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Roundup of Oklahoma editorials

- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Oklahoman, Jan. 14, 2014

Lawmakers should ground bill to limit drone activity

While most officials were disappointed Oklahoma wasn't among six states selected by the Federal Aviation Administration for drone research and testing, state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, used the decision to make the case for his ACLU-endorsed legislation to restrict drone activity.

Yet James Grimsley, president of the Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma, convincingly argues that Wesselhoft's bill is not only unnecessary, but could significantly impede much legitimate economic activity. Policymakers should heed Grimsley's arguments.

Last year, Wesselhoft filed House Bill 1556, an ACLU-backed proposal to restrict Oklahoma use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as "drones." Wesselhoft claimed Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable government search and seizure would be undermined without enhanced UAV regulation.

After the FAA's announcement, Wesselhoft issued a news release suggesting the agency's decision showed such regulation wouldn't harm the industry, saying the six states selected for drone research - Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Virginia and Texas - had restrictive laws comparable to HB 1556.

In a blog post, Grimsley labeled that claim "absolutely false," saying no legislation had passed in Nevada, New York or Alaska. He said North Dakota didn't pass restrictive legislation and that the Texas law contained numerous exemptions. In comparison, Grimsley said Wesselhoft's legislation is "among the most extreme, restrictive and damaging in the country."

Among the problems Grimsley cites is an extremely broad definition of "surveillance" that could include "just about any type" of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) activity. More worrisome, another provision would allow anyone who feels "aggrieved" by drone activity to sue an operator and seek three times actual damages. Grimsley calls that provision an "absolute recipe for frivolous litigation" that will "wreak havoc in our state courts." The lawsuit provision, he notes, applies to governmental and private-sector activity.

Grimsley points out that the courts have already addressed Fourth Amendment issues related to manned and unmanned aircraft operations by law enforcement, including in a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Existing state law already makes it illegal to spy on or observe the inhabitants of a dwelling or structure. In addition, when law enforcement officials want to use drones, they must first obtain permission from the FAA, a process that can take weeks when a standard search warrant can be obtained in hours.

Yet Wesselhoft's bill could further hamstring law enforcement officials' use of drones even for activity currently done with police helicopters. Under the bill, Grimsley argues, law enforcement using drones to find a missing person would be required to file sworn statements within 24 hours explaining why drone use was necessary.

In short, Wesselhoft's legislation would provide little benefit for citizens concerned about an invasion of privacy, but could hamstring legitimate law enforcement use of drones and dramatically discourage investment in Oklahoma's private-sector aerospace industry.

"This legislation could prevent the UAS industry in Oklahoma from developing and could even stop the industry completely," Grimsley writes. "It could also create a serious change for the worse in our state's aviation and aerospace industries."

HB 1556 passed out of a House committee last year, but didn't get a floor vote. The bill could still be brought up during the 2014 legislative session. Grimsley makes a convincing case that this legislation should remain permanently grounded.

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Tulsa World, Jan. 12, 2014

Politics has trumped over sense in state prison policy

Politics trumping policy isn't a crime in Oklahoma. Politicians get away with it all the time, even when their actions shortchange constituents and shackle government to broken, costly, outmoded and even unsafe ways of doing business.

In 2012, Oklahoma had a chance to begin reforming its prison system, to reduce its nonviolent inmate population and to quit forcing a choice at appropriations time between throwing money down a rat hole and improving education, health care, infrastructure and other areas. And, to improve public safety.

A new smart-on-crime model for corrections - data-driven and backed by conservatives ranging from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - has yielded results in more than a dozen states including no less a law-and-order bastion than Texas. Over the past six years, Texas has shuttered a prison for the first time in 100 years, reduced its prison population, once hovering at 162,000. Meanwhile, Texans are experiencing a 30-year low in their violent crime rate because it is putting incarceration savings into crime-fighting strategies.

Oklahoma received the same promising formula, known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Lawmakers passed JRI reform two years ago, championed by term-limited House Speaker Kris Steele and supported by Gov. Mary Fallin.

And then the wheels came off the bus.

After only one year of funding, the initiative, which had the potential to save $200 million over the next decade, went from "political darling to albatross," according to a recent investigation by the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman and The Associated Press. The three news organizations waited months to review emails exchanged in the governor's office relating to JRI.

Apparently at the urging of her staff, Fallin, as well as new legislative leadership, backed off JRI, fearful it would be perceived as too soft on crime. The powerful private prison industry, generous with political contributions, also might have played a role in the virtual abandonment of JRI.

That abandonment represents a miserable moment for Oklahomans. Prison expenses - $460 million a year and climbing - rank among the state's largest expenditures.

The JRI reforms sought to encourage rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, to lessen emphasis on prison time as punishment for certain offenders, to strictly supervise offenders after their release and to put some of the incarceration savings, about $20,000 per inmate a year, into crime prevention.

Without reform, projections for prison growth over the next decade - a need for at least 3,000 more beds in a system already supporting nearly 27,000 inmates - are alarming. Inmate numbers have far outpaced Oklahoma's general population; 25 years ago Oklahoma had 8,000 inmates.

Oklahoman remains handcuffed to this runaway train, with prison growth unchecked and an overflow crowd backed up in county jails. Corrections officers are underpaid and prisons are understaffed, putting guards and the public at risk.

The initiative could have put the brakes on growth and given taxpayers more bang for their buck. Lost is the potential of better protecting the public, better handling the type of inmate who enters and leaves prison. State leaders had the chance to systematically and rationally address the issue, but instead put politics over policy.

Oklahomans should be asking the real reason why they chose not to curb prison growth, why we are no safer in spite of mass incarceration.

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Enid News & Eagle, Jan. 13, 2014

Cherokee Terrace's new historic designation doesn't add up

The National Register of Historic Places is a federal designation for buildings that are - according to the NRHP website - "significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture."

Properties listed, again quoting from the NRHP website, "have significance to the history of their community, state or the nation."

That's what has us puzzled somewhat by the addition of Cherokee Terrace Apartments in Enid to the National Register of Historic Places.

The apartments were constructed between 1936 and 1938 by the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration as affordable housing for people suffering from the Great Depression.

To be eligible, a property must meet a couple of guidelines:

- Age and integrity. Is the property old enough to be considered historic (generally at least 50 years old), and does it still look much the way it did in the past?

- Significance. Is the property associated with events, activities or developments that were important in the past? With the lives of people who were important in the past? With significant architectural history, landscape history or engineering achievements? Does it have the potential to yield information through archaeological investigation about our past?

- While Cherokee Terrace Apartments certainly meet the first criteria, we aren't sure about the second. Specifically, they were not created to be architectural marvels. They were built to be what they still are: apartments.

Enid has a number of other properties on the National Register of Historic Places, including Broadway Tower, Clay Hall, Garfield County Court House, H.H. Champlin House, McCristy-Knox Mansion and Rock Island Depot. Those properties do much more to follow the guidelines of significance than Cherokee Terrace Apartments.

Listing in the National Register is an honorific designation that provides recognition, limited protection and, in some cases, financial incentives for the properties. Owners of properties listed on the National Register may be eligible for a 20 percent investment tax credit for the certified rehabilitation of income-producing certified historic structures such as commercial, industrial or rental residential buildings.

From a federal standpoint, unless federal money is attached to a property on the National Register, the owner can do whatever they want to the property. However, state rules also may come into play.

Unless the designation was done with an eye toward receiving the tax credit for rehabilitation work, we have to question the logic of the listing.

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