State Rep. Scott Biggs and former State Attorney General Drew Edmondson debate the merits or pitfalls of State Question 777.

State Rep. Scott Biggs and former State Attorney General Drew Edmondson debate the merits or pitfalls of State Question 777.

In early September, Leadership Oklahoma conducted a forum in Norman addressing three state questions, an even that was attended by The Frontier. The forum featured six Oklahoma leaders, along with their views either supporting or opposing each question. Here are excerpts of their comments.

State Question 777
This law would change the Oklahoma Constitution to make all farming practices a right equal to attending church or free speech. According to the ballot information, the proposed law “creates the following guaranteed rights to engage in farming and ranching:  the right to make use of agricultural technology, the right to make use of livestock procedures, and the right to make use of ranching practices.” It goes on to point out that, “under this extra protection, no law can interfere with these rights, unless the law is justified by a compelling state interest—a clearly identified state interest of the highest order.”

Opposing: Former State Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
Although proponents call 777 the “Right to Farm,” Edmondson called it the “Right to Harm.” He told the assembly that passing the law would open Oklahoma up to vast overseas farming operations which would operate without regulation from the state. The Legislature or Department of Agriculture would be forbidden to pass any new laws regarding any agricultural operation.

“This is perhaps the most dangerous question that’s on the ballot this year. We need to pay attention and watch closely,” Edmondson said. “It’s going to make it virtually impossible to regulate. We cannot know what in the next five years what kind pesticides, herbicides, genetic modifications or chemical applications that are going to be used in Agriculture that may be of concern.”

Supporting: Oklahoma State Rep. Scott Biggs.  
Biggs said the law would protect against liberal groups he said were trying to restrict agriculture, naming the Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. While he acknowledged that most efforts to restrict agriculture in Oklahoma have been unsuccessful, he insisted that the law is needed to prevent any such actions in the future.

“Which other industry helps provide food you eat and the clothes you wear? Which other industry is attacked by these liberal groups?” Biggs asked the crowd. “HSUS (Humane Society), Sierra Club and PETA, these animal rights groups. They’re the liberal groups. No one in the groups can deny that…This helps protect our food supply from extreme groups. When you talk about moving forward, what better way than to protect our food supply?”

Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch debates State Question 779 with OU President David Boren.

Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch debates State Question 779 with University of Oklahoma President David Boren.

State Question 779
If voters agree, this law will enact a statewide penny sales tax to fund public education in Oklahoma. According to the ballot, the sales tax would create “a limited purpose fund to improve public education. It levies a one cent sales and use tax to provide revenue for the fund.”

The ballot information states 69.5 percent of the funding would go for public school districts, 19.25 percent for state-funded colleges, 3.25 percent for state career techs, and 8 percent for the State Department of Education.

“It requires teacher salary increases funded by this measure (to) raise teacher salaries by at least $5,000 over the salaries paid in the year prior to adoption of this measure,” the ballot states.

Opposing: Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch
As city manager for Oklahoma City since 2000, Couch has overseen vast projects throughout the city, and also oversaw the implantation of the city’s successful MAPS projects, funded by a penny sales tax. Couch said a statewide penny sales tax for education would burden Oklahoma with one of the highest sales tax rates in the U.S. and would interfere with future MAPS projects, as well as funding for a proposed new county jail and transportation projects.

“There is a desire to do more transit in Oklahoma City, and we’ve got a jail situation in Oklahoma City,” Couch said “But it’s going to take some money. I don’t know if there would any appetite to take on either transit or jail issues if this tax passes.”

Couch urged for voters to defeat the measure, and to again appeal to the Legislature to fix the funding problem for Oklahoma’s education system.

“This proposition is really giving a break to the state legislature, because they don’t have to wrestle with this issue,” Couch said. “I know it’s hard. Nobody wants to trust the state legislature. But there are other state revenue positions out there.”

Supporting: OU President David Boren
Former U.S. Senator, congressman and governor, Boren said the current education funding crisis is the worst he has seen, and said the extreme cuts to education is dangerous to Oklahoma’s economic future because businesses will not want to locate in a state that is dead last in education. He blamed the state legislature and said voters must take the matter into the booth and rescue the state’s schools.

“We waited and waited. How bad of a crisis do we need? We have four-day school weeks. What kind of a crisis does it take?” Boren said. “This is the most serious problem I’ve seen face Oklahoma. If we don’t have good schools, anything else we want to do in this state is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We are simply not going to have a future. We can’t base our future on ignorance.”

Boren said companies will not locate in Oklahoma because the workers won’t be able to educate their families. He said quality companies also need an educated workforce from which to hire. He said Oklahoma without the sales tax will be dead last in the U.S. in education funding.

“What’s that going to do to our future? What’s that going to do for our economic development?” Boren said. “Are we going to put on a billboard ‘Bring your businesses, bring your families to the state of Oklahoma. We spend less than any state in the Union to educate your children.’ That’s a disaster for economic development.”

Liquor retailer Brian Kerr debates State Question 792 with Brett Robinson. Lobbyist, and President at Beer Distributors of Oklahoma.

Liquor retailer Brian Kerr debates State Question 792 with Brett Robinson, lobbyist, and President at Beer Distributors of Oklahoma.

State Question 792
Grocery stores and convenience stores will be able to sell wine and full-strength beer, like most other states, if voters pass this state question.  The new law will repeal restrictions that currently require such items to be sold only within the doors of a state-licensed liquor store, and only 3.2-strength beer at locations outside.

According to the ballot question, direct shipments of wine to state consumers will also be allowed, such as those proffered by out-of-state wineries. The new law would also allow liquor stores to sell non-alcoholic items, such as mixers or snacks, but in limited quantities.

Opposed: Brian Kerr, liquor store owner and president of the Retail Liquor Association
Kerr said passage of the state question would result in lost jobs and shuttered stores, which would suddenly have to compete with 4,000 new outlets selling beer and wine once only available in liquor stores. While he agreed that Oklahoma’s liquor laws do need updating, he said the state question was unfair in its implementation, for instance requiring store sales to be made by workers only 18 or older, but that liquor stores would still require employees to be 21. He said the allowance to sell non-alcohol items would not make up for the lost revenue.

“They’re saying ‘Good news, liquor stores. You’re gonna get to sell beef jerky. That should make up any loss of traffic or profit you may experience,’” Kerr said. “We’re not sure why, but for some reason, retail liquor stores cannot sell more than 20 percent nonalcoholic items. I believe personally that violates the 14th amendment and is unconstitutional, but we will see what happens when we get that to court.”

Kerr said similar moves by states with laws similar to Oklahoma’s caused a massive loss of sales for individual liquor stores.

“Tennessee reported a seventy percent in loss in wine sales and a thirty percent decrease in foot traffic,” Kerr said. “Economically speaking—it will put about three-hundred locally owned business-owners out of business along with the employees they support.”

Supporting: Brett Robinson. Lobbyist, and President at Beer Distributors of Oklahoma.
Robinson said the law will finally rid the state of its 3.2 beer requirements, which he called an “anachronism.” He said Oklahoma breweries will be able to cash in on the craft beer explosion, crafting locally made brews in a way most other states are allowed to do as well. Further, he said, the law will also allow state wineries to produce and ship their wines, giving that burgeoning industry a shot-in-the-arm.

“It allows direct shipment of wine to the home,” he said. “It’s a big plus for Oklahoma wineries. Now they are only allowed to ship to restaurants and they have to use their own vehicles. This opens up a huge opportunity. There were 5,000 acres of grapes being grown in Oklahoma before prohibition. We’re up to 500 acres now and growing.”

He said repeal of the 3.2 beer laws in Oklahoma will finally remove a handicap on Oklahoma breweries that will allow them to produce more, better beer and be able to ship out of state. He said Oklahoma will be able to compete on an even playing field with other beer markets.

“A lot of beer that craft brewers like to brew is going to be in excess of 4 percent or higher,” Robinson said. “Oklahoma breweries have been stifled by these laws from getting access to markets.”