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Oklahoma's Education Sales Tax, 'Right-To-Farm' Fail; Alcohol Changes Sail Through

Nov 8, 2016

There were few surprises at the national level as Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly chose Republican nominee Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States.

Four members of the U.S. House won reelection (U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine already learned he would keep his seat earlier this year when his only challenger withdrew), along with U.S. Sen. James Lankford, who won his first full term in that chamber. Lankford was first elected in 2014 to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, who retired.

At the state level, all 101 state House seats were decided, along with roughly half of the spots in the state Senate.

Four of the seven state questions passed, including initiatives concerning the death penalty, criminal justice, and changes to Oklahoma's alcohol laws. The so-called "right-to-farm" amendment failed, along with an education sales tax and a bill that would've removed an article from the Oklahoma Constitution prohibiting public money from going toward religious purposes.

Updated 10:58 a.m.: Democratic minority in House, Senate deepens

Republicans expanded their supermajorities in the Oklahoma Legislature as the GOP picked up more seats Tuesday in both the state House and Senate. The party gained three seats in the Senate, which means there will be 42 Republicans in that chamber, and just six Democrats. The GOP also picked up a net of four seats in the House.

“It may seem hard to believe, but, yes, it appears that Oklahoma got a little redder on Tuesday,” said eCapitol’s news director Shawn Ashley, who’s covered the Capitol for a decade.

Ashley says that with an even larger number of Republicans, lawmakers won’t necessarily have to vote in lock-step to get bills passed.

“Oftentimes with a narrow majority or even a narrow supermajority, it may be necessary for members of that larger group to vote against a measure because it negatively affects their constituents,” Ashley said. “But with more member in the caucus and in the majority, that’s more member who get vote for a bill and still get it passed.”

Former Democratic state Sen. Susan Paddock, who was term-limited, saw her southern Oklahoma seat go to Republican Greg McCortney. Republicans also picked up Senate seats in Muskogee and the far northeastern corner of the state. 19 Senate seats were on the ballot - the GOP won all of them.

“I think the biggest surprise to me was the fact that in both the House and the Senate, Democrats were so unable to defend seats that had traditionally been theirs,” Ashley said.

Updated 10:31 a.m.: Education sales tax soundly defeated

State Question 779 - what had been known as the penny sales tax for education - failed Tuesday night. It sought to raise Oklahoma's sales tax by one percent in order to fund both higher and common education, and give teachers a pay raise.

University of Oklahoma president David Boren was the driving force behind the issue, and says the fight for more funding is not over.

"Attention now needs to be focused on the next phase of this," Boren said. "Our Legislature should not rest until they come up with a different plan to get the teachers a raise, and to help the children of Oklahoma."

Oklahoma's teacher pay, and funding for education, is among the lowest in the country. Supporters have said the tax increase would raise $615 million annually for both common and higher education, but opponents argued sales taxes are regressive, and put more of a financial burden on Oklahoma's poorest residents.

Opponents also say the plan would set a harmful precedent in public policy by weakening the state Legislature's obligation to properly fund education.

"Everybody knows that we need to keep teachers in the state. Everybody knows that our per-pupil spending is down, and that needs to be increased," said Oklahoma's Teacher of the Year Jon Hazell. "But something else that people don't talk about, is that when good teachers leave the state, that can't help but hurt the quality of education in Oklahoma." 

Updated 10:03 a.m.: Rough night for 'teacher caucus'

Oklahoma's so-called "teacher caucus" didn't fare as well as they had hoped.

80 percent of the educators running for office in an effort to affect the education policies coming out of the state Capitol weren't successful in Tuesday night's general election. Kevin McDonald ran for a Senate seat in Edmond, and told the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange's Emily Wendler he thinks identifying as a Democrat and straight-party voting worked against him.

"There seems to be a lot of consistency with people’s party affiliation and I think that had a lot to do with how the election results turned out," McDonald said.

McDonald says his plan going forward is to actively communicate with his opponent, state Senator-elect Adam Pugh, about education policies lawmakers might consider. 

One of the educators who did succeed was Forrest Bennett from House District 92. The South Oklahoma City Democrat wants to see higher salaries for teachers, but says that's not the only thing he'll focus on when he arrives at the state Capitol.

"I want to push to make sure that we look at corporate tax credits. Some are good. Some could use revisiting," Bennett said. "But last session they focused a whole lot of energy on the balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and working class, and that's not OK with me."

Of the 25 candidates with an education background vying for a seat last night, only five were successful.

Oklahoma's two most recent Teachers of the Year are worried the state's educator shortage will only get worse without the promise of a raise.

"I’d be worried to see a bit of an exodus, right, to neighboring states," said Norman High School math teacher Shawn Sheehan, who lost his bid for the state Senate Tuesday night.

Oklahoma's current Teacher of the Year, Jon Hazell, said teachers leaving Oklahoma only hurts this state's quality of education.

"Over time, a low educated public is going to be a lot more expensive than a one penny sales tax. So that's kind of short-sighted," Hazell said.

Many voters said they supported teacher pay raises, but felt a sales tax was not the way to do it.

State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, said on Facebook the defeat of 779 doesn't mean teachers shouldn't receive a raise, but rather that lawmakers have to do their duty and produce a better plan. The Northwest Oklahoma City Republican says he'll introduce legislation in 20-17 that will provide a $10,000 pay raise to teachers.

Credit Facebook

Updated 9:38 a.m.: Religion, public funding state question defeated

Oklahomans voted down a state question that could’ve allowed a Ten Commandments monument on state Capitol grounds.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma's executive director Ryan Kiesel said voters chose not to use religion as a “political weapon.”

"They simply rejected that message and reaffirmed Oklahoma’s commitment to this incredibly important, fundamental portion of our state constitution," Kiesel said.

State Question 790 proponents wanted to repeal part of the state constitution - known as the Blaine Amendment - that restricts using public money for religious purposes. It was rejected with a vote of 57 to 43. 

Updated November 9, 5:43 a.m.: Voters codify death penalty

Oklahomans chose to enshrine the death penalty into the state constitution.

State Question 776 overwhelmingly passed with 66 percent of the vote.

Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, says despite the yes vote, the death penalty’s days are numbered.

"With this passage, we no doubt will hear people say that it’s an affirmation the death penalty is here to stay in Oklahoma. Don’t be so sure,” Kiesel said.

He points to polls that show more people back life without parole than the death penalty in Oklahoma. The ballot measure received bipartisan opposition, with both sides of the aisle arguing the constitutional amendment would circumvent courts.

Updated 11:34 p.m.: Criminal justice questions pass

Oklahoma voters approved two state questions that would make significant changes to Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

State Question 780 would elevate the monetary threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1000. Several low-level drug and property crimes will be reclassified as misdemeanors instead of felonies, which means offenders won’t serve prison time.

Former House Speaker Kris Steele, who chairs the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said voters sent a message that addressing mental health and addiction with treatment is a better alternative to punishment.

The changes won’t go into effect until July 1, 2017.

“We did that by design to allow for a regular legislative session to occur so that we could work with legislative leaders, community leaders, faith leaders, health care professionals, criminal justice advocates and others in the state of Oklahoma to make sure that everybody understands and is ready to embrace and implement the reforms,” Steele said.

The second measure – State Question 781 — redirects the estimate cost savings from the implementation to counties in order to expand drug and mental health treatment programs.

Updated 10:40 p.m.: Standridge defeats 'teacher caucus' candidate; Munson wins first full term

One of the highest-profile members of the so-called "teacher caucus" running for state office lost his bid to unseat state Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman.

With all precincts reporting, the Norman Republican defeated Oklahoma's 2016 Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan 62 percent to 38 percent.

Standridge said he wants to use his third term to expand on his earlier work with credit scores and insurance.

"One thing I've been saying if I'm reelected, one of my main focuses will be changing what I might call correcting the way we deal with agencies,” Standridge said. “How we oversee them, which we don't do much of that. So I'd like to change that. I'd like to work on some transparency issues.”

Sheehan conceded defeat on Twitter shortly after 9 p.m.

Sheehan said he was disappointed, but he hopes Standridge will make education a priority in the 2017 legislative session.

“I hope that with all the conversation and the waves that were made by 779 and the mass of educators who tried to run for office, I know we’ve caught their attention, but I’m uncertain if they will act on that,” Sheehan said.

Many other so-called “teacher caucus” candidates lost Tuesday night, and Sheehan thinks the presidential politics trickled down to him. He says during the summer, it served him well to be an independent, but became a disadvantage as November approached.

“Folks found themselves more and more polarized by what the other candidate was saying at the presidential level, that they felt that they had to outright pick a side,” Sheehan said. “What I would be interested to see is what the straight-party ticket voting numbers looked like. Because a straight-party ticket on either side was a loss for me.”

Sheehan said he felt confident he could win the seat without the backing of a party, but if he had to run again, he might consider running as a major party candidate. 

State Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, won reelection by about 8 percentage points over her Republican challenger Matt Jackson.

Munson won her first full term Tuesday after winning a 2015 special election to replace the late state Rep. David Dank.

“Winning the special election, many people said that there's no chance you'll win in a presidential, so I decided to work that much harder because I kept hearing that, and kept pushing forward, and am just very relieved we got good news this evening,” Munson said.

Munson said she wants to focus on education and making sure teachers receive a pay raise, as well as voter access and women's issues.

Updated 10:26 p.m.: Alcohol overhaul passes

Supporters of updating Oklahoma's alcohol laws are claiming victory.

About 65 percent of voters were in favor of State Question 792. Its passage would allow Oklahoma grocery and convenience stores to sell cold, full-strength beer and wine. Liquor stores would also be allowed to sell cold beer and items that can also be purchased in grocery or convenience stores.

State Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, has been a strong supporter of the ballot question.

"I haven't seen any specific numbers that relate to party lines, but I will tell you, this seems to be a bipartisan effort to change our alcohol laws," Bice said.

The changes won't be immediate, though. It'll be another two years before they take effect.

Supporters of State Question 792 gather Tuesday night at the Bricktown Brewery for a watch party.
Credit Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Opponents like Bryan Kerr, who heads the Oklahoma Retail Liquor Association, says his organization is dedicated to working with lawmakers and the court system to achieve a balance that's fair and takes public safety into account.

"We're going to work with the sentiment that was shown tonight through the vote of SQ 792 passing, we're going to take that and try to move forward and get the consumers exactly what they want," Kerr said.

Kerr and other business owners worry the additional competition from grocery and convenience stores would hurt Oklahoma's independent liquor retailers, resulting in store closures and job losses, especially in smaller cities.

They also argue the changes would concentrate more power into the hands of fewer corporate owners, reduce competition, and result in higher prices. 

Updated 9:05 p.m.: 'Right-to-farm' failure

The head of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau has conceded defeat on State Question 777, the so-called "right-to-farm" initiative.

During a "Yes on 777" event at the Devon Boathouse along the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City, Tom Buchanan said the conversation around the state question shows the need for policy development, and for rural Oklahoma and the agriculture industry to have a stronger voice.

"There is a new model that we need to evolve to, and that's having people in that state legislative body that understand who you are, what your needs are, and how we solve those concerns," Buchanan said. "So again, I'm frustrated and disappointed. But I'm proud of what we've done." 

Former attorney general Drew Edmondson has been a vocal opponent of the state question.

"A year ago, it wasn’t even close. I’m talking about 70 percent approval and 19 percent in opposition. We had a big hill to climb. I think we climbed it. The question is did we come down on the other side or are we still climbing?” 

Updated 8:40 p.m.: Lankford elected to first full term; Clinton supporters optimistic

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., won his first full term in the U.S. Senate, defeating Democratic challenger Mike Workman, Libertarian Robert Murphy, and independents Mark Beard and Sean Braddy.

It appears both the House and Senate will stay with Republicans, and Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole says if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, she'll have to compromise.

"She's run pretty far to the left. I mean, the pursuit of the Bernie Sanders vote has taken her way, way from the center and most of the things she’s run on are not going to get through a Republican House, let alone a Republican House and Senate, if we’re successful," Cole told NPR's Robert Siegel.

Supporters gather at the Oklahoma Democratic Party's event at The Rockford in Midtown Oklahoma City.
Credit Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Clinton supporter Sarah Daugherty, who's attending the state Democratic watch party at The Rockford on NW 23rd Street in Midtown Oklahoma City, says she wants to see equal rights secured, and relationships maintained with international allies.

"Stop polarizing by labeling Democrats, Republicans, start moving forward as one country, united together, standing for what's best for each and every one of us," Daugherty said.

Another Clinton supporter, Elizabeth Luecke said she's feeling excited and hopeful. "She's the most qualified, and I feel like outside of Oklahoma people will take that into consideration and vote against a person such as Trump," Luecke said. 

Updated 7:30 p.m.: Trump wins Oklahoma

Almost immediately after the polls closed in Oklahoma, the Associated Press formally called the Sooner State for Republican nominee Donald Trump. He'll receive Oklahoma's 7 electoral votes. 

"We’re going to find out tonight whether we retain our freedoms or whether our freedoms are going to be limited,” said Trump supporter Dee Dee Massey, who attended the Oklahoma Republican Party's event in northwest Oklahoma City. “I think most of us are holding our collective breath and absolutely praying that Trump comes out ahead.”

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