Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:
Tulsa World, March 18, 2014
Let's vote on Capitol repairs
The state House has added an appropriate element to the discussion of plans to repair the state Capitol — putting the issue to a vote of the people.
The state Senate previously approved a $160 million bond plan to work on the troubled building. The House version is only $120 million and would require approval by the people before moving ahead.
The Capitol is in shambles and needs to be repaired. When it rains, sewage backs up into the basement. The building's wiring is a relic of another century. The facade is flaking off, endangering the public.
That said, we have misgivings about the size of the efforts that have been budgeted. We want the Capitol to be safe and sanitary, but not grandiose.
The House plan is smaller and doesn't wink at the state Constitution's requirement that public debt be approved by the people.
For years, Legislatures have gotten around that constitutional requirement by saying bond issues were only moral obligations of the state. That's legal, but not the best way to incur public debt.
Putting the Capitol repairs to a public vote assures that this project is fully explained to the taxpayers who will end up footing the bill. It also confirms that Capitol repairs really are the priority of the state.
With that much money on the line, that's the right thing to do.
The Oklahoman, March 17, 2014
Oklahoma House should vote on Indian cultural center bill
The idea to use $40 million in unclaimed property funds to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum appears to be losing ground at the Legislature, particularly in the House. Not a surprise, perhaps, but still disappointing.
The AICCM sits half-finished along the Oklahoma River east of downtown Oklahoma City. Construction has been on hold for two years. In hand is $40 million in private money pledged to get the museum completed — provided that the state comes through with an additional $40 million.
The state has already spent $67.4 million on the project. Many members in both chambers of the Legislature are leery of using any additional state funding, particularly given the tight budget year they're dealing with. Previous suggestions to use a bond issue for the AICCM have been roundly rejected.
Using unclaimed property funds, which are managed by the state treasurer's office, would be an excellent fit. Last month, the Senate approved a bill to do that — but only after some members criticized not just the idea, but the treasurer's efforts to get property returned to its owners.
The treasurer's office did return $16 million worth of property to Oklahomans last year, a record sum that Treasurer Ken Miller credits to performance-based pay and an increased marketing budget for the program. This year, Miller believes the total could climb to $30 million.
Some Senators argued that the unclaimed property fund was "the people's money" and therefore should be off limits. It's not clear whether those members felt that way a year ago when the Legislature tapped the fund for $37 million for operating expenses. Or the year before that, when $25 million was removed. Indeed lawmakers have withdrawn an average of $35 million per year from the fund since 2008.
On the House side, it's evident that Speaker Jeff Hickman is lukewarm to the museum and cultural center. Hickman, R-Fairview, said recently that one concern he has is that appropriating $40 million for this project would surely prompt calls for a similar amount to be spent in Tulsa and somewhere outside the metro areas. "So, the political reality for me is that the $40 million cultural center deal costs me $120 million," he said.
The House minority leader, Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, says the 29 members of his caucus support completion of the AICCM: "We're tired of spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars just to mothball it. We need to complete it."
Hickman has said his GOP House colleagues aren't enthused about it, and instead have other issues they'd like to see addressed. He has thus far ignored Inman's call to give the bill a vote on the House floor.
That needs to change. The state is spending $68,000 per month to keep the AICCM mothballed. J. Blake Wade, who heads the entity developing the facility, says there is "no doubt in my mind" that many of the private donors he has secured will choose to take their money elsewhere if nothing happens this session. "Three years they've been committed to us," he said. "Another year it's going to be impossible to keep the $40 million."
Using unclaimed property funds offer a sensible way to get the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum off high center and on its way to being a first-class destination that would benefit not just the city but the whole state. Hickman and his caucus need to make that happen.
The Norman Transcript, March 14, 2014
Program keeps women out of state prisons
Legislation making changes in the way Oklahoma locks up prisoners is nothing new at the Capitol. Every session sees another idea to reform our system of criminal justice. Sometimes the legislation doesn't have a champion and it goes nowhere.
If lawmakers approve and the governor supports its implementation, a pilot program that helps keep women out of prison could make a difference in lives and in overcrowded prisons. It could make a dent in Oklahoma's claim to locking up more women per capita than any other state.
Senate Bill 1278, authored by Sens. Kim David and Sean Burrage, sailed through the Senate this week. Like the successful drug courts, it is a last-chance effort to stay with their families, get jobs and counseling.
The bill, which is now headed to the House, authorizes the state to contract with programs that have proven track records of turning non-violent women's lives around. It reduces the public cost of imprisoning women and may end the cycle of incarceration that plagues so many families.
Nonprofit groups, like the successful one in Tulsa that works with more than 100 women, would run the programs and only be reimbursed when the women are successfully rehabilitated.
Eighty-five percent of the women incarcerated in Oklahoma leave children behind, often in the care of relatives or the state.
The reality is that many of the women never make it to state prison beds. They end up serving much of their sentences in county jails, where there is no treatment or mental health services.
We urge House members to get behind the program and find ways to intervene in women's lives, cut taxpayer costs and help keep the next generation out of prison.