BY DAVID PERRYMAN
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the country was suffering the consequences of government controlled by the special interests of oil and railroad magnates, industrial empires, monopolies and trusts. The wealth accumulated by the few enabled them to manipulate state legislatures as well as many members of Congress. As a result, wages stagnated. Income inequality and poverty resulted in low standards of living from coast to coast.
Those who had capital held the power to dictate the terms and conditions of labor. Men and women who brought an ethic of hard work and honesty to the table found it impossible to provide for themselves or their families. Government mistrust grew to an all-time high and gave birth to the desire for a peoples’ “direct democracy.”
Such was the backdrop as men driven by populist principles framed Oklahoma’s Constitution. It is no surprise that Oklahoma’s Constitution was the first original constitution of any state to retain the power of Initiative and Referendum.
“Initiative and Referendum” as reserved to the people by Oklahoma’s fathers during the Progressive Era is simple and straightforward. It allows citizens to bypass the Legislature and “Initiate” legislation and to overrule bad legislation by challenging it through a “Referral” to the will of the people.
During years that elected officials place special interests over the interests of people, these constitutional rights are every bit as valuable as the freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. That is why it is disturbing that Oklahomans have allowed these rights to be hijacked by legislation that hinders the ability of Oklahoma citizens to control if and when measures may be placed on the ballot for a vote of the people.
One of the most egregious infringements is the statute that allows an Attorney General of either party to manipulate if or when an Initiative Petition proposal may be voted on. The most recent incident relates to the Medical Marijuana Petition, but this is nothing new. Over the past five or six years, the practice of “re-writing” the ballot title has become a means by which our Attorney General asserts control over the direct democracy rights of Oklahomans.
In response to this overreach, I introduced HB 2587 during the 2016 session to “de-politicize” the Initiative and Referendum Process, but it was never allowed to be heard in committee. No matter whether we agree or disagree with an issue, this means of politicization was never contemplated by the framers of our Constitution and they did not give the Attorney General the authority to engage in such dilatory tactics.
Any Attorney General of either party who inserts themselves into the Initiative Petition process is sticking a finger in the eye of citizens and is anti-egalitarian. That attitude is reminiscent of the lyrics from Annie Get Your Gun, “Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you.”
Well, he can’t, and the constitutional rights of Oklahomans to bring an Initiative Petition to a vote of the people should not be abridged.
In fact, Article 5, Section 8 of the Oklahoma Constitution states that Laws, “shall be provided to prevent corruption in making, procuring and submitting initiative and referendum petitions,” not enabling them to be politicized.
In 1907, Progressives saw direct democracy as the means by which to recover the rights of the people from the stranglehold of special interest–group control of government. History does repeat itself. Hopefully Oklahomans will realize that only they can provide the solution. Study the issues. Engage in the Discussion. Participate in the Process. Register and Vote.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House