- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Journal Record, March 28, 2016

Don’t write off a generation of students

Approximately two weeks ago, The Journal Record reported a story about the financial problems at the Davidson schools.

The district started the year nearly $157,000 in debt, far and away the biggest deficit of any Oklahoma school district; Drumright, which reported a $17,000 deficit, came in second.

This year’s state budget cuts to schools total $109 million so far, and that has hurt the struggling district even more than others. Davidson cut spending by $120,000 compared to last year, but it’s not enough; the district will probably have to close its tiny high school, sending the 22 students enrolled there to Frederick, Tipton or Grandfield.

Frederick has problems of its own. The Journal Record reported last week that Fredrick’s hospital will close its emergency room and end in-patient services after Thursday because they don’t have enough business to keep the doors open. That’s an unsurprising byproduct in a state that has declined Medicaid expansion, a program that would return Oklahoma tax money to the state while paying hospitals for care they frequently have to write off.

In Bixby, schools will close for the year six days early to save money, which means six fewer days of education for the students. The district will save about $100,000 and the students will know a little less than they might have.

Oklahoma City public schools said last week that 208 teaching positions would be eliminated to help solve a $30 million shortfall.

At the end of the last school year, Lawton shuttered four elementary schools to save money.

Fortunately, the Legislature declined to hear this year’s pair of education voucher bills, this time disguised with the name education savings accounts. A voucher by any other name still takes money away from public education, and if ever our schools needed to hang on to every nickel, now is the time.

Sitting lawmakers have pontificated at length about the certainty of economic development and job creation through tax cuts. The business community has held that a trained and ready workforce is crucial to accomplishing those same prosperity goals. Those ideals are at odds now, and it’s time to make the tough, unpopular choices.

Oklahoma cannot compete in the regional, national or global market with a poorly educated populace. Oklahomans should consider consolidating school districts to reduce administrative overhead, and the business community should bid farewell to some incentives. Those are affordable solutions; writing off a generation of students is not.

___

The Oklahoman, March 27, 2016

Corrections issues becoming a priority at state, local levels

What for years has been a second thought (if that) for most Oklahoma policymakers - the corrections system and how it functions - is clearly getting more attention today, at the state and local levels. This is progress worth cheering.

At the state Capitol, Gov. Mary Fallin last week signed a bill appropriating $27.6 million to the Department of Corrections. The money comes from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, and is needed to help DOC manage in the face of 7 percent budget cuts this fiscal year. The agency is already staffed at only about 65 percent for a prison system whose population far exceeds capacity. That’s a bad combination.

A few weeks ago, the Oklahoma House approved a package of four bills that would fall under the “smart on crime” umbrella. Oklahoma has a well-deserved reputation as a law-and-order state, and that has helped to drive the growth in the prison count over the past three or four decades. As recently as the 2015 session, the “soft on crime” tag was applied to a sensible effort to give some inmates a chance to earn good-behavior credits, and the bill was quickly scuttled in the House.

This year House members gave strong approval to the four bills by Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, which are intended to ease prison crowding by doing such things as giving prosecutors the discretion to file many crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and by expanding eligibility for drug courts and community sentencing. These bills merit the support of the Senate and a trip to the governor’s desk for her signature.

Meantime DOC Interim Director Joe Allbaugh is looking for new ways to conduct the agency’s business. The department recently signed a lease at the recently closed Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley, a state facility that formerly housed residents with severe developmental disabilities. The 600-acre property includes more than two dozen buildings

Allbaugh likes the site’s location in central Oklahoma, and believes it might one day house a large-scale bakery, the DOC’s K-9 unit and perhaps an academy for correctional officers. “I just thought . that it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to really consolidate some of our disparate functions, and capitalize on having many items and those functions in one location,” he said. Fresh ideas like that are needed in state government.

A smarter way of doing things is the goal of two state questions that may be on the ballot in November. Advanced by a bipartisan group called Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the ballot initiatives would reclassify certain low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and fund community-level treatment and job-training programs with money saved by sending fewer people to prison or jail.

In Oklahoma County, an effort is well underway to reform practices at the jail - again, with the goal of putting fewer offenders into it. A task force comprising business leaders and community leaders is working with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan organization that has steered such efforts in other cities. The institute found, among other things, that money plays “an outsized role” in whether a person is able to get out of the Oklahoma County jail while awaiting trial.

District Judge Don Deason, the county’s new presiding judge, says he plans to make judges use discretion when setting bail, instead of simply following a bond schedule, when they see inmates for the first time. “It’s my intention to make some changes in how setting bonds has been approached in the past,” Deason said.

Yes, there are new, smarter approaches to Oklahoma corrections. Better late than never.

___

Enid News & Eagle, March 25, 2016

State certification of Libertarian Party is interesting

Oklahoma has been hindered by some of the America’s most restrictive ballot access laws.

Editorially, we’ve consistently favored the idea of making it easier - with a lower signature threshold and longer recognition - for third parties to form and to get a presidential candidate on the ballot.

Earlier this month, the Libertarian Party officially was certified as a political party in our state. That means Libertarian candidates will be allowed to appear on the state’s November ballot. Generally speaking, this party’s philosophy seeks a world of liberty, favors maximum individual freedom and wishes to minimize government.

While registered Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in Oklahoma, more than 260,000 now are registered as independent.

What is happening in Oklahoma, arguably one of the reddest of the red states?

“Back in the 1990s Oklahoma tightened up access to party ballot lines,” said Keith Gaddie, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. “Election reform has opened the door to new and different parties in the state. This is the first but likely not the last.”

Instead of going totally red or all blue, one American state is turning slightly orange. Jason Sorens, a Libertarian Yale grad student, birthed the Free State Project in the summer of 2001. According to the project’s pledge reported in the Wall Street Journal, signers agreed to move to New Hampshire within five years once the number totaled 20,000, a goal that took nearly 15 years.

Sorens, who wanted a practical solution to concentrate Libertarians, told the WSJ he was desperate for small victories of liberty. Despite sporadic headlines from a small minority of malcontents in Keene, N.H., he insisted that even those rabble rousers are mellowing.

” . They’ve gotten a lot more mature over the last three years,” he told the WSJ. “There haven’t been any topless, open-carry litter pickups recently. Or people smoking pot in the police station.”

As Gaddie points out, third parties rarely win, but they have served as spoilers in certain elections.

This has happened in Oklahoma. Independent Gary Richardson garnered more than 146,000 votes in our state’s 2002 gubernatorial race to catapult Democrat Brad Henry past GOP hopeful Steve Largent by less than 7,000 votes.

In the presidential race a decade before, Ross Perot’s independent candidacy earned 18.9 percent of the popular vote compared to 43 percent for winner Bill Clinton and 37.4 percent for incumbent George H.W. Bush.

Libertarians won’t send shockwaves through this fall’s election, but this interesting development is worth monitoring.

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