BY JEFFREY HICKMAN
In addition to the Presidential, U.S. Senate and Corporation Commissioner races, all Oklahoma voters will find two state questions on their General Election ballot as well. Election Day is Tuesday at your regular polling location from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., however early voting begins at 8 a.m. today at your County Election Board office and continues to 6 p.m. tonight as well as 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow, and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. Following are summaries of the two referenda:
SQ805 to Reduce Oklahoma Prison Sentences
State Question 805 was put on the ballot by the signatures of more than 260,000 Oklahoma citizens through an initiative petition process. It amends the Oklahoma Constitution to add a new section regarding prison sentences for people found guilty of felonies after previous felony convictions. If approved, it would prohibit the Court from using a former felony conviction to increase the punishment for repeat offenders who commit subsequent felonies. This relief would only apply to repeat offenders who have prior felony convictions.
The state question includes a provision allowing repeat offenders who are currently incarcerated to seek in Court a reduction in their prison sentences as well. It provides for taxpayer funded attorneys to represent currently incarcerated repeat offenders who wish to seek a sentence reduction and it requires that their victims be notified that the offender is requesting a sentence modification.
This change applies to crimes defined by the Legislature as non-violent prior to Jan. 1, 2020, which would eliminate the ability of the Legislature to re-classify crimes as violent for purposes of this constitutional amendment. Currently, domestic violence crimes, negligent homicide, maiming through arson or DUI, home burglary, animal cruelty, soliciting sex from a minor online, and committing domestic violence in the presence of a child are some examples of “non-violent” crimes under Oklahoma’s classification system.
Because SQ805 is a constitutional amendment, the Legislature and Governor could not make changes to the classifications or other provisions of this referendum and the only way to make modifications in the future is by another vote of the people. The Legislature and Governor would still have the authority to increase or decrease the range of punishments for any particular crime if SQ 805 passes, but that range could no longer be automatically increased in Court based on a repeat offender’s prior felony convictions.
SQ814 Sends Settlement Payments to Medicaid
State Question 814 was placed on the ballot by a vote of the Oklahoma Legislature. It amends the Oklahoma Constitution to reduce the annual amount of settlement payments from tobacco companies going to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) and increases the amount going to the Legislature.
The TSET fund was created with a constitutional amendment approved by a vote of the people in 2000, to receive an annual payout from a 1998 lawsuit settlement between Oklahoma and 45 other states and tobacco companies who agreed to make annual payments to states as long as tobacco is sold nationally. Oklahomans were the only citizens to vote to constitutionally mandate that those tens of millions of dollars in annual payments be deposited into a trust fund so the earnings would always be available for future generations of Oklahomans.
Currently, 75 percent of settlement payments each year go to TSET, and the earnings from the endowment are used for cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention, research and treatment, including funding for attracting and retaining physicians in rural Oklahoma, and grants to communities and schools for health and fitness capital improvement projects, along with other expenditures approved by TSET’s appointed board. If SQ 814 is approved, the portion of the annual settlement payment going to TSET would be reduced to 25 percent, and the difference would be redirected to the Legislature to help pay for the expansion of Medicaid public health insurance for low-income Oklahomans approved by voters this summer.
Medicaid expansion is projected to cost the state a minimum of $164 million each year. If SQ 814 passes, close to $50 million would be redirected each year from TSET to the Legislature to pay a portion of that cost. The Legislature will have to come up with the remaining funds needed by cutting other state agencies or raising taxes. Approval of SQ 814 means TSET’s ability to fund health initiatives will decline over time as reduced trust fund deposits result in less interest earnings from the endowment to fund programs like medical residency programs to bring medical students to rural Oklahoma, cancer research, cardiovascular disease research, grants to communities and schools for health and fitness capital projects, and other TSET programs.
A native of Cherokee, Jeffrey Hickman is an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellow who served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and is currently vice chairman of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
He is the Chief Executive Officer of the Oklahoma Grain & Feed, Ag Retailers, Wheat Growers and Seed Trade associations.