Legislative exits lead to record nine special elections this year, costing Oklahoma more than $200,000

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The eventual special election to replace Rep. Scott Biggs, who abruptly announced his resignation on Thursday, will be the ninth special election for a state seat since this spring.

That total is a state record for special elections in one election cycle, according to Oklahoma Election Board officials.

It’s also expensive. Election Board spokesman Bryan Dean said the cost of the special elections to fill the nine vacated seats will likely total between $214,000-$274,000, depending on if pending special elections need both a primary and general election.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin announced on Friday that the special primary election for Biggs’ seat in House District 51 would be Jan. 9. A general election, if necessary, would be held March 6.

Biggs, R-Chickasha, said in a letter Thursday afternoon to House Speaker Charles McCall that he had accepted a “federal appointment” he would be starting immediately.

Biggs, a graduate from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, was first elected in 2012 to the state House of Representatives. His current term was set to end Nov. 2018.

In August, while accepting an award from the Association of Oklahoma Narcotics Enforcers, Biggs was called “the best friend law enforcement has in the Legislature” by Grady County Sheriff Jim Weir.

“We appreciate everything he has done in the fight for criminal justice reform,” Weir said in a media release. “Rep. Biggs cares deeply for the victims, citizens and law enforcement.”

That “fight” has gained Biggs notoriety statewide as perhaps the main voice fighting criminal justice reform, but it has also brought him sharp criticism.

Fallin has criticized Biggs, who chairs the House Conference Committee on the Judiciary, earlier this year after the state rep allowed some criminal justice reform measures to die without a vote.

Biggs could have allowed the bills to be reassigned to another committee, but instead effectively blocked them from being voted on.

The bills — Senate Bills 649, 650, 689, and 786 — can still be taken up next year, a possibility that may be more likely now that Biggs’ has left the Capitol.

Those four bills sought to limit time that could be added to a non-violent offender’s sentence for prior nonviolent crimes; to make Oklahoma’s complicated expungement process more streamlined; to increase diversion and supervision programs; and to reduce prison sentences for some property crimes.

One bill — Senate Bill 603 — which created an assessment system for DOC to develop individual case plans to reduce recidivism among convicts, did pass through the House. But Biggs even argued against that bill, calling it an “unfunded mandate” on DOC.

The ill will between Fallin and Biggs runs so deep that in September Fallin issued a press release calling some of Biggs’ statements “devoid of any basis in fact.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, right, talks with Allison Stewart, an editor at The Atlantic, during the Defining Justice event Sept. 20, 2017, in Oklahoma City. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Fallin was critical of Biggs’ efforts to stymie the bills, saying that Oklahoma prisons — which already boast the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation — are overburdened. Joe Allbaugh, DOC director, announced in September that a record 63,000 people were either in an Oklahoma prison, a halfway house, or in some kind of supervised release. That number has steadily risen — in December Allbaugh had mournfully noted a then-record of more than 61,000 people in DOC custody.

Those figures mean Oklahoma will need “two or three” more prisons in the next 10 years, Fallin said earlier this year, construction of which she said will cost Oklahoma taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

That is, unless, meaningful criminal justice reforms take place which stem the tide of rising incarceration figures. Allbaugh announced in September that DOC was in the beginning stages of a “supervised release” program in which some inmates out a pool of about 1,400 would be placed under supervision rather than being in prison or a halfway house.

The inmates eligible for the program are all considered to be nonviolent offenders, Allbaugh said, and all who are released must have no more than 18 months remaining on their sentence.

“It’s a first step,” DOC spokesman Matt Elliott said at the time.

But Biggs was critical of that plan as well, calling it reckless in a somewhat misleading press release he issued after Allbaugh’s announcement. Biggs claimed more than 1,400 inmates would be released through the program, but DOC officials countered that it would likely be less than half that figure who would wind up eligible for supervised release.

Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

Biggs called on Fallin to urge DOC officials to cancel the program, and though a Fallin spokesman said the governor “did not endorse” the prison system’s plan, she recognized it was a response to intense overcrowding of an aging prison infrastructure.

The Oklahoman reported in October that Biggs had quietly corrected inaccurate campaign finance information from his 2016 re-election bid. Biggs, the newspaper reported, initially listed no individual donors during the first three months of 2016. Biggs’ filing initially listed only have raised $1,500 from Political Action Committees during that timeframe.

The Oklahoman reported that Biggs had filed an amended report last April — about a year after his initial inaccurate filing — listing an additional $9,405 in donations.

“Mistakes and reporting errors happen sometimes,” Biggs told The Oklahoman. “The question is what do you do when you discover a mistake or error? I chose to fix it.”

Several controversial exits lead to special elections
Nearly half of the nine vacant seats required special elections due to alleged illegal or inappropriate actions by Republican legislators.

Bryce Marlatt, Dan Kirby, and Ralph Shortey were all accused of inappropriate sexual activities. Two of those seats (Kirby’s and Shortey’s) were eventually won by Democrats. A primary election to replace Marlatt is set for Dec. 12.

Republican Kyle Loveless resigned in April after he was accused of embezzling his own campaign funds.

Four other state seats opened when legislators left the capitol for other jobs.

One seat opened when Republican David Brumbaugh, 56, died in April.

Counting the upcoming election for Biggs’ seat, there are five seats left to be filled:
House District 76, Senate District 37, and Senate District 45 have elections Nov. 14;
Senate District 27 has a primary election Dec. 12;
House District 51 has a primary election set for Jan. 9.

In House District 76, Democrat Chris Vanlandingham will face Ross Ford in a general election to replace Brumbaugh, who died April 15 at his home in Tulsa.

In Senate District 37, Republican Brian O’Hara faces Democrat Allison Ikley-Freeman to replace Dan Newberry, who announced last June he would resign Jan. 31, 2018. Newberry is in “senior management” at the TTCU Federal Credit Union, and said previously he was working on publishing a book.

In Senate District 45, Democrat Steven Vincent faces Republican Paul Rosino in a general election to replace Kyle Loveless, who resigned in April amid allegations he had embezzled his own campaign funds.

In Senate District 27, a primary election is set for Dec. 12 to replace Bryce Marlatt, who resigned after being charged in September with sexual battery against an Uber driver. Campaign filings list six candidates, five Republicans and one Democrat, who are seeking to replace Marlatt.

Four other special elections already have taken place.

Zach Taylor, a Republican, was elected May 9 in House District 28 to replace Tom Newell, who had resigned to take a job in the “private sector.”

Democrat Karen Gaddis was elected July 11 in House District 75, defeating Republican Tressa Nunley to replace Dan Kirby. Kirby, a Republican, announced his resignation in February after he was accused of sexual harassment by two former assistants.

Also on July 11, Democrat Michael Brooks-Jiminez defeated Republican Joe Griffin to fill the seat vacated by Ralph Shortey in Senate District 44. Shortey resigned in March after being charged with engaging in prostitution after police found the then-Senator in a hotel room with marijuana and a teenage boy.

On Sept. 12, Jacob Rosecrants, a Democrat, defeated Republican Darin Chambers to replace Scott Martin in House District 46. Martin, a Republican, had resigned in order to take over the Norman Chamber of Commerce.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan is a news junkie, fantasy sports advocate and QuikTrip addict. When he's not refreshing Twitter, setting too many fantasy lineups or munching on a taquito, he spends his time covering crime and social issues in Tulsa and around the state. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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