Hundreds gathered Tuesday night at the Ardmore Convention Center to attend “The Great Debate,” organized by the Carter County Democrats. Three Democratic gubernatorial candidates in the 2018 election outlined their platforms for next year’s race.
Drew Edmondson, Connie Johnson and Scott Inman took turns answering six questions selected at random, addressing subjects related to education, criminal justice, the environment, healthcare, infrastructure and state budget.
In answering the series of six questions, all three lamented what they have perceived as poor leadership in current Gov. Mary Fallin, as well as a seemingly impenetrable divide between state Democrats and Republicans.
On education, the candidates were asked to describe how they would keep the state’s top teachers from leaving in search of higher salaries. All candidates discussed different ways of creating new revenue streams for the state’s education system, revolving around potential new sources of income.
“We rank at the bottom for the pay of our teachers,” Edmonson said. “That’s why teachers are leaving the state -- the best and brightest are going to neighboring states for much higher pay.”
Edmondson pointed out how schools ought to receive more funding in coordination with their average daily attendances, focusing beyond just pay raises in order to meet unique needs of school districts small and large.
Inman denounced gross production tax cuts for billions of dollars lost, thereby increasing the number of students per class. For Johnson, low budgeting and a lack of alternative revenue sources are to blame, also suggesting that Oklahoma ought to consider legislation on the legalization of marijuana to reap additional revenue.
Oklahoma having the highest female incarceration rate in the nation was addressed when candidates discussed criminal justice. The candidates were asked how they would lower the number of imprisoned women who have not committed a violent crime.
Johnson called the current system for incarceration “broken,” as private prisons that thrive off of high incarceration rates constantly seek to keep jail cells full, she believes.
“It is costing us as a state, because as our children are growing up, more and more children are being placed into the pipeline of prison,” Johnson said. “We need to treat people who need to be treated instead of locking up people who we are mad at.”
Her sentiment echoed the legislation of State Questions 780 and 781, which raised the threshold of the amount of drugs one can possess before being charged with a felony.
Inman also expressed his desire to see more rehabilitation centers in order to save money from incarcerating people. For Edmonson, the solution lies in ensuring resolutions for unplanned pregnancies, as well as supporting families via counselors and welfare so they don’t become at risk of turning to drugs.
In answering the questions in the debate, all candidates identified links to Oklahoma’s current budget crisis, regretting that state lawmakers are currently in special session in order to fill the $215 million budget hole.
The candidates were asked how they would create budgets that address both the state’s current shortfalls and the need for structural efficiencies for the future.
Johnson said that there are “liberal Republicans” and “conservative Democrats,” but when it comes to the issue of helping the people of Oklahoma, she said politics don’t matter, and that people do.
In saying that, she scolded privatization schemes in prisons and schools that drain state funds. Edmondson said he would seek to give voters the choice to restore the personal income tax to six percent and the gross production tax to seven percent as a way to produce more funds.
Inman talked about how he has fought Republicans day to day as House Minority Leader against more taxes on middle class citizens. He said he wants to see less cuts to income taxes and state funds rather than voting in favor of more taxes, such as the proposed $1.50 per pack tax on cigarettes.
“We were told a couple years ago to just vote for the cigarette tax, and my accomplice and I both go, ‘Over my dead body are we going to stand here and raise taxes on middle class families while the wealthiest and most powerful entities in the history of the world go by without raising gross production taxes.”