preference to job applicants who are minorities or minority-owned businesses bidding on state contracts. The intent of the policies is to increase diversity in government.
Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Yukon, said he authored the bill because affirmative action is outdated and unneeded. He said the state shouldn't give preferential treatment to anyone.
Opponents of the bill include the Oklahoma chapter of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. Opponents say it would set back state efforts to promote diversity in government. They say Oklahoma has not yet reached a level playing field for minorities and that affirmative action allows minorities to have a fair chance at jobs with the state.
State Question 766 (intangible property).
All intangible property would be declared exempt from ad valorem property taxation if State Question 766 is approved.
Some intangible property, such as cash, stocks and bonds, already is exempt from property taxes. This would expand the exemption to include many other types of intangible property, including patents, licenses, land leases and mineral leases.
The Oklahoma Tax Commission has estimated centrally assessed businesses such as public utilities, railroads and airlines will collectively receive a $50 million tax break if the state question is approved.
Some school administrators have expressed concerns it could financially harm public schools.
The State Chamber is urging Oklahomans to vote “yes” on the issue. Chamber officials say a 2009 state Supreme Court decision has opened the door for county assessors to begin collecting intangible taxes from local businesses and homeowners who haven't been required to pay them in the past. They say approval of this state question would stop that.
State Question 758 (property tax cap).
A “yes” vote on State Question 758 would place a 3 percent annual cap on the amount county assessors can increase the appraisals of owner-occupied homes and agricultural land. The cap now is 5 percent.
Legislative backers of the proposal say it is designed to restrain the growth in property tax bills, which are especially difficult for senior citizens and people on fixed incomes.
Opponents say the proposed change would shift the tax burden and that people who have recently purchased homes would end up paying more.
Some educators also have expressed concerns the change would limit growth revenue for public schools and vocational-technical centers.
State Question 764 (water bonds).
A “yes” vote on State Question 764 would give the Oklahoma Water Resources Board the ability to issue $300 million in bonds, but the intention is that the entity would never need to use that money.
Instead, the bonding capacity would be used to back low-interest loans for local municipalities to upgrade, construct and repair their water and wastewater systems. The bonds would only be issued if the cities default on their loans, and in that case the state would be on the hook for paying off the debts.
Supporters include the State Chamber and a number of mayors who say the loan-backing arrangement is needed to keep the state's water infrastructure updated. They say it also would save taxpayers money by helping obtain low-interest rates on loans.