The Oklahoma State Questions, Explained
By: Alexa Williams
This year Oklahoma voters will decide on seven different State Questions on Election Day in November. If at one point you’ve found yourself confused about what each State Question entails, join the club! This post will take you through the basics of each question, explaining what each State Question proposes to do and the probable impact each will have. Let’s get started.
State Question 776 – The Death Penalty Question
The first State Question voters will decide on is SQ 776. This State Question has to do with the death penalty in Oklahoma. You can check out the official wording of the question here.
After the execution debacles of the past couple years, in which the Oklahoma authorities botched one execution and used the wrong execution for another, all executions are currently on hold in the state. This State Question, if passed, would give the Oklahoma legislature the power to designate any form of execution as valid, and it prohibits the death penalty from being determined to be “cruel and unusual punishment”.
There are numerous reasons passing this State Question would be a mistake. Even if you support the death penalty in theory, SQ 776 has the potential to be completely unconstitutional. By not allowing any form of execution to be ruled cruel or unusual, this State Question flies in the face of the Eight Amendment, which protects us from cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, giving the State Legislature the power to designate any form of execution as valid should be frightening.
State Question 777 – The So-Called “Right to Farm”
State Question 777 deals with farming and ranching regulations. Sounds boring, right? On the surface level this question may not seem very exciting, but it is actually incredibly important to understand. You can read the official wording here.
Called the “Right to Farm” by proponents, SQ 777 would amend Oklahoma’s constitution to prohibit any new regulations on agriculture unless the new regulation represented a “compelling state interest”, which is very difficult to demonstrate in the courts. This question is so important because, if passed, it would give large agricultural conglomerates nearly unrestricted power and agency to do virtually whatever they wanted. There is a very real concern that SQ 777 would make it extremely difficult to keep Oklahoma’s drinking water safe and clean, because it could easily be polluted by animal waste without proper disposal regulations.
Moreover, State Question 777 takes away the power of democracy, by not allowing Oklahoma’s public officials to create laws and regulations that protect Oklahomans from unsafe agricultural practices. Not only that, SQ 777 gives an unparalleled advantage to large agricultural companies, because small farms serve to benefit from the protections certain agricultural regulations provide.
Don’t be fooled by the wording. The “Right to Farm” is a clever campaign slogan, but it could easily be called the “Right to Harm.”
State Question 779 – The Education Question
State Question 779 relates to education funding. Oklahoma ranks abysmally when it comes to how much money we put into public education. SQ 779 would create a constitutional amendment that would raise the state sales tax by one percentage point. The revenue raised would be put into education. You can check out the official wording here.
Sixty percent of the money raised would be spent on providing at least a $5,000 raise for every public school teacher. The rest of the money would be split between public schools, higher education, career and technology education, and early childhood education. As a whole, Oklahoma absolutely needs to direct more funds to education, from the youngest student to the oldest. However, there are complexities that make SQ 779 difficult to swallow.
The funding for this State Question comes from a one percent increase in the state sales tax. At first that doesn’t sound like a lot, but that money can add up quickly. Moreover, sales tax increases disproportionately hurt the poorest among us, who spend the largest percentage of their income on goods subject to the sales tax. What’s more, Oklahoma already has one of the highest state sales taxes in the nation. Another complication is that there isn’t any safeguard in the wording that would prevent the State Legislature from enacting more education cuts, which we all know they are prone to do.
State Question 779 represents the complexity inherent in any effort to fund important programs. We all want to see education funded more, but the proposed means of doing so in SQ 779 are perhaps not the best methods available.
State Questions 780 and 781 –The Criminal Justice Reform Questions
I’m going to tackle State Questions 780 and 781 together because they go hand in hand. These two State Questions represent efforts to enact meaningful criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. You can read the wording of the two questions here, and here.
State Question 780 aims to reclassify certain low level offenses, such as simple drug possession, from being a felony to being a misdemeanor. The goal of this reclassification is to save money by reducing the number of people we have behind bars. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and we have the highest female incarceration rate. There are multiple benefits of reducing our prison population and the number of felons beyond simply saving money at the surface level, though.
The reclassification of low level offense to misdemeanor would enable people to better reintegrate into society. It is incredibly difficult to get a job or attain housing for felons. Having that “f” by your name is a permanent mark of being a second class citizen. In most states, felons can’t even vote. Their inability to attain housing and employment create cycles of recidivism, people turning back to crime and finding themselves in prison all over again. What’s more, there are unseen costs of incarcerating so many people, such as foster care for the children whose parents are in prison. SQ 780 would help combat all these trends.
SQ 781 would take the money saved from the reduced prison population and put it into community rehabilitation programs. These programs could include job training, education, and mental health care. Such programs would help keep people from turning back to crime after theu come out of prison, and overall would lower crime rates.
State Questions 780 and 781 represent efforts to give people second chances. We should be committed to upholding the dignity of all persons.
State Question 790 – The Religious Funding Question
State Question 790 is perhaps the most peculiar of all the seven questions that are on the ballot. SQ 790 would amend the Oklahoma constitution to repeal the section of the constitution that prohibits state money from going to religious organizations or being spent for religious purposes. You can read the official wording here.
This State Question originated from the controversy surrounding the removal of a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. In Prescott v. OklahomaCapitol Preservation Commission, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the monument was a violation of Article 2 Section 5 of the Oklahoma constitution, the clause that prohibits state money from being spent on religious purposes. Seeing this as an affront on the Christian faith, lawmakers voted in favor of putting State Question 790 on the ballot.
If passed, SQ 790 would allow the Ten Commandments to return to the State Capitol. Certainly proponents would see this as a victory, but it is possible that the monument would quickly be ruled unconstitutional by the nation Supreme Court, and the monument would be removed again. SCOTUS has ruled both in favor and against monuments of the Ten Commandments being on State Capitol grounds.
Ultimately, this State Question is concerning because it has the possibility of blurring the line that separates church and state in Oklahoma. Allowing public money to be spent on religious purposes would create divisions between Oklahomans and could open the doors to unconstitutional activity.
State Question 792 – The Alcohol Question
The last of the State Questions appearing on the ballot is SQ 792. This question, if passed, would amend the Oklahoma constitution to allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell high point beer and wine, and it would allow liquor stores to sell refrigerated beer, as well as mixers and corkscrews.You can read the official wording here.
If you’re like me, you’ve often found yourself frustrated with Oklahoma’s archaic alcohol laws.SQ 792 is an attempt at modernizing those laws. There are things that are concerning, no doubt. Some opponents of SQ 792 say that it would drive liquor stores out of business, because grocery stores and convenience stores would be able to sell that same type of beer and wine that only liquor stores can currently sell. While there is something to be said for this assertion, SQ 792 wouldn’t allow grocery stores to sell liquor, still giving liquor stores a unique product. Moreover, virtually the rest of the country has laws like SQ 792 on the books, with even more lax alcohol laws in some places, and liquor stores are still open.
SQ 792 would ultimately help businesses, including liquor stores, by allowing them to carry more products. Currently liquor stores can sell refrigerated beer, which actually puts constraints on the types of beer that can be sold because some variants of craft beer have to be kept cold. This State Question isn’t perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.
Hopefully this served as a primer for you on the seven State Questions Oklahomans will vote on in November. It is imperative that we know what these questions entail because many of them actually amend the Oklahoma constitution. Whether you agree with me or not, simply knowing what each question proposes to do is vital, and it’s even more vital that we all vote on November 8th.