Some Oklahoma City legislators agreed with Governor Mary Fallin’s push for criminal justice reform in her last State of the State address Monday.
But, by far that was the strongest agreement.
Fallin reaches her term limit of two four-year terms this year with several waiting in the wings for November when voters will choose the next governor.
Criminal justice reform
It was her criminal justice reform remarks that seemed to gain the highest marks from city legislators, many of who are Democrats.
Budget cuts have had profound effects on Oklahoma City schools, but criminal justice reform is foremost on the minds of urban legislators as they push for a new way forward with both big issues facing the legislature this session.
Fallin was blunt about criminal justice reform and received the only standing ovation of her address.
“Too few Oklahomans are getting the treatment they need for substance abuse and mental health issues, and are instead winding up in our criminal justice system,” said Fallin.
She called for the state to “stop warehousing moms and dads, sons and daughters in prison when many just need substance abuse treatment.”
Legislators responded to that statement by giving her a standing ovation.
“We need to continue our focus, and can do so without jeopardizing public safety. There are bills proposed by the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force that are smart, data-driven solutions to safely and prudently fix our criminal justice system. Send them to me to sign.”
Representative Jason Lowe, HD 97 on the east side of Oklahoma City, is a criminal defense attorney who sees the direct effects of legislation over the last 20 years that has handed out more and more mandatory sentences and increasingly high fines.
“The governor seems to be on board for reform,” Lowe told Free Press before Fallin’s speech.
“Now that we have a new chair of the Judiciary Committee, maybe we can get reform legislation through.”
Representative Scott Biggs, a former prosecutor, used his power of deciding which bills would move out of the Judiciary Committee to kill five of eight criminal justice reform bills last regular session.
The bills had Governor Fallin’s blessing and broad bipartisan support, but Biggs would not allow a vote on the floor and House Speaker Charles McCall did not force them out of committee.
Biggs has since taken an appointment by the Trump administration and has resigned his seat in the Legislature.
Legislators are hopeful the new chair will make a difference by allowing a vote on legislation already agreed upon by Republicans and Democrats.
Northside Representative Cyndi Munson, HD 85, also identified Fallin’s criminal justice reform remarks as the part of the speech she could agree with the most.
“We managed to reach some bipartisan reforms in the last session, but one person held it up from going to the Governor to sign,” said Munson.
“That’s an example of how sometimes just one person can stop reforms of any sort from happening, but there were others who didn’t agree with the reforms.”
Southside HD 92 Representative Forrest Bennett identified Fallin’s remarks on criminal justice reform as the part of her speech he could agree with the most.
“She said exactly what needed to be said. It’s not just a smart fiscal move, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Bennett.
As has been widely reported, the Legislature has not been able to reach an agreement on a solution to Oklahoma’s budget problems even though Republicans had super majorities in both houses and a Republican governor.
Fallin fell in line with some of Oklahoma’s wealthiest leaders supporting the “Step Up” plan that has been proposed for instituting some raise in gross production taxes and attacking what the group believes to be inefficiencies in government.
But, southside HD 93 Representative Mickey Dollens said Democrats have been asked to sign off on the plan without seeing any language for legislation that would institute the plan.
Dollens said that he is still pushing for “full funding of education, which means more than just teacher salary raises.”
“Full funding means that teachers have supplies, class sizes are smaller and schools have enough money to carry out educational activities for a full week.”
The new minority leader, Representative Steve Kouplen, HD 24 – Beggs, said in a news conference after Fallin’s address that Democrats have been and will be willing to compromise as long as there is equity in the plan.
Especially when it comes to education, he said that they want to see more than just teacher pay raises because there is more that needs repairing besides just teacher pay.
“Giving teachers a pay raise is a good first step, but we need to put more money into education,” Kouplen said.
Two different and apparently uncoordinated protests were staged from the gallery at the end of Fallin’s address.
Sydne Gray and Ashley McCray unfurled a large banner over the gallery railing that read “Oklahoma, state of despair!”
At almost the same time, but across the chamber in the gallery, Brittany Warrior who was holding her daughter began to shout.
“What about the sick people!”
“You are a liar!”
Lt. Governor Todd Lamb began to call for the Sergeant at Arms staff to remove the protesters as some legislators began to boo. One voice from the House floor shouted: “Take her out!”
Once Warrior was out in the hallway, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Andie Hamilton and a female state trooper started talking to her.
“I don’t mean any harm,” said Warrior. “I’m just upset with the governor.”
Warrior said that her daughter has “severe intractable epilepsy” and needed cannabis-based drugs that are available in Colorado, but are still illegal in Oklahoma.
“I can’t afford to go to Colorado anymore and the governor just doesn’t care about my daughter. She won’t talk to me.”
After Capitol patrol commanders talked with Warrior, they decided not to hold her or press charges.
Special Agent Hamilton told Free Press that her job is to “investigate threats against public officials.”
But Warrior was not going to be charged.
“She [Warrior] has not made a threat against a public official,” said Hamilton. “She was just expressing an opinion.”