Patrick B. McGuigan, The City Sentinel
OKLAHOMA CITY, Dec. 31, 2019 – CapitolBeatOK’s top stories for 2019 run an eclectic gamut of vital state policy issues.
The top five story lines, featured in this analysis, include the fierce quarrel over gaming compacts between Governor Kevin Stitt and a majority of the state’s Native American tribes, the continued state government “freeze” on capital punishment combined with historic criminal justice reforms, the anticipated-but-still-unwelcome tightening of state government revenues, and broad delivery of conservative policy reforms under Senate President Pro Temp Greg Treat.
The fifth place story is the accelerating decline of journalism in the Sooner State, starkly illustrated in the collapse of paid print subscriptions for The Oklahoman (still the state’s largest newspaper).
Stitt and Tribal Leaders end 2019 with intense conflict over Gaming Compacts
On December 30, the Chickasaw Nation announced it would not allow the government of Oklahoma to audit tribal gambling operations.
The declaration from the state’s most powerful (financially) tribe came just days after Gov. Stitt’s office had announced, “”The state is resuming audits of all casino operations in Oklahoma, a right provided in the gaming compacts. As stated in the letters to tribes, the scope of work will be for business activity between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2018. This reflects a period of time when the State had stopped conducting audits on casinos.”
Tribal officials insist the state does not have power to conduct such audits.
On New Year’s Eve, attorney Robert Henry, representing the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee Nation, filed in court seeking declaratory injunctive relief, asserting the governor was in violation of federal law for refusing to acknowledge automatic renewal of the compact(s). Governor Still’s attorney, general counsel Mark Burget. Is countering that notion.
The last two weeks of December were marked by a steady of array of punches and counter-punches in the battle over gaming compacts set to expire at midnight December 31.
The Compact Quarrel is CapitolBeatOK’s top story for 2019.
The state’s major tribes have been consistently dismissive toward the chief executive’s desire to renegotiate the compacts. He requested, in a letter last summer, higher “exclusivity fees” from the tribes, pointing out that Oklahoma’s rates are among the lowest levied for such exclusivity agreements in the United States.
Although the compact(s) have explicit ending dates, tribal leaders took the position (backed by some political leaders of past and present) that the rates should automatically stay in place.
Stitt has consistently rejected that view.
Earlier in December, the governor proposed an eight-month extension of existing compact provisions, a suggestion Big Tribe leaders immediately rebuffed. Then, the state attorney general (who had previously suggested arbitration) withdrew as Stitt’s negotiator with the tribes, without giving reasons for his stand-down.
Just before Christmas week, Stitt said the state would resume auditing gaming operations on Jan. 2. The rates tribes pay to out-of-state vendors are higher than rates paid to vendors elsewhere, a point of contention that has emerged in recent weeks.
In the final days before Christmas, former state Rep. Lisa Billy, a Republican who had served as Stitt’s Secretary of Native American Affairs, announced her resignation – specifically pointing to her disagreement with Stitt’s position on the compacts.
Barring a change of heart among leaders for the 32 tribes involved in gaming, the next steps are likely to come in courts of law.
Unofficial Execution Moratorium Continues; sweeping (and belated) criminal justice reforms passed
The City Sentinel’s second top story for 2019 combines two areas of the legal system: Capital Punishment, and criminal justice reform.
Twenty years ago, Julius Darius Jones of Oklahoma City was charged with murder in the death of Paul Scott Howell of Edmond.
Jones, a star basketball player and Honor Society member at John Marshall High School, was attending the University of Oklahoma on scholarship at the time Howell, a respected businessman, father and husband, was murdered in his driveway after a shopping trip.
Jones, who has always maintained his innocence, has drawn increasing sympathy from those – in-state and around the world – who have studied his conviction for Howell’s killing. Even while losing one appeal after another in the legal system, evidence outside of formal legal proceedings continues to argue in his favor.
Jones’ family members have long said (in statements not considered in the original prosecutions) that he was at home when the killing took place. A juror from the original trial has said another member of the jury displayed racial hated during the first trial. The full range of information pointing to Jones’ innocence was the subject of an ABC-TV documentary that garnered worldwide viewership. In recent months, online “influencer” Kim Kardashian-West has triggered thousands of new letters seeking clemency for Jones.
Contrary to asserts of the current Oklahoma County District Attorney, DNA evidence on a red kerchief (long withheld from defense attorney and forensic scrutiny) is inconclusive. The local prosecutor promised, fall of 2018, to let the Jones defense team examine the county files from the case, which has material never studied by defense lawyers. The D.A. quickly reneged on that pledge.
Jones’ continue fighting to save his life, with an anticipated clemency/pardon process in 2020 their best prospect.
On a parallel track with the controversy over Oklahoma’s embattled death penalty process, significant criminal justice reforms were a highlight of the news in 2019.
Governor Kevin Stitt supported new criminal justice legislation, building on momentum from ballot propositions and incremental justice reforms enacted earlier this decade. As the measured toward enactment last spring, state Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, said in a statement, “The Legislature has made great strides in addressing Oklahoma’s high incarceration rates and skyrocketing prison costs. We have to keep the momentum moving forward to reform the system and these measures are a huge part of the overall reform effort that are moving us in the right direction.”
The most dramatic move, however (authorized in underlying legislation) came this fall. In what was described nationwide as the largest commutation of prisoners in U.S. history, 527 inmates incarcerated for a range of non-violent offenses left prison after Gov. Stitt approved the recommended commutation docket in early November.
Legislation allowing the historic step was crafted in the Legislature by House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, and Sen. Bice.
There is widespread agreement that further reforms are needed to prevent Oklahoma from returning to its status as the nation’s top incarcerator
Further, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over conditions on death row in Muskogee is under way. The Innocence Project, based at Oklahoma City University, has achieved historic exonerations and continues its work.
Government Revenues Tighten – Always an important story
Oklahoma state government revenues languished for years after the Great Recession and the oil semi-bust earlier this decade. Ultimately, the government’s income position improved in ways unprecedented in previous state history. However, critics of state spending and governance remained worried about the unfulfilled “right-sizing” promised (and never delivered during the gubernatorial term of Stitt’s predecessor).
Late in the year, Oklahoma Treasurer Randy McDaniel delivered bad news in two consecutive reports on the state’s gross receipts. In early December, examining the November data, McDaniel said, ““Lower energy prices are having a significant influence on gross production tax receipts. The recent large layoffs in the energy sector impact both families and the overall economy. My heart goes out to the families affected by the layoffs.”
The report on December receipts (expected within the first few days of the New Year) are expected to sustain the recent trend.
Tightening state government tax receipts is the third top story of 2019 in CapitolBeatOK’s annual listing.
Fourth: Senator Greg Treat leads reforms which could be transformative
Our fourth top story may seem uncharacteristically optimistic, and that is the performance of the state Senate under President Pro Temp Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican.
As a key aide to former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Muskogee, Treat was an architect of the historic transformation of state legislative politics that occurred as a result of the 2010 election.
His rise to Senate leadership has given hope that, working with an effective chief executive, significant reforms enacted through the Legislature could come to characterize conservative governance in Oklahoma, sending the failures of recent years into the bank of bad memories.
A year ago, The City Sentinel listed Sen. Treat’s proposal for a LOFT (Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency) as a top story, a development that could yield benefits for taxpayers and advocates of good government.
In the spring 2019 session, the LOFT idea was enacted with strong support from Gov. Kevin Stitt (elected in November 2018).
When he unveiled the LOFT concept, Treat said:
“Real numbers and objective data will help the Oklahoma Legislature make better informed decisions when writing the state budget, setting policy, and tracking whether programs are meeting or exceeding our expectations.
“The most important duty the Legislature has is to write the budget and provide oversight of agency spending and performance. In most cases, the Legislature depends on the agency itself or the executive branch to report data on spending and performance. Agencies present only the data they want us to see not necessarily what we need to see. Agencies tend to focus more on outputs and not outcomes. That’s not how we are going to turn Oklahoma around. The Legislature needs independent, objective data so that we can make better informed decisions.”
Treat was a steady supporter of several bipartisan criminal justice reforms, including those advanced by Sen. Bice, who is a member of his leadership team. He supports advancement of Association Health Plans (AHPs), a fiscally rational partial-alternative to burgeoning government spending on health care. By the end of 2019, Treat was working effectively with his colleague Kay Floyd of Oklahoma City (the Democratic leader in the upper chamber) to take positive steps to assure as-accurate-as-possible performance for the U.S. Census in Oklahoma.
In Oklahoma’s populist/progressive era constitution, legislative leaders enjoy greater appointment powers than in most states.
Treat has used this authority wisely, raising to important positions on boards and commissions a diverse range of qualified and distinguished people.
At the risk of overlooking the other fine choices Treat has made, some stand out in this analyst’s eyes: Sidney Ellington and Timothy Tardibono at the Office of Juvenile Affairs, Calvin Prince at the Corrections Board, and Nyla Ali Khan, the first South Asian Muslim (Kashmiri) woman named to the state Commission on the Status of Women.
Fifth: State and Local Journalism’s troubled journey
There is not much that is hopeful in the last year’s trends in national (and state) journalism.
While some news organizations made egregious errors of fact and emphasis, the slander of “fake news” was increasingly applied to any news story or post or headline a given reader found disagreeable. While his predecessor was no friend of openness and transparency in media relations, President Donald Trump’s use of twitter regularly assails any story he finds objectionable as “fake news” and tars an entire profession that includes many women and men of character and principle.
Here in Oklahoma, the state’s largest newspaper is now owned by Gannett Company, the “mothership” for USA Today. Prior ownership had slashed newsroom resources and scaled back delivery of the print product, making it less-than the statewide newspaper. The state’s second largest paper is owned by another out-of-state corporation, and still-another non-Oklahoma corporation owns many medium and small newspapers.
The State Capitol press corps includes only a few year-round working journalists. What were once called “cub reporters” fill many of the gaps in news coverage. Next door in Arkansas, the largest newspaper will, early in 2020, discontinue all but Sunday print editions. If the next step is taken, it will … no longer be a newspaper.
It is what it is, and the path forward is murky, at best.
First, the business model for community journalism has eroded every year for more than a decade. Advertisers believe they can be more effective with direct email and other forms of marketing, even as they continue to send harried print-product editors a tidal wave of daily press releases.
Community-minded persons of means and successful businesses have shifted resources to other platforms, even as they desire accurate and fearless reporting.
Hope springs eternal, and perhaps successful business models will find ways to advance the prospects to sustain quality news reporting.
Non-profit programs may be able to model sustained excellence for a troubled profession.
Oklahoma Watch, based in Tulsa, produces quality stories from a cadre of reporters, several of them veterans of newspaper reporting. At the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the Center for Independent Journalism reports critically on state government expenditures and other issues with print-experienced reporters.
The University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism is providing meaningful professional internships for its best students.
Oklahoma and every other state in the Union needs real journalism from real reporters.
Every news organization worth its salt is experimenting with more aggressively-than-ever seeking online advertising, in hopes to stop or reverse adverse trends.
Rather than pick and choose in a shrinking field, The City Sentinel wishes each and every one the best of success.
Other top news stories listed here, details forthcoming in subsequent analysis
Additional top Oklahoma news stories (the rest of our top ten for 2019, and other essentials) will be covered in a subsequent report.
These story lines include the University of Oklahoma’s place as a “dark hole” – for lack of responsiveness to open records requests, other legal controversies touching Indian Country, Sen. James Lankford’s emergence as a national leader, U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn’s vote for impeachment (and a field of nine Republicans hoping to unseat her), Governor Kevin Stitt’s impressive first year as chief executive, the Opioid Litigation, a Medicare expansion initiative, Democrats allowing registered Independents to vote in the March 3 presidential primary, troubled public and charter schools, and lingering David Boren controversies at OU.
NOTE: An award-winning reporter, Pat McGuigan is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. He is the founder of CapitolBeatOK and editor/publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper.