- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Oklahoman, Feb. 25, 2014

Proposed tobacco tax cut disguised as e-cig regulation

In a recent meeting with The Oklahoman’s editorial board, Commissioner of Health Terry Cline said the Oklahoma Department of Health supports efforts to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to those younger than 18. But he cautioned that some legislators may try to expand those bills to weaken tobacco regulation.

“Pay attention to those amendments,” Cline said.

That very day, members of the Senate Finance Committee justified Cline’s warning. They passed Senate Bill 1892, by Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Yukon, which addresses e-cig and tobacco issues in ways that have to been seen to be believed.

Under the bill, the legal definition of “tobacco products” is amended to exclude vaping products, ensuring that e-cigs aren’t lumped into the same category as real cigarettes. That’s not particularly objectionable. But the bill also declares that snus and “tobacco-derived products” will not be considered “tobacco products” under Oklahoma law.

Snus, by the way, is an oral product derived from ground tobacco. It’s a Swedish version of dipping tobacco. Snus canisters often include labels warning that the product can cause cancer and isn’t a safe alternative to cigarettes.

Thus, one outcome of SB 1892 is to declare that some products made from tobacco are not tobacco products. But that’s not all.

The bill doesn’t explain the difference between “tobacco products” and “tobacco-derived products,” so it’s anyone’s guess how regulators would be expected to differentiate between the two. That’s a gaping loophole.

SB 1892 also creates a statutory definition for “alternative nicotine products,” declaring those products to be ones that aren’t smoked but provide nicotine through “human consumption, whether chewed, absorbed, dissolved or ingested by any other means.” But then the bill exempts e-cigs from the definition of “alternative nicotine products” and instead defines e-cigs as “vapor products.”

So e-cigs, touted by their manufacturers as a way to obtain nicotine without smoking tobacco, would not be legally defined as products that provide nicotine without smoking tobacco. But snus apparently would be considered an alternative nicotine product. That’s an important distinction, because another provision of SB 1892 exempts vapor products and alternative nicotine products from tobacco taxes.

So SB 1892 effectively transforms snus from a tobacco product to an alternative nicotine product. Then the legislation prevents snus from being subject to tobacco taxes by exempting all alternative nicotine products from those taxes. This appears the real goal of SB 1892’s tortured definitions and resulting loopholes. In the purported cause of regulating e-cigarettes, the bill would actually reduce taxation and regulatory oversight of certain tobacco products.

And the legislation does nothing to advance the one e-cig proposal that enjoys broad support, because SB 1892 contains no language expressly banning the sale of e-cigs to teenagers.

SB 1892 doesn’t pass the smell test, let alone any common-sense threshold. It won’t go unnoticed that Johnson also authored a bill to assign Oklahoma’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections - after supporters of that proposal paid for Johnson to visit Las Vegas, ostensibly to discuss the issue. Now Johnson, who isn’t seeking re-election, has authored a bill to significantly reduce taxation and regulation of certain tobacco products, likely to the delight of associated financial interests.

That’s not quite a trend. But it’s one good reason - among many - to spike this proposal.


Tulsa World, Feb. 25, 2014

Troubling report about construction of Moore schools hit by May 20 tornado

Engineers are questioning whether bad design and poor construction played a role in the collapse of a Moore elementary school in a May 20 tornado. Seven children at Plaza Tower Elementary died in the storm.

The shocking questions raised in a forthcoming report prepared for the American Society of Civil Engineers and Structural Engineering Institute were first reported by The Journal Record.

Two dozen students and teachers also were injured at Moore’s Briarwood Elementary in the same storm. The report also reportedly questions the design and construction there.

“Odds are, if the schools had been built right, the walls would not have fallen,” civil engineer Chris Ramseyer told the newspaper.

According to the report on Briarwood’s damage, the school’s steel roof beams were not attached to the walls, many of its cinder-block walls were not properly reinforced with steel rebar and large portions of the walls were not backfilled with concrete. Substandard steel rebar served as a hinge, letting high winds blow walls over, Ramseyer said.

The Plaza Tower site had been cleared prior to the review team’s arrival, and Ramseyer studied photographs of that school.

If true, this is scandalous and points toward multiple failures: in design, in construction and in the code enforcement mechanism designed to be a check against substandard construction.

With such a tragic end, the allegations of the report, due to be released this spring, deserve a full, public and credible investigation.

The report also should slow down the rush toward a huge public investment in storm shelters for public schools.

One proposal before the public calls for a $500 million state bond issue to pay for school shelters.

Before we take on such a huge bite of public debt, let’s take a step back and find out if the school buildings themselves, the first line of defense, are being built safely.


Enid News & Eagle, Feb. 23, 2014

Code breakers: Pulling discussion a good plan with pending legislation

Earlier this month, Ward 5 Commissioner Tammy Wilson wanted the Enid City Commission to discuss the merits of an ordinance that would require owners to register with the city when their structure becomes vacant.

A draft copy of an ordinance circulated and became a point of discussion. Enid Metro Association of Realtors received a copy drafted by Enid’s legal staff.

A vacant building registry would allow a municipality to keep a list of which structures, whether business or residential, are empty.

With the goal of toughening laws on vacant, dilapidated structures, Wilson’s intent was to make sure people took care their property.

The draft ordinance, largely based on an Oklahoma City law, called for an annual $200 registration fee for each property.

Tom Andrew, an Enid Realtor and district vice president of Oklahoma Association of Realtors, said he considers that a “fine.”

Andrew opposes any kind of registry, a belief echoed by EMAR President Lisa Weaver.

A code office already is in place for restrictions on a property’s integrity and appearance.

Critics say creating an Enid ordinance would add another level of government on top of existing laws.

And the registry would be subject to open records laws, potentially making vacant properties targets for burglars.

Wilson’s decision to pull the discussion for now is understandable since the Legislature is considering a bill that could affect an Enid ordinance.

State Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, has introduced House Bill 2620, which would forbid municipalities from creating such registries.

The Oklahoma Municipal League’s legislative bulletin has flagged HB 2620 as a priority issue to oppose, arguing it takes away local control.

At this time, it’s a good idea to wait and see whether the legislation moves forward.

Everyone wants rising property values for Enid, and we don’t have any easy answer for absentee owners.

The trick is to find a way to punish repeat out-of-state offenders without inadvertently penalizing law-abiding citizens.

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