Thursday, September 12, 2019

Nat'l Popular Vote lobby continues wine-and-dine trips for Oklahoma Legislators


In January 2018, I posted about three GOP legislators who were taken to New York City for a conference put on by the innocuous-sounding Institute for Research on Presidential Elections, a group founded to help lead the effort to ditch the Electoral College and transition presidential elections to a National Popular Vote system.

National Popular Vote (NPV) advocates managed to slip a NPV measure through the State Senate in 2014, but uproar by grassroots activists, then-OKGOP chairman Dave Weston, and former OKGOP chairman (now Lt. Governor) Matt Pinnell led to the House not taking up the bill.

In the intervening months since the early 2018 story, I forgot to check back and see if there had been further developments.

Wow. I should have looked earlier.

Let's recap: in January 2018, we found out that Reps. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), Avery Frix (R-Muskogee), and Kevin McDugle (R-Wagoner) had attended the IRPE/NPV junket to New York City. Frix and McDulge were given a "scholarship" of about $2,000 to attend; Baker received about $500. Baker and McDugle filed their required reports late, a fact I noted in my articles and confirmed at the time with the director of the Ethics Commission. Some days later, thanks to an interview with the El Reno Tribune, Baker revealed that Sens. Stephanie Bice (R-OKC), Lonnie Paxton (R-Tuttle), and then-Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) had attended a similar seminar in Utah.

We now can look back and see that a whole host of other legislators attended IRPE/NPV events in 2018, and some in 2019 as well. This should especially concern conservatives and Republicans given the approaching 2020 presidential election.

Here is the list of those known to have attended IRPE/NPV events, with links to their legally-required disclosure forms for scholarships they received to attend, along with the dollar amount, listed with most recent at the top and Republicans in bold:
  • Rep. Marcus McEntire (R-Duncan), January 2019$2,706.95
  • Rep. Mark Lawson (R-Sapulpa), January 2019$2,695.61
  • Sen. James Leewright (R-Bristow), January 2019$2,357.32
  • Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Depew), January 2019$2,060.14
  • Sen. John Michael Montgomery (R-Lawton), January 2019$2,026.12
  • Rep. Josh West (R-Grove), January 2019$2,013.60
  • Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-OKC), January 2018, $1,731.44
  • [Former] Rep. Karen Gaddis (D-Tulsa), January 2018, $1,642.66
  • [Former] Rep. Eric Proctor (D-Tulsa), January 2018, $1,436
  • Sen. Kevin Matthews (D-Tulsa), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman (D-Tulsa), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • Sen. J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • [Former] Sen. John Sparks (D-Norman), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • [Former] Sen. Anastasia Pittman (D-OKC), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • Sen. Kay Floyd (D-OKC), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • Sen. Michael Brooks (D-OKC), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • Justin Cajindos (Senate Democratic Caucus Chief of Staff), January 2018, $1,287.26
  • Rep. Matt Meredith (D-Tahlequah), January 2018, $1,168.73
  • Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Norman), January 2018, no amount reported
  • Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah), January 2018, $2,397.68
  • Sen. Lonnie Paxton (R-Tuttle), January 2018, $2,255.11
  • Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond), January 2018, $1,969.57
  • [Former] Sen. A.J. Griffin (R-Guthrie), January 2018, $1,879.23
  • Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-OKC), January 2018, $1,860.21
  • Sen. Jason Smalley (R-Stroud), January 2018, $1,827.98
  • Rep. Avery Frix (R-Muskogee), December 2017, $2,063.18
  • Rep. Kevin McDugle (R-Broken Arrow), December 2017, $2,048.17
  • Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), December 2017, $579.75
All told, since December 2017, IRPE and the National Popular Vote effort have doled out at least $47,017.53 to bring 8 GOP Senators, 7 GOP Representatives, 7 Democratic Senators, 5 Democratic Representatives, and one Democratic legislative staff member to their conferences in Utah, California, Colorado, and Massachusetts, and New York.

That's 20% of the Senate GOP caucus, and almost a full third of the entire Senate.

IRPE spent $30,740.62 on 15 GOP legislators (an average of $2,049.37), but just $16,276.91 on the 13 Democrats (average of $1,252.07). If I were a Democrat, I'd probably be a little irked at the disparity in money spent.

Some of the members who went on IRPE/NPV junkets are in positions of leadership. Rep. Josh West is one of two House Majority Leaders. Rep. Hilbert is both the A&B Vice Chair and the JCAB Vice Chair. Sen. Roger Thompson is the Appropriations Chair. Sen. Smalley is the Senate Majority Caucus chair. Rep. Virgin is the House Minority Leader. Sen. Sparks was the Senate Minority Leader; Sen. Floyd is now.

Earlier in 2017, three Democratic legislators went to an IRPE event in California, but paid their way with campaign funds. It is unknown at this time if other legislators have likewise since used that route of funding to obscure their attendance.

I also reached out to some thought and opinion leaders in the state for their two-cents on this topic.

Trent England of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs has spoken and written extensively on the Electoral College and national popular vote in recent years, including several debates with NPV proponents. "Unlike many other lobbyist junkets, NPV usually keeps Republicans and Democrats segregated on different trips," England told me. "They do that so they tell Republicans that changing the rules will help them, and then turn around and tell Democrats the same thing." England authored op-eds this year that ran in publications as diverse as USA Today and The Resurgent, and was featured in a debate in Colorado earlier this summer.

"The legislature is very concerned about voter apathy and declining participation. I told them in 2015, that elections need to be meaningful for Oklahomans," says David Van Risseghem, editor of SoonerPolitics.org. "To give our electoral voice to major cities on the coasts, will further drive down voter turnout. But more importantly, it will limit campaign events in our state. The politicians will just focus on big cities, to a greater degree than they already do."

"It seems to me that if the arguments for a National Popular Vote were so strong it would not be necessary to wine and dine legislators in places outside of the state," said Oklahoma Constitution publisher Steve Byas in response to my request for comment. "Rather, they should be able to present their arguments for them in Oklahoma City or Tulsa. Going to a National Popular Vote would transfer even more power to the federal government, away from the states." Byas is a professor of History & Government at Randall University, in Norman, Oklahoma, and has defended the merits of the Electoral College in op-eds in The New American.

I'm in communication with Governor Stitt, Lt. Governor Pinnell, Senate Pro Tem Treat, and House Speaker McCall for their comment on the National Popular Vote push, as it seems that Republicans in the Legislature continue to open the door to the idea. When I receive their statements, I'll publish them.

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