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Oklahoma Democratic gubernatorial candidates hash out state issues in debate

Heide Brandes/ Red Dirt Report
Oklahoma Democratic gubernatorial candidates Connie Johnson and Drew Edmondson during Oklahoma Progressive Network’s Democratic Forum.
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OKLAHOMA CITY- Oklahoma Democratic Gubernatorial candidates Connie Johnson and Drew Edmondson took to the stage Thursday night at the Will Rogers Theater during the Oklahoma Progressive Network’s Democratic Forum to convince a packed house why they were the best choice to run for Governor.

Edmondson, former district attorney and former Attorney General for Oklahoma, and Johnson, former District 48 Senator, are the two remaining Democrat candidates for the Oklahoma Gubernatorial primary after House Minority Leader Scott Inman announced he was stepping down from the legislature and ending his campaign for governor in late October.

During the debate, Edmondson and Johnson were presented 10 topics to speak on, ranging from funding mental health, reducing the incarceration rate for women and minorities, funding the state budget, protection LGBTQ youth and diversifying the state’s economy.

Johnson came out early in her support for the legalization of medical marijuana, industrialized hemp and recreational marijuana as a new income stream for Oklahoma and a way to fund core services ranging from education to mental health while also reducing the state’s overcrowded prison system.

Edmondson pushed a solution of raising the gross production tax, increasing personal income tax, rolling back tax incentive credits and passing a cigarette tax to bolster the state’s floundering budget.

“How would you generate the resources to do it? I would generate those resources with a new funding stream that we are not wanting to talk about in Oklahoma, but that Colorado is making very good use of,” Johnson said.

“That is by legalizing medical and recreational marijuana. I would make investments in health, mental health, education, in our infrastructure, including broadband; finding new alternative energy sources like wind and solar; infrastructure for our water treatment systems, mass transit; and for free higher education.”

Edmondson said current leadership believed that if taxes were cut enough, then the state would become more prosperous.

“The experiment failed. It did not work. All we ended up with was a billion dollar deficit year after year and the inability to fund the core services,” Edmondson said.

“First, I would advocate raising the gross production tax back to 7 percent, and if the legislature doesn’t do it, I will see to it that it gets on the ballot. Second, I would pass the cigarette tax. Third, I would look at incentives and tax credits that have been put in over the years to spur economic growth that have failed or outlived their usefulness and I would do away with those. Fourth, I would give the voters the opportunity to uptick the personal income tax back to 6 percent. That’s going to have to be on the ballot because the legislature won’t do it.”

When asked how each candidate would address Oklahoma’s education crisis and provide teacher raises and resources, Johnson and Edmondson reiterated their original income-raising plans but added that teachers in Oklahoma needed more than a $3,000 raise.

“The average pay increase of teachers leaving to go to another state is a $19,000 increase,” said Edmondson.

Johnson said that additional resources like behavioral health specialists were also needed to address the mental health needs of children in marginalized situations.

“We need to stop using a band-aid like the cigarette tax, but instead legalize industrial hemp, medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana to generate funds,” she said.

Both candidates addressed Oklahoma’s overcrowded prison system and the high rate of incarceration of minorities and women in the state. Edmondson said he would advocate drug and alcohol treatment centers throughout the state as an alternative to incarceration, adding that the plan made more financial sense.

“It costs $3,000 to $5,000 a year to provide treatment, but it costs $20,000 a year plus to incarcerate in prison,” he said. “If we can’t convince the legislature that it’s the right and moral thing to do, then we say it’s the cheap thing to do. It is the fiscally responsible thing to do.”

Johnson said Oklahoma’s continuing wage gap between men and women and the fact that Oklahoma leads the nation in the incarceration of women shows that the state still values women less than men.

Both candidates supported comprehensive sex education in schools, protecting LGBTQ rights, access to reproductive health services and the legalization of medical marijuana. The two differed on legalizing recreational marijuana, with Edmondson saying he felt the state wasn’t ready yet.

“I think the science is in on medical marijuana, and there are legitimate medical needs,” he said. “I am not satisfied that we are ready to have recreational marijuana. We have the advantage of having Colorado, Washington and Oregon and other states that have passed that and the opportunity to look at their track record. If we determine that the societal harms do not outweigh the increased income from that measure, I’ll be ready to be for it. For those who disagree, be calm. There is time to get this figured out and make a smart decision down the road.”

“We don’t have time,” said Johnson. “As the mother of the medical marijuana movement in Oklahoma, I’m for it. For those who don’t support the legalization of recreational marijuana, I say that they favor they favor our current prison industrial complex. We need to have a different form of treatment than incarceration.”

Johnson said that Oklahoma also needed to look into the core reasons why women end up in prison and to heal the “broken mindset” in Oklahoma about women. Edmondson agreed and said all accused should be given access to the same resources.

Each candidate ended the debate with a statement, mostly focused on fixing Oklahoma’s economy, budget and core services crisis.

“We don’t have a spending problem in Oklahoma,” Johnson said. “We have a revenue problem, and our legislature is unwilling and unable to fix it. Industrialized hemp, medical marijuana and recreational marijuana incentivizes new revenue streams for our state.”

“I remember a story an economic development specialist told. When a CEO was asked why big corporations didn’t come to Oklahoma, he said, ‘You are a poor state.’ We aren’t a poor state – we are a poorly run state,” Edmondson concluded. “There is no reason we shouldn’t be leading the nation. We have to invest back into Oklahoma.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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