- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World, July 22, 2016

Boren tax proposal appears headed to the ballot - Good!

The last substantial hurdle in the way of David Boren’s proposed 1 percent sales tax increase has been cleared.

On Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court threw out a legal challenge against State Question 779 because it was not filed at the appropriate time.

That appears to clear the way for the issue to go to November’s ballot.

Good.

More than 301,000 Oklahoma voters signed Boren’s petition to raise taxes in support of education. With that kind of popular support, it would have been a travesty for the high court to prevent a vote.

The challenge was thrown out on technical grounds, but in our view the challenge was made on technical grounds: whether the petition’s gist - a description of the measure that appears on signature sheets - was properly worded. There was a time and a place to raise such an issue, and the opponents missed it. This late in the game, it should not have been allowed to block the progress of popular sovereignty, and it wasn’t.

At the same time, the high court rewrote the ballot title for SQ 779 to make it clearer that the Legislature won’t be able to shuffle appropriations ingeniously so that a tax increase for education becomes a general tax increase.

That’s also good. The new ballot language is more informative and clearly describes how the process of “supplanting” is prevented.

There are strong arguments on both sides of SQ 779, and we look forward to a substantial public debate on its merits. We’re glad the Boren proposal seems headed to the ballot.

___

The Journal Record, July 25, 2016

Protecting right to change laws

Oklahoma is home to 78,000 farming operations that cover 34.2 million acres, more than three-fourths of the total area. Those farms produce more than $7.1 billion of products each year, more than $5.2 billion of that in livestock and poultry, making Oklahoma the 11th-largest livestock producing state and 23rd-largest ag-producing state.

Most farmers will support State Question 777 in November. The measure would add a new section to Article II of the Oklahoma Constitution. It would be four sentences long.

The first sentence says the intent is to protect farmers and ranchers and ensure that they can keep farming and ranching forever. The third and fourth sentences talk about what the amendment does not do: modify laws relating to trespass, eminent domain, the dominance of mineral rights, and so forth. There is little in those three sentences with which one might take issue.

The devil is the second sentence, which reads: “The Legislature shall pass no law which abridges the right of citizens and lawful residents of Oklahoma to employ agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices without a compelling state interest.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, a compelling state interest is, “a governmental interest (as in educating children or protecting the public) which is so important that it outweighs individual rights.”

A compelling state interest is an extraordinarily high standard to meet that requires the strict scrutiny test. If the state were to adopt a law regulating agriculture and it was challenged, the state would have to prove that the policy was necessary and narrowly tailored to accomplish the specific task. It’s the same standard that was applied in Roe v. Wade when the court found a person’s privacy rights could not be quashed by laws outlawing abortions.

The law was not written by local farmers; ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, approved the model legislation in 1996 and again in 2013.

The state has a model; the Legislature can add, subtract and update laws as the world changes. In 1776, no one imagined a need for laws governing self-driving cars, but the public certainly can imagine the value of those today. No one knows how the agriculture industry will grow and change in Oklahoma, but the public representatives at the Capitol must be allowed to help the law adapt to whatever might surface.

We must not cede governance of an industry to the industry. Voters must defeat State Question 777 in November.

___

The Oklahoman, July 25, 2016

Employment figures show Oklahoma government is far from gutted

After the past few years of budget cuts, some activists contend Oklahoma government is now cut “to the bone.” Government employment figures highlighted by Governing magazine undermine that claim.

Based on U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Annual Survey of Public Employment & Payroll data, Governing magazine estimates Oklahoma has 231 state and local government employees for every 10,000 people in the state (excluding education).

That’s nowhere near the highest ratio in the country. But it’s also nowhere near the bottom. Twenty-four states had higher ratios of government employment, while 25 had lower.

Somehow, numerous states are getting by with lower effective levels of government employment than

Oklahoma. To cite just one notable example, in Texas there are 209 state-local government employees for every 10,000 people.

Even if government employment numbers have declined in the two years since the census data was collected, it’s still unlikely Oklahoma is among the states with the lowest levels of government employment.

As noted, the above employment figures exclude education jobs. Governing magazine accounted for those figures separately.

Oklahoma is often criticized for having more than 500 school districts, far more than most states of comparable geographic size and similar population. In fact, Oklahoma has more districts than states that are much larger in geography and population. Critics argue the high number of Oklahoma districts fuels administrative bloat and waste. The data collected by Governing magazine bolsters those claims.

Oklahoma has 245 elementary-secondary school employees for every 10,000 residents, a rate that’s higher than all but 11 states. However, Oklahomans pay $160 in monthly payroll for those school employees for every $100,000 in personal income in the state. That ranks lower than all but nine states.

This suggests Oklahoma’s system prioritizes quantity of school employees (including administrators) over higher wages for school employees. Inefficiency plays a significant role in lower teacher pay in Oklahoma.

The number of people employed in Oklahoma colleges and universities ranks in the middle of the pack, with 24 states having higher ratios per 10,000 population than Oklahoma. This is surprising, given that Oklahoma has also been criticized for having an excessive number of colleges, including several so small that few people are aware they even exist.

Payroll at Oklahoma colleges is also in the middle tier of the national pack, with 26 states paying more per $100,000 in personal income.

In Oklahoma, government jobs have often been treated as a form of welfare spending. Too many positions were either created, or have since been preserved, simply to provide someone assistance. Less emphasis has been placed on ensuring that the public is being well-served as a result of the increased government payroll.

That’s a failed model for economic development, and it actually detracts from growth. Oklahoma lawmakers should consider how government is structured in other states that employ fewer people per capita.

“Ghost employee” scandals in the past have highlighted the worst abuses in Oklahoma, but the more damaging practice may be the preservation of government positions simply because “we’ve always done it that way.”

Apathy and inertia have fueled government waste in Oklahoma. No doubt the suddenness of budget cuts in recent years has negatively impacted some agencies. But the data highlighted by Governing magazine suggests Oklahoma government could still operate more efficiently without harming service quality.

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