BY DAVID PERRYMAN
Nearing the end of the 19th Century, millions of Americans suffered from economic and social disenfranchisement. The era known as the Gilded Age had produced an industrialized United States in which a few had accumulated massive amounts of wealth. However, income inequality had relegated most to subsistence wages working for someone else in the factory or on the farm. Wealth influenced and co-opted the government at all levels through a variety of machinations, not least of which was unregulated campaign contributions.
Out of these dire circumstances and suppressed agricultural prices arose Grange organizations and then, as the plight of urban workers worsened, farmers were joined by laborers and a myriad other Americans who were experiencing first-hand the havoc wreaked upon them by bankers and corporate monopolies and trusts, including railroads and other industrialists.
As a result, in the 1880s and 1890s, the People’s Party, commonly referred to as the Populist Party, symbolized hope for an alternative America in which economic opportunity was more broadly available to common people.
It was in this setting, in 1907, that Oklahomans were preparing for statehood and the 46th state’s constitution was carefully crafted to preserve and protect the rights of Oklahomans against infringement by those whose wealth and influence could undermine our fierce individualism. The motto chosen by Oklahoma’s founding fathers, Labor Omnia Vincen, or Labor Conquers All Things, communicated their mindset.
A basic and primary right reserved to the people by the framers of Oklahoma’s Constitution was the right of Initiative and Referendum. In plain and simple terms, the framers, wary of the likelihood that wealthy campaign contributors and corporate interests would corrupt legislators, reserved unto the people of our state the right to “Initiate” legislation and constitutional amendments and the right to “Refer” legislation to a vote of the people when bad legislation had been enacted by overly influenced legislators.
Both processes involve the right of petition followed by a vote of the people. These fundamental rights have remained virtually unchanged since the Oklahoma Constitution was approved by the voters on Sept. 17, 1907.
This year, however, an Enid legislator filed HB 1603 proposing two major changes to the Initiative and Referendum process, both of which would drastically impede the ability of citizens to file a valid petition.
First, HB 1603 would require that the signatures on a petition be obtained in equal percentages in each of the 77 counties across Oklahoma. Consequently, the failure to obtain a sufficient number of signatures in a single county would invalidate the petition and prevent the people of Oklahoma from voting on the issue.
Second, HB 1603 would eliminate the requirement that the required signature count be based on a percentage of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. With that language removed, the percentage of signatures required would be based upon the total number of registered voters in Oklahoma. Consequently, HB 1603 would increase the number of required signatures on a petition by 244%.
It is difficult to understand why the author of HB 1603 and the six legislators who on Feb. 20, 2018, voted to advance the measure from the Rules Committee to the House floor and why they would want to infringe upon this fundamental right of the people.
Perhaps they were focused on how utterly unreasonable and dangerous the citizens of Oklahoma can be. After all, the people of the state had gone crazy in 1914 when they made habitual drunkenness of legislators an impeachable offense and again in 1935 when they had successfully used an initiative petition at the height of the depression to appropriate $2.5 million to the State Board of Public Welfare.
Perhaps the most egregious usurping of legislative authority occurred in 1942, when the people of the state of Oklahoma, through initiative petition, established the Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System!
It could be that acting at the direction of their campaign contributors, their urgency was to change the rule as soon as possible to thwart any attempt by Oklahomans to petition to return the Gross Production Tax on oil and gas to 7% or restore the top Oklahoma income tax rate on high earners to the rate that it was before those irresponsible cuts took $1.5 billion per year out of the state budget or any number of citizen initiatives designed to solve this state’s budget crisis in the absence of the legislature and the governor to do so.
Otherwise, what were they thinking?
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House