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House Republicans push to alter petition process after passage of SQ 802

Boxes of petitions for state question 802 are stacked before being delivered to the Oklahoma Secretary of State's office in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Boxes of petitions for state question 802 are stacked before being delivered to the Oklahoma Secretary of State's office in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

Legislative Republicans are looking to change Oklahoma’s initiative petition process that allows citizens to push for a statewide vote on an issue.

Attempts to tweak initiative petition requirements come after Oklahomans have increasingly used the process to circumvent the GOP-led state Legislature to push progressive policies at the ballot box.

House Republicans on Tuesday passed House Bill 1767 to require petitions that would increase the costs of any state government entity include a “clear statement” that additional state funding will be required to carry out the state question.

“The motivation (is) to make sure that the voters are fully informed about the potential cost not just for one year, but for ongoing years,” said Rep. Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City.

The freshman legislator said the bill stems from concerns he heard from voters, who said they didn’t fully understand the costs associated with State Question 802 that Oklahoma voters narrowly passed last year.

Through the question, voters approved expanding Medicaid in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Health Care Authority will have to pay an estimated $164 million in the upcoming fiscal year to cover 10% of the costs of the expansion that will be matched with federal funds. SQ 802 did not give any cost estimates.

Many Republican legislators opposed SQ 802, which enshrined Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma’s constitution, where it can’t be altered or removed without approval from Oklahoma voters.

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, criticized the bill as poorly written because it didn't specify who provides the fiscal statement. Citing the tax revenue earned from legalizing medical marijuana through State Question 788, Fugate questioned why lawmakers aren't asking petition campaigns to detail the state revenue that could be gained through a proposed state question.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt to limit the initiative petition rights that are constitutionally reserved to the people,” he said.

HB 1767 cleared the House on a party-line vote. It now heads to the Senate. The title is off the bill, which means the legislation is still a work in progress.

Because the initiative petition process is enshrined in Oklahoma’s constitution, legislators typically have to get voters' approval to change initiative petition requirements.

However, Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, said that’s not the case with HB 1767 because state law governs how initiative petitions are printed on the ballot, which means lawmakers can change those requirements through the legislative process alone.

If HB 1767 becomes law, the bill could cost the State Election Board roughly $500,000.

The House also passed House Bill 2564 on a party-line vote. The bill requires recounts of state questions in certain circumstances. Currently, state law doesn't allow for recounts of state questions.

Under the bill, Oklahoma's governor, attorney general or State Election Board secretary could call for a recount. Recounts would also occur when the results are within 0.5% of total votes cast for statutory state questions and when the results are within 1% for state questions that would amend Oklahoma's constitution.

Had HB 2564 become law before the vote on SQ 802, the Medicaid expansion question that passed with 50.49% of the vote would have qualified for a recount.

Oklahoma's legislative leaders have said they're open to changing the state's initiative petition process to make it harder for citizens to add to Oklahoma's constitution.

Carmen Forman

Carmen Forman covers the state Capitol and governor's office for The Oklahoman. A Norman native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she previously covered state politics in Virginia and Arizona before returning to Oklahoma. Read more ›