Monday, October 19, 2020

Who was responsible for holding Epic accountable?

 Weekly Opinion Editorial


EPIC IS AN EPIC FAILURE!

by Steve Fair

     The largest public-school system in Oklahoma is an on-line virtual school model.  Epic Charter Schools is fully accredited by the state of Oklahoma.  According to their website: Epic Charter Schools combines the convenience of online learning with the support of one-on-one instruction from an Oklahoma certified teacher. This blended learning model allows students and families to set their own pace with the guidance and instruction from an Epic Charter Schools teacher who meets with them face-to-face as needed.”  Epic reportedly has over 40,00 students across Oklahoma and a staff of over 2,000.  Epic is a for profit school management company that does business across the nation running charter schools.  Epic receives about $90 million annually from Oklahoma taxpayers to provide education for the students enrolled in the charter school.  It is governed by a five(5) member board of education that conduct monthly meetings. 

     The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation(OSBI) began an investigation after it was reported Epic was using taxpayer’s dollars to pay for students’ extracurricular expenses and reporting them to the state as ‘instructional.’  In July, Governor Kevin Stitt ordered Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd to conduct a forensic audit of Epic.  Byrd found that about 1 in 4 taxpayer dollars Epic received as a public school went to the co-founder’s for-profit company.  She also found Epic exceeded the 5% maximum for administrative fees for school districts and used some Oklahoma taxpayer monies for a school in California.  Byrd estimated Epic owes the state $11 million dollars. 

     Epic Charter Schools Superintendent Bart Banfield said, "It's no secret we dispute some of the findings and have requested through an open records request the Auditor’s work papers to review their calculations so we can go beyond our initial audit response to exercise our due process and debunk these calculations.”  Last Monday, the state board of Education met to discuss the audit and voted unanimously to demand Epic repay $11 million within 60 days. 

 

    The OSBI affidavit alleges Epic’s co-founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney, illegally pocketed $10 million over five years by enrolling so-called “ghost students.” They alleged recruited private school and home school students so Epic could receive the per-pupil funding each public school receives. Rather than participating in Epic classes, the “ghost students” continued with traditional homeschooling and private education and received little to no instruction from Epic. OSBI also claims teachers allegedly received bonuses for keeping “ghost students” enrolled. The warrant also says parents were incentivized by Epic’s Learning Fund, from which parents would receive between $800 and $1,000 per child to be used for extracurricular activities of their choice.

 

      Clearly, there should have been more accountability and oversight of Epic?  Board members at Epic- Oklahoma, Oklahoma state education board members, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction must all shoulder some of the responsibility for Epic’s misconduct.  The largest school district in the state should not be able to misuse 25% of the tax money they receive and it not be detected.  Perhaps the lack of oversight is because the Epic co-owners are politically connected?  In the last eight years, Chaney and Harris have contributed over $250,000 to candidates in Oklahoma, most of them Republican.  Offering parents and students school choice other than their local public school is a good thing, but Epic has been an epic failure.     

 

Friday, October 9, 2020

IT AIN'T PERFECT, BUT IT PROVIDES A WAY TO FUND MEDICAID EXPANSION- VOTE YES ON SQ#814!

 Weekly Opinion Editorial


VOTE YES ON SQ #814

by Steve Fair

     On November 3rd, state question # 814 is on the ballot.   It was placed there by a Joint Resolution passed by the legislature.  It involves the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET).   In 1996, Oklahoma and 45 other states across the country sued tobacco companies for targeting youth. They ultimately settled with big tobacco for a combined $200 billion over 25 years.      

     In 2000, Oklahoma voters amended the state constitution and created TSET- the first state to protect their tobacco settlement money in a constitutional trust.  The trust is governed by a seven member board, each appointed by an elected official.  Currently 75% of the annual payment from the tobacco companies is deposited into the trust, the legislature gets 18.75% and the AG’s office gets 6.25% to handle enforcement of the agreement.  TSET only spends the annual ‘earnings’ from the trust each year.  In 2019, TSET earned $ $69,766,822, which was distributed as described above.  The trust balance as of June 2019 was $1.3 billion.  SQ#814 would change the percentages of distribution.  If approved, the legislature would receive 75% of the earnings from TSET, the trust 18.75% and the AG’s office’s share wouldn’t change. The legislature wouldn’t have free reign to use the monies, but it would be earmarked for Medicaid expansion.  Three observations:

     First, Oklahoma’s Medicaid expansion will place a heavy budget on the state budget.  After its passage June 30th, SQ 802 expanded Medicaid in the state to cover eligible working age adults who live in poverty.  It mandated the coverage be done by next July.  The only problem is it didn’t provide a funding mechanism.  If SQ#814 passes, it will generate an estimated $60-70 million annually to help cover the costs of Medicaid expansion.  Estimates on how much the expansion will cost the state are estimated at $164 million annually.  Governor Kevin Stitt said, “ In my opinion, (SQ814) needs to pass.  We need to redirect some of those funds to the legislature so we can actually pay for Medicaid expansion.” 

     Second, there is not universal support for SQ#814.  While TSET(a state agency) doesn’t take an official position on the SQ, they released a statement warning that smaller payments into the trust will hurt future efforts to fund their primary mission to curb tobacco use among youth.  Thomas Larson, spokesman for TSET said, “With less money going into the endowment, the endowment is not going to grow as quickly, especially when we have a downturn in the economy. Not only would that affect our ability to stand up new programs or expand existing programs, a sharp economic downturn that lasts for a while could impact current programs."  TSET spends about 1/3 of their share of the earnings each year on advertising to reduce smoking in Oklahoma.  In a 2016 survey commissioned by TSET of six states, results showed substantial reduction of smokers and Oklahoma doing better than the other five.  There are those who fear future legislatures will attempt to circumvent the restrictions and use the money for something other than Medicaid. That would never happen in Oklahoma, right?

     Third, Oklahoma’s health ranking is low.  The United Health Foundation (UHF) rankings are often cited.  They claim the Sooner state dropped from #43 to #47 in 2019 in overall health due to the high number of uninsured citizens.  UHF is a foundation funded by UnitedHealth Group, a health insurance carrier, so take their rankings with a grain of salt.  Determining the overall health of a state is difficult, but TSET’s own internal data shows our state to have high rates of cancer, heart disease and strokes compared to other states.    

     When voters approved SQ#802 expanding Medicaid and put it in the state constitution, the legislature is required to fund that expansion.  While not a perfect solution, SQ#814 does provide that funding mechanism.  Let’s hope future legislatures will also use it as directed.  Vote Yes on SQ #814.


Sunday, October 4, 2020

A criminals past SHOULD be considered in sentencing! What a person has done is an indictation of what they will do!

 Weekly Opinion Editorial


 
VOTE NO SQ#805

by Steve Fair

      On November 3rd, Oklahomans will go to the polls and vote on two State Questions.  SQ# 805 is on the ballot due to the efforts of Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform.(OSR).  If SQ# 805 is passed, it would amend the state constitution to prohibit the use of a person’s past non-violent felonies to be used to impose a greater sentence when convicted of a non-violent crime. 

     OSR claims Oklahoma is handing down cruel and unfair sentences for minor crimes and that has resulted in overcrowded prisons.  They cite statistics that claim Oklahomans serve 20% longer sentences for violent crime and 79% longer for drug related crimes.  There is no good reason for Oklahoma lawmakers and prosecutors to treat Oklahoma citizens that much more harshly than other states, especially when research shows it does nothing to lower crime rates,” wrote Ryan Haynie from Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs(OCPA). 

     OCPA’s position on this issue resulted in former Governor Frank Keating’s resigning from the conservative think tank board.  “SQ#805 is the ultimate gift to a career criminal.  SQ #805 is a ‘stay out of jail’ card. It will result in more criminal activity and more victims. We must not add to the girth of our Constitution with this one-size-fits-all experiment. If 805 passes, it cannot be amended by any Legislature at anytime. It is terrible public policy,” Keating said in an editorial urging a ‘No’ vote on 805.   Three observations on State Question #805:

     First, Oklahoma does need sentence reform, but it should be done by the state legislature, not by amending the state constitution.  Amending the founding document to hamstring law enforcement doesn’t keep Oklahomans safe.  It is reckless and careless.  If OSR cares about Oklahoma citizens, they shouldn’t be protecting the criminals, but lobbying the legislature to reform sentencing guidelines.

     Second, decriminalizing or reclassifying crime doesn’t eliminate it or reduce it.   In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved SQ# 780.  Pushed by OSR, it reclassified drug possession, property crimes, and domestic abuse (that’s right- domestic abuse) from felonies to misdemeanors.  Two years after SQ 780, it had accomplished its goal.  Felony charges dropped in the state by -28.4%.  There was no indication those former felony crimes were not being committed- they were just not felonies anymore and didn’t result in jail time.  An estimated 1,500 criminals didn’t have to do the time, even though they did the crime. 

     Third, SQ #805 simply goes too far.  Even if you believe a criminals past behavior or offences shouldn’t be used against them in sentencing, SQ 805 is not the way to do it.  By amending the state constitution, it would take the legislature out of the picture.  The legislature is a representative body whose job it is to handle those issues.

     District Attorney Jason Hicks, (R-Duncan) is President of the Oklahoma DA’s Association.  He and the association oppose 805.  Hicks says, “SQ 805 would take away the ability to enhance sentences for repeat felons on a wide variety of crimes, many of which average Oklahomans would consider violent. SQ 805 would have a significant impact on public safety in Oklahoma as it would take away one of the most important tools law enforcement has to keep someone from escalating their behavior.”

     Vote no on State Question #805 for the following reasons: (1) Emptying Oklahoma jails will not make us safer.  (2) Decriminalizing and reclassifying crimes will not make them go away. (3) A criminals past should/must be considered in sentencing. (4) Amending the state constitution removes the legislature from the process.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Georgia & Steve's Take on the SQs & Judges- 2020 Edition!

 JUDGES,JUSTICES, & STATE QUESTIONS 2020

by Georgia Williams & Steve Fair





 

Since 1994, Georgia Williams of Lawton and Steve Fair of Duncan have provided voters with their views on the State Questions that appear on the ballot.  They are former hosts of The Grapevine, a popular weekly political talk show heard from 2005-2010 throughout SW Oklahoma. Williams and Fairs’ views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Republican Party.  They can be reached by email at okgop@aol.com.

STATE QUESTION NO. 805, Initiative Petition # 421

This measure seeks to add a new Article II-A to the Oklahoma Constitution. This new Article excepts and does not apply to persons who have ever been convicted of a violent felony. It would prohibit the use of a former felony conviction to increase the statutorily allowable base range of punishment for a person subsequently convicted of a felony. Individuals who are currently incarcerated for felony sentences that were enhanced based on one or more former felony convictions, and whose sentences are greater than the maximum sentence that may currently be imposed for such felonies, may seek sentence modification in court. The new Article sets forth a detailed process for such sentence modification, including but not limited to requirements for a hearing, appointment of counsel for indigent petitioners, and notification of victims, and requires that the court impose a modified sentence no greater than the current maximum sentence which may be imposed on a person convicted of the same felony with no former felony convictions, and which results in no greater time served in prison than under the original sentence. It establishes an appeal procedure, provides an effective date, and contains a severability clause.


SHALL THE PROPOSAL BE APPROVED?

 

GEORGIA’S VIEW: NO- My concern about SQ 805 is that it is a Constitutional Amendment.  Reforms passed by voters in 2016 were changes to statutes and can be revised by the Legislature.  Amendments can only be changed by a vote of the people.  That is done either by Legislature putting a question  on  ballot  - rarely - or the initiative petition process – timely and expensive.  This question focuses on non-violent crimes and sentencing for such crimes. If passed, this would prohibit the use of prior felony convictions in non-violent cases and let those currently serving time for non-violent crimes who were sentenced with enhancement (looking at priors) to be able to petition the court to have their sentence reduced.  Looks like a home-run for the repeat non-violent criminal. This is being proposed as a way to reduce prison population and save money.  At what cost to public safety? DA’s and Judges currently have a lot of lee-way in sentencing.  It’s been stated that a better solution would be ‘a thoughtful and well-researched sentencing code’ from our Legislature. But, lawmakers have not shown much willingness to take on such reforms. This state question in the form of an amendment needs to go back to the drawing board and our Legislature needs to do their job! Meanwhile, there’s an old saying….if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

STEVE’S VIEW: NO- Oklahoma’s crime rate has increased since voters approved two state questions in 2018 that reduced drug possession and some former property crimes to misdemeanors.  Much of the this so-called criminal justice reform is being driven by the desire to reduce the number of people in jail in the state.  Removing the ability of a prosecutor from using a criminal’s past felonies against them will put more criminals back on the street.     

 

STATE QUESTION NO. 814, Legislative Referendum # 375

This measure seeks to amend Article 10, Section 40 of the Oklahoma Constitution (Section 40), which directs proceeds from the State's settlements with or judgments against tobacco companies. Currently, Section 40 directs 75% of proceeds to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Fund (TSET Fund), where earnings may only be used for tobacco prevention programs, cancer research, and other such programs to maintain or improve the health of Oklahomans. Meanwhile, the remaining 25% of proceeds are directed to a separate fund for the Legislature (Legislative Fund). The Legislature can also direct some of that 25% to the Attorney General.

This measure amends Section 40 to reduce the percentage of proceeds that go into the TSET Fund from 75% to 25%. As a result, the remaining 75% will go to the Legislative Fund and the Legislature may continue to direct a portion to the Attorney General. The measure would also restrict the use of the Legislative Fund. Section 40 currently states only that the Legislative Fund is subject to legislative appropriation. If this measure passes, money from the Legislative Fund must be used to get federal matching funds for Oklahoma's Medicaid Program.


SHALL THE PROPOSAL BE APPROVED?

 GEORGIA’S VIEW: YES- Oklahoma receives large amounts of money each year from a lawsuit against the tobacco companies.  Called the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Fund (TSET Fund). 75% may only be used for tobacco illness, cancer research, other programs to improve the health of Oklahomans. Another 25% goes to the Legislative Fund. If this question is passed, the percentage that goes to the Legislative Fund will increase and must be used to get federal matching funds for Oklahoma’s Medicaid Program. Most states who have approved expansion of Medicaid as Oklahoma has done, have run into money problems. It seems the use of these                  funds is still helping Oklahomans with their health issues and is a good way to possibly prevent cuts in                  programs or a tax increase to pay the cost of Medicaid Expansion.  I will vote YES.

                 STEVE’S VIEW: YES- In 1998, Oklahomans approved a SQ that directed that 75% of the money tobacco                             companies pay the state under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) go toward stopping smoking and                     25% of the money go into a fund the legislature could appropriate.  If approved, this would be switched and the                     legislature would get the 75% and TSET 25%.  I have mixed feelings about this.  Giving the legislature more                         money to spend never seems like a good idea, but I am tired of seeing TSET run non-stop commercials that have                 more to do with general overall health and not about stopping tobacco usage . The legislature would have to use                     the money to pay for Medicaid, which is health related.  I will vote YES on SQ #814.

OKLAHOMA’S BROKEN JUDICIAL SYSTEM

Judges and Justices in Oklahoma are appointed by the Governor and then confirmed by the State Senate.  The Governor is given three possible nominees by the Judicial Nominating Commission, a group of fifteen (15).  Six are appointed by the Governor and six by the Oklahoma Bar Association.  The other three members are chosen At Large by the Commission itself.  Each Justice periodically appears on the ballot to be RETAINED or REMOVED.  Since Oklahoma went to a RETENTION ballot for the judiciary, NO JUDGE HAS BEEN REMOVED!   There are eight judges/justices on the November ballot.  It is difficult to find information on them, but we have done our best to find what we could.  We have based our recommendations on two primary considerations; (1) Who appointed them.  If they were appointed by a liberal, then it very likely they are liberal and (2) Their length of service.  There are two on the 2020 ballot who have served more than 30 years on the court.  It is past time for Oklahoma to have judicial reform.  There should be term limits for all the judges/justices on the three courts of last resort.  We encourage you to contact your legislators and ask them to initiate judicial reform in Oklahoma which includes not only term limits, but the dismantling of a self-serving appointee system that is controlled by the Bar Association. Steve Fair & Georgia Williams

SUPREME COURT JUSTICES

Justice M. John Kane IV- YES

Date appointed to Court: January 2019

Appointed by: Governor Kevin Stitt

Age: 58

Third generation lawyer from Pawhuska

Served as District Judge for 14 years

Justice Tom Colbert- NO

Date appointed to Court:  2004

Appointed by: Governor Brad Henry

Age: 71

Former public school teacher in Chicago

First African-American to serve on Supreme Court

Has served on Courts of Criminal Appeals & Civil Appeals

Justice Richard Darby- YES

District: 9th (SW Oklahoma)

Date appointed to Court:  2018

Appointed by: Governor Mary Fallin

Age: 62

District Judge for 24 years in Altus

Wife is Superintendent of Christian School

 COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS

 Justice Rob Hudson- YES

Date appointed to Court:  2015

Appointed by: Governor Mary Fallin

Age: 62

Former DA in Payne County

Former Special District Judge

Established Oklahoma’s 1st drug court

Baptist Deacon

Justice Gary Lumpkin- NO

Date appointed to Court:  1989

Appointed by: Governor Henry Bellmon

Age: 74

Former District Judge

Presiding Judge for CCA( 4th time)

Been on CCA for 31 years

From Madill, OK

Former Marine Reserves

 

COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS

Judge Jane Wiseman- NO

Date appointed to Court:  2005

Appointed by: Governor Brad Henry

Age: 74

Former District Judge

Was nearly removed in 2014

Officiated at first same sex marriage in Oklahoma

Judge Deborah Barnes- NO

Date appointed to Court:  2008

Appointed by: Governor Brad Henry

Age: 62

Breast cancer survivor

Has been retained twice

Graduated 1st in her law school class

Judge Keith Rapp- NO

Date appointed to Court:  1984

Appointed by: Governor George Nigh

Age: 86

Navy veteran

Former District Judge

Former NASA Engineer