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As 2015 session begins, big picture should be focus for Oklahoma lawmakers

Feb 4, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

A bill offered for the Legislature’s consideration in the session starting Monday underscores how difficult it could be for Oklahoma to begin thinking differently about crime and punishment.
Rep. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, wants to increase prison sentences for those convicted of cattle theft. Instead of a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10, Murdock proposes a minimum of five years and a max of 15. “We need a strong statement to would-be thieves that says if you steal cattle, you’re going to receive a big penalty,” he said.

Leave the pandering, frivolity aside

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board

A bill offered for the Legislature’s consideration in the session starting Monday underscores how difficult it could be for Oklahoma to begin thinking differently about crime and punishment.

Rep. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, wants to increase prison sentences for those convicted of cattle theft. Instead of a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10, Murdock proposes a minimum of five years and a max of 15. “We need a strong statement to would-be thieves that says if you steal cattle, you’re going to receive a big penalty,” he said.

Criminal justice reform

What Oklahoma badly needs, instead, are lawmakers who are willing to consider reasonable alternatives to locking so many people away for long stretches. Oklahoma’s high and ever-growing incarceration rate takes a serious toll on families. Change is in order.

Much has been said and written about the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a bill approved three years ago that was designed to slow the growth of the prison population. There was follow through on some pieces of that legislation but not all of it. Gov. Mary Fallin is showing renewed interest. Our hope is that she’ll find champions in the Legislature to help it along.

But JRI, which includes additional monitoring of parolees and alternatives to returning post-release offenders back to prison if they get in trouble, is just one way to improve corrections. Sentencing reform is another, and wouldn’t cost the state any money. Instead, legislators keep adding to the problem with proposals to give “a big penalty” for more and more crimes.

Lawmakers could choose to review statutes now on the books and revise those that need it. Many other conservative states have embraced a new approach to corrections. Oklahoma should, too. Money is tight and this isn’t an election year. Now is the time to launch meaningful corrections reform.

Improve mental health services

Lawmakers also should do what they can to improve mental health services. Every effort should be made to allow the state to maintain its programs at current levels. About one in five adults reported a mental health issue in 2013. These problems contribute greatly to the state’s prison population.

Lawmakers in 2015 need to pass a bill requiring doctors or their assistants to check the state’s online prescription drugs database before dispensing powerful painkillers to their patients. Efforts failed last year to make doctors use the Prescription Monitoring Program, something pharmacists must do each time they fill a prescription.

Doctors already check to make sure their patients are insured. Why should checking the PMP be such a problem, especially considering the grip that prescription painkillers have on Oklahomans? Prescription overdose deaths kill more Oklahomans each year than automobile accidents.

Also, repeated efforts through the years to ban texting and driving — for all drivers, not just new teenage drivers — have been scuttled by Republican leadership without the bills even making it out of committee. Approving such a measure wouldn’t cost any money and wouldn’t cost members any political capital: No organized opposition exists to taking Oklahoma off the list of six outlier states that haven’t seen fit to adopt this common-sense practice.

Anti-smoking measure

The same can be said of driving down the smoking population in Oklahoma. Residents spend about $1 billion annually on smoking-related health costs. One lawmaker wants voters to decide in 2016 whether to prohibit smoking in public places, including restaurants, bars and bingo halls. This effort is sure to draw opposition, but lawmakers should give Oklahomans their say.

Resolution of the conundrum involving the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum needs to happen this year. Several bills have been filed to address funding for completing this project. The facility is costing taxpayers more than $650,000 a year to staff, secure and maintain and yet is nowhere near finished.

This year, lawmakers should establish a credible process for reviewing business tax incentives. A tough budget situation has brought this issue to the forefront. But even in times of strong economic growth, the state must ensure tax policies are fueling growth, and not simply giving away taxpayer dollars. The governor and legislative leaders say creation of a functional incentive review process will be a priority this year. We hope they succeed. We believe tax incentives can generate economic growth. But too often, tax incentives appear to be based on someone’s gut feeling, not on concrete data and measurement of results.

Consider change in budgeting process

Another budget proposal that deserves consideration is the call to conduct budget-only sessions every other year, with subsequent sessions devoted to policy measures and budget-writing. In theory, this could lead to increased scrutiny of state spending and better prioritization of expenditures. But this would require lawmakers to actually do the hard work of budget-writing. Too often, many legislators have appeared disinterested in conducting such important, but tedious, work.

Too many legislators get bogged down in frivolity, engaging in legislating that involves pandering to select constituencies and passing bills that have little or no chance to survive legal challenges. There are simply too many serious, solvable problems to spend time on such silliness.

Improve public schools

Finally, to truly and permanently improve Oklahoma’s economy, lawmakers must improve Oklahoma schools. Last year was disappointing because legislators retreated from that goal by downgrading the importance of teaching children to read, among other things. That backsliding did Oklahoma students no good. This year will see the development of new academic standards for schools. Lawmakers must commit to the production of high-quality standards that lay the foundation for academic excellence.

Lawmakers often proclaim their support for parental involvement in schools. They should back up that rhetoric by supporting legislation to increase school choice for parents and children, whether through the creation of additional charter schools across Oklahoma, by empowering parents with education savings accounts, or other means.

We began this with a reference to cattle. We end with a prod: Get down to business, lawmakers, and stay focused on the big picture until you go home in May.

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