- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Norman Transcript. July 2, 2017.

The Transcript editorial board believes it’s important for Cleveland County residents to pay close attention to the ongoing dispute between Cleveland County Sheriff Joe Lester and Cleveland County Commissioners Rod Cleveland, Darry Stacy and Harold Haralson.

At this point, the conflict spans several months and a variety of subjects, so here’s a breakdown for anyone who wants to get caught up.

The initial disagreement revolved around whether the Cleveland County commissioners provided enough funding to the sheriff’s office to fund the county jail. The sheriff warned the commissioners and the rest of the county budget board in early March that he was running out of money to make payroll, which he traced back to being underfunded before the fiscal year began in July 2016. Lester signed off on the budget, along with the rest of the budget board, before the fiscal year began, although Lester said he initially requested millions more than he received.

Budget board members, including county treasurer Jim Reynolds, said the sheriff’s office generated revenue that filters into various funds: for instance, the sheriff’s office makes a profit off the commissary at the jail. Lester has argued the revenue generated by the sheriff’s office shouldn’t be factored into the funds provided to him to run the jail by commissioners, as the money is earmarked for specific purposes and fluctuates. Commissioners have disagreed, asking him to draw down his fund balances before allocating more money to his office.

On March 23, Lester filed a civil lawsuit against the commissioners, saying they violated their state constitutional duty to fund the jail. Based on the recent budget, it doesn’t appear the county is hurting for funds: there is more than $15 million set aside for capital improvements in the upcoming fiscal year. The lawsuit is still undecided, and the commissioners and the sheriff’s office have had to retain independent counsel, which directly costs county taxpayers (although the sheriff wasn’t authorized by the state attorney general to hire outside counsel until recently, months after he did so).

Meanwhile, the county finalized its Fiscal Year 2018 budget in June, and the sheriff’s office once again received millions of dollars less than he requested. But it’s not clear at this point if the jail, or sheriff’s office as a whole, will operate at a loss in the previous fiscal year - it’s possible the sheriff’s office will have plenty of money in the bank when the previous fiscal year is put to rest.

The budget board, including the sheriff, requested a performance audit of the sheriff’s books by the state auditor’s office several months ago. That audit has cost the county tens of thousands of dollars so far, and we don’t have the final bill.

The performance audit has revealed at least one significant poor accounting practice, one that traces its way back a decade to before Lester was elected sheriff, regarding the reconciliation of inmate trust accounts. The sheriff and commissioners have disagreed on how to resolve it. The state auditor’s final report has not been released.

The next two significant stories in this saga will be a review of the performance audit and the conclusion of the sheriff’s lawsuit. The commissioners and sheriff are elected positions and are ultimately responsible to voters for their decisions.

It’s our responsibility as residents and voters to pay close attention to what our elected officials are doing and hold them accountable in the voting booth.

___

The Oklahoman. July 3, 2017.

Revenue measures passed by the Legislature are being challenged in court left and right. Lawmakers have been accused of playing word games and pretending measures that increase revenue are not “revenue measures” subject to constitutional restrictions.

What’s astounding is how often challengers are directly quoting lawmakers’ own public statements to make the case that the politicians were well aware their actions violated the state constitution.

That document requires that revenue measures must originate in the House of Representatives, cannot pass in the final five days of the legislative session, and must receive the support of three-fourths of the members in both the House and the Senate to become law. Several revenue measures approved in this year’s session appear to violate at least one of those restrictions, and often more.

Take the cigarette “cessation fee” of $1.50 per pack. That measure has been challenged by tobacco manufacturers and wholesalers. Their lawsuit notes the Legislature tried and failed on multiple occasions to pass a $1.50-per-pack tax. Then, in the final days of session, the same basic proposal was resurrected as a “fee” in Senate Bill 845 and described as a health measure.

But the lawsuit notes the “fee” did not originate in a health committee, but in the appropriations committee, a sign lawmakers were looking for revenue, not health benefits.

During debate, the lawsuit notes, House Appropriations and Budget Chairwoman Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, referred to previous cigarette tax bills as SB 845 “in its former form.” Asked why the measure was now a fee and not a tax, Osborn replied that calling the measure a fee was “the only way we could do it” and that lawmakers “had to be rather creative.”

Fee revenue is supposed to go to support specific activities. Thus, a smoking cessation fee would go to smoking-related health expenses. But during Senate debate, the lawsuit notes, legislators “confirmed that the vast majority of SB 845’s revenues would not be dedicated to smoking-related costs.”

Lawmakers’ public comments are also highlighted in a lawsuit filed by Gary Richardson, a Republican candidate for governor who has challenged several measures raising revenue.

House Bill 2348 ends the practice of adjusting Oklahoma’s standard deduction for inflation, which effectively increases citizens’ income tax burden every year despite technically leaving rates unchanged. Richardson’s lawsuit notes Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Edmond, carried the bill on the House floor, and was asked directly if the bill was a revenue measure. Moore responded that he didn’t believe HB 2348 was a new tax; it just “changes the tax.”

Richardson also points to other apparently self-contradictory comments made by lawmakers when advancing House Bill 2433, which imposed a new sales tax on car purchases.

Oklahoma courts have not historically relied on “legislative intent” when reviewing challenges to state laws. This is based in part on the fact that what politicians say and the real reasons for their actions can be two different things.

Still, it’s telling that Oklahoma lawmakers’ strategy for defending these revenue measures in court relies, in part, on convincing judges that they shouldn’t take seriously anything those same lawmakers say.

___

Tulsa World. July 5, 2017.

Oklahoma has too many people in prison and too little money to keep them there.

The situation is dangerous for inmates, prison workers and the public.

Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh recently outlined the situation for the state corrections board in stark terms.

“You can’t pack people into facilities that are decrepit and expect everybody to behave,” Allbaugh said. “You can only push this balloon so far. Something is going to pop.”

At last count, the state had 26,552 people behind bars and another 1,693 in county jails awaiting space. That puts state prisons at 109 percent of capacity.

Since 2008, the state has added 1,790 inmates to its prison population, but the corrections department has 543 fewer employees and less money to deal with them.

The situation is urgent and demands action before it becomes deadly.

The 2017 Legislature ignored the short- and long-term solutions to the problem because it lacked the courage to do what had to be done.

The short-term solution is more state funding. State prisons are in urgent need of maintenance and more workers, neither of which come for free. The state’s ill-considered choices in recent years to cut income and gross production taxes have left it unable to sustain its incarceration habits and without the money to fund the education and mental health programs that would help turn the situation around.

The long-term solutions are found in smart-on-crime reforms to reduce the state’s ridiculously high incarceration rate, a move that the experience of other states shows would save Oklahoma millions and make its streets safer. If not changed, current trends will mean the state will need two additional prisons at a cost of nearly $2 billion in the next 10 years. Yet House Speaker Charles McCall allowed Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, to single-handedly hold up the next stage in criminal justice reform last year.

Like too many other core state services, the Legislature has behaved as if ignoring the state’s prison problem will make it go away. It will only grow worse until legislators take the steps needed to turn the state’s trajectory in the right direction.

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