Oklahoma voters will make decisions on two ballot initiatives Tuesday.
State Question 805 asks Oklahomans whether it is appropriate to continue the practice of extending the sentences of nonviolent offenders based on previous nonviolent felony convictions. State Question 814 allows voters to reallocate annual payments from a state settlement with tobacco companies to fund Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma.
Much has been made of State Question 805. The initiative has received over 100 endorsements from individuals and organizations, including former governors Brad Henry and David Walters.
This measure seeks to prohibit the use of “sentence enhancements” for those facing nonviolent convictions. These enhancements allow the use of prior nonviolent felony offenses to extend a current nonviolent conviction further than the maximum allowable sentence. They are used in 80% of the cases in which they are applicable.
Supporters of SQ 805 assert that this initiative will “help end decades-long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, saving Oklahomans millions of dollars.” They recommend that the money saved be invested in services for mental health treatment and crime victims.
Opponents of the proposal claim it will “create a culture where crime is OK in Oklahoma by reducing penalties for career criminals.” They fear that without the ability to go beyond maximum sentencing, former offenders will not be deterred from reoffending. They are also concerned about certain crimes that are not considered violent in Oklahoma and the implications this amendment would have for them.
However, it must be clarified that, if SQ 805 is approved, courts will still have the ability to take into account a person’s prior convictions in sentencing; they will just be unable to go above the maximum sentence for the crime.
Fiscal analysis conducted by the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs estimates that eliminating sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenders will “reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by 8.5%” and “reduce state expenses between $45 million and $186 million” over the next 10 years.
State Question 814 would adjust the allocation of annual payments that the state receives from a 1998 settlement with tobacco companies. Currently, the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) receives 75% of the funds, while the remaining 25% is allocated by the Oklahoma Legislature. If approved, those numbers would be reversed: 25% of the funds would go to TSET and 75% to the legislature which would use the money to fund Medicaid. WIth COVID-19 still surging, this ballot measure could carry added significance.
Some are concerned that SQ 814 will negatively impact the public health programs funded by TSET. Thomas Larson, a spokesman for TSET, said lesser funds would affect their “ability to stand up new programs or existing programs.”
If SQ 814 is approved, TSET would retain its $1.3 billion endowment, but it would only receive 25% of the annual added interest in addition.
Proponents of SQ 814 see the proposal as an opportunity to help fund Medicaid without raising taxes or spending cuts. “We need to redirect some of those funds to the legislature so we can actually pay for Medicaid expansion,” Governor Kevin Stitt said.
If approved, SQ 814 would generate about $70 million of the $164 million needed to fund Medicaid expansion.