Finding Ways To Execute

Anti-Death Penalty Summit - Jan. 28, 2012 by C. Elle on Flickr Commons

The new law here making the administration of nitrogen gas the second alternative when the state executes people is simply a reminder of how barbaric the death penalty remains in Oklahoma.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law about 10 days ago. The bill is a response to the botched execution by lethal injection of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett last year and the dwindling supplies of drugs used in the process. Lethal injection in death penalty cases, first passed by law in Oklahoma, still remains the principal form of execution here.

Executions in Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama have recently been halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing a case brought by Oklahoma inmates over the state’s lethal-injection process. Meanwhile, drug companies have been put under pressure to stop manufacturing the types of drugs use in lethal-injection executions or to stop supplying them to states for that purpose, and this has created a shortage.

Whatever the outcome of that court case, the death penalty, in general, and Oklahoma’s apparent zeal to apply it, remains morally dubious. The recent botched execution of Lockett—he kicked his legs while his body squirmed during the process before dying 43 minutes after the drugs were administered—put the state in the media spotlight in a negative manner once again. The nitrogen gas bill does the same thing.

There is no definitive proof that the death penalty deters crime. A study last year showed 4 percent of people sentenced to die are innocent of their crimes. Those who oppose the death penalty argue there is no painless way to kill someone, making it a form of state-sanctioned torture. The death penalty is gruesome and archaic. It’s also racist. People from minority groups are sentenced to death disproportionally higher than the rest of the population. It’s also a costly, long drawn out legal process for states, which would be better off spending more money on education rather than executing people.

The use of the death penalty has been in decline in the nation, according to the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty, but . . . “”the flaws and failures of the death penalty are more apparent than ever.” The organization notes, “18 States and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty” and “30 states have not carried out an execution in the last 5 years.”

Oklahoma, unfortunately, has been in the media spotlight on this issue for decades. The majority of its lawmakers through the years have adopted a radical retribution mentality when it comes to crime. This is why the state has some of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

The bill passed and signed into law makes nitrogen “hypoxia” the second back-up method of execution, followed by the electric chair and a firing squad. The Washington Post recently reported, “It is not clear if nitrogen gas has been used as a formal method of execution before, but there do not appear to be any cases.”

Proponents of the bill say death by nitrogen gas is painless, but no one can definitely know that. The only people who would know that for sure would be dead.

I’m against the death penalty, but I realize the nation has historically debated this issue and now seems slowly but surely on a path to end it. What seems clear, however, is that Oklahoma’s national image has been damaged recently by Lockett’s botched execution and now its obsession with quickly finding a new way to kill people. With Oklahoma in the national television news these days for a variety of negative reasons, this is something the state just doesn’t need.

Is Fallin ACA Op-Ed A Signal?

Image of Gov. Mary Fallin

“We hope that Congress would offer targeted, temporary relief for people to maintain their current coverage while we work together on free-market, consumer-friendly solutions for the future.”—Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in a recent opinion article in the Tulsa World

Is Gov. Mary Fallin signaling to the U.S. Supreme Court that she and other Republican governors actually want it to uphold the tax-credit features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) while saving political face with their voter bases?

It sure seems that way, and it’s incredibly hypocritical and crass politics at its most manipulative. In a recent opinion piece, Fallin argued if the court finds for the plaintiff in King versus Burwell, she wants “relief” for Oklahomans now covered under the ACA, which mean, in effect, she wants it to continue at least temporarily. The word “relief” is an important one for its symbolic connotations.

Look at the circumstances. Fallin is a second-term lame duck governor, who hasn’t really expressed an interest in running for office again. She’s also from one of the reddest states in the nation. Fallin can simply qualify her argument while giving cover to other Republican governors, who are still politically viable.

Are you listening, SCOTUS, are you listening?

The court has heard arguments over whether people should qualify for tax credits when they buy insurance under (ACA) in those states that didn’t establish health care exchanges. It’s a bizarre, right-wing quibble. The law states the tax credits will come from “an Exchange established by the State.” In context, it should be clear that by the State (note the caps), the law means the entire federal government, along with states, but conservatives ague the language means those credits should only go to people in “states” (note the lower case) that established exchanges.

Most states—34 of them in all, which includes Oklahoma—did not establish exchanges but millions of people who live in these states have bought health insurance through “the State” or the federal exchange and received tax credits through the Internal Revenue Service. That includes nearly 125,000 Oklahomans, according to recent media reports.

Fallin, of course, criticized the ACA in her commentary, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has filed lawsuits against it. But she’s clear on this point:

We hope that Congress would offer targeted, temporary relief for people to maintain their current coverage while we work together on free-market, consumer-friendly solutions for the future.

In other words, please continue the ACA until we find something better, but Republicans don’t have a viable plan upon which they can agree and never will. Everyone on the court knows that. The ACA already offers “free market and consumer-friendly solutions.” It’s certainly not the universal, single payer system this country so desperately needs.

It’s clear if Republicans are successful with the court in cutting the health insurance of some portion of more than 11 million people, they will face a political disaster. Locally, it might just make more of those 125,000 Oklahoman vote, and they would have a good reason to vote against Republicans for ruining their health care. At the same time, these Republicans have demonized the ACA so much, they risk looking like tremendous hypocrites if they just simply conceded that the ACA is working.

Some might think my interpretation of Fallin’s editorial on the larger, national political level is a stretch, but as much energy as she and Pruitt have used criticism of the ACA as a political cudgel and to win votes, she sure comes across as the ultimate hypocrite.

Fallin Makes Some Points

Image of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin

I’m struck by what Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address didn’t include this year.

Gone was the sanctimonious lecturing about how Oklahoma was going to teach the federal government a thing or two about good governance. Gone were the cliché calls for “right sizing” whatever needs to be right sized in this state. Gone were the calls for major tax cuts aimed to increase the take-home income of Oklahoma’s most wealthy people.

Fallin did argue, “Our people are known nationally – and internationally – as ‘Oklahoma Strong.’” This was in reference to our responses to all our natural disasters, and I don’t want to quibble too much here, but in all my travels outside the state I’ve never heard the “Oklahoma Strong” mantra from anyone at all, ever, and I don’t expect I ever will. Many people outside the state know us, really, only for people such as science unbeliever U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe or the LGBT intolerant state Rep. Sally Kern.

What we had then was a rather bland but competent speech, and I actually mean this in a fairly positive way, that drew attention to education and health issues, but came with the important and mostly unspoken caveat that state agencies were going to face budget cuts of approximately 6.25 percent and education funding was pretty much going to remain stagnant even though the state faces a major teacher shortage.

On education, Fallin stayed generic:

There are many things we can and must do to increase education levels in Oklahoma. Whether it’s raising academic standards to ensure our high school graduates are actually graduating with 12th grade level skills, increasing funding – which I support – or finding ways to empower parents and students, we must do more.

I look forward to working with educators, parents, and our new Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister in support of those goals.

One thing we know we can do NOW, that doesn’t require large sums of new money, is to help strengthen partnerships between local businesses and local schools where students can dual track their education and work skills.

Note that reference to the lack of “large sums of new money.” That’s the important part. I sense that as long as Republicans dominate state government here education funding will remain at some of the lowest levels in per pupil spending in the nation. Local businesses are not going to help in any significant way to solve our teacher shortage problems.

A point Fallin made in her speech that I really did like was her mention of our overcrowded incarceration system and how we need to become “smart on crime.” Fallin said:

It costs the state around $19,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court and on to treatment. In addition to being less expensive, it’s also more effective; the recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison.

This is a legitimate argument that I hope receives some attention from the legislature this year, although I’m not hopeful. Most law-and-order state Republican lawmakers still retain a myopic punitive mentality about crime, even for non-violent offenders, rather than a rehabilitation mentality about crime. Fallin, in her last term of governor, can speak as much common sense as possible at this point, but will anyone in her party listen to her and does she really even care that much?

Fallin’s call for “performance informed budgeting” and setting various goals for the state seemed overly bureaucratic and perhaps was just filler for her speech. The state has major problems related to health outcomes and education funding. It’s fine to set goals, but without a meaningful budget commitment nothing will improve here drastically.

But, in the end, Fallin’s speech could have been worse for progressives, and it did make a salient point or two.

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