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Saturday, August 24th, 2019Last Update: Wednesday, August 7th, 2019 10:21:15 AM

Credibility of RIED Index Questioned Again

By: Constitution Staff

Claiming to rate Oklahoma's legislators on "business, jobs, and economic growth," the Research Institute for Economic Development (RIED) has released its annual scorecard on the Oklahoma Legislature. The credibility of the index as a true measure of Oklahoma's lawmakers has been and continues to be widely questioned.

According to RIED, the index is an "analysis of each legislator's record on the issues that relate to better job opportunities and an improved business and industry economic growth environment."

Significantly, the Index makes no claim to support the concept of free enterprise, leading to the charge by many legislators that the index actually measures support for corporate welfare instead. Perhaps most importantly, while the index compilers claim their research is "supported by qualified data," they do not reveal what that data is in their full-page advertisements in state newspapers like The Oklahoman.

The RIED Index has a notorious track record in failing to make their "qualified data" easily available. Last year, the Oklahoma Constitution went to their website, and found almost 100 legislative votes that were supposedly used in the review, but it did not indicate how a legislator should have voted on the bills, or how they voted. This year, the website had a smaller list of bills, but the reader still has no idea how a legislator voted on each of the bills listed, which was the correct (from RIED's perspective) way to vote, and certainly no explanation or justification for the use of each vote.

One defender of the RIED Index told the Oklahoma Constitution that RIED is under no obligation to tell anyone how they arrive at their conclusions. While true, it would seem that an organization that wished to have a minimum of credibility for their Index would be eager to provide such information. It would also seem that if the purpose is to improve the Oklahoma economy, legislators themselves should be informed as to how such votes help or hurt the Oklahoma economy.

Several legislators have told the Oklahoma Constitution that they have been refused when they asked to see how their score was created.

When one considers that very conservative legislators on the Oklahoma Conservative Index scored very low on the RIED Index, questions naturally arise. Does the RIED Index score legislators who for anti-free enterprise positions (such as government subsidies for big business) high, and those legislators who oppose government favor of certain special interests low?

Last year, we contacted RIED Index leadership about these and other questions concerning their scoring of the Legislature, but never received a response. We have been told that with former state Rep. Susan Winchester taking over leadership of RIED since last year's rankings, some of the problems associated with a lack of transparency have diminished. Still, it is very difficult for the average citizen to make an informed judgment as to what the scores actually mean.

In stark contrast to the RIED Index, the Oklahoma Conservative Index publishes the exact votes used on its Index, and gives a brief explanation of the reasoning used in placing the vote on the Index. Anyone, including legislators of either party, are welcome to suggest bills and votes for the Conservative Index. The issues are debated publicly at meetings of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC), which serve as judges for the votes used on the Index. The RIED Index, on the other hand, is compiled in secrecy, leading to speculation as to who is really behind its compilation, and what the exact motives of those compiling it are.

This year, RIED gave perfect 100% scores to the following 15 legislators: Rep. Lee Denney (R-Cushing), Sen. Eddie Fields (R-Wynona), Sen. John Ford (R-Bartlesville), Sen. James Halligan (R-Stillwater), Sen. Rob Johnson (R-Kingfisher), Sen. Ron Justice (R-Chickasha), Sen. Mike Schulz (R-Altus), Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa), Rep. Don Armes (R-Faxon), Rep. Scott Martin (R-Noble), Rep Earl Sears (R-Tulsa), Rep. Kris Steele (R-Shawnee), Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Tulsa), and Rep. Weldon Watson (R-Tulsa).

It is interesting to note that all in this group are Republicans. It is also interesting to note that none of this group received a perfect score on the Oklahoma Conservative Index. In fact, several among this group had conservative scores so low that they were nominated or received the RINO Award (Republican In Name Only) from the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC). The nominees for the annual award are selected based on their low scores on the Oklahoma Conservative Index. For example, Rep. Weldon Watson was this year's RINO in the House, receiving a 53% conservative score this year and his cumulative score is coincidently also 53%. Sen. James Halligan was the runner up for the RINO in the Senate with both a 50% conservative score this year, and again coincidently a cumulative score of 50%. It is remarkable how some legislators maintain a consistent low conservative score. Halligan was beat out of the RINO Award by Sen. Brian Crain (R-Tulsa) who scored 91% on the RIED Index. Sen. Crain had a 40% conservative rating this year. The Conservative Index scores for the others in this group are: Rep. Denny 43%, Sen. Fields 50%, Sen. Ford 70%, Sen. Johnson 63%, Sen. Justice 70%, Sen. Shultz 70%, Sen. Stanislawski 80%, Rep. Armes 70%, Rep. Martin 70%, Rep. Sears 70%, Rep. Steele 70%, and Rep. Sullivan 63%.

On the other side of the coin, how did our top rated conservatives fair? Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie) was the only one to score a perfect 100% conservative this year, and in fact has scored 100% every year he has served in the Legislature. Murphey's RIED Index score this year was 62%, and only 1% last year. Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) scored 93% conservative this year (his cumulative score is 96%), but got only 48% from RIED this year, and a zero last year.

Rep. Murphey spoke with the Oklahoma Constitution at length about the RIED Index. As mentioned he could garner only a 1% last year on the RIED Index.

"When I asked them to provide me with a list of bills for which I was penalized, they only submitted 14 votes representing a deduction of 99 points. So, it appears that for the other 82 votes where I was not penalized by RIED that I was only credited with 1 point. Fourteen out of 96 votes appear to represent 99 percent of the index," Murphey told us.

An example of a vote that Murphey was marked "down" on was HB 2774, The Healthy Citizen of Oklahoma Initiative. This gave restaurants a 50% tax credit to create separately vented smoking areas. He lost 18 points for his refusal to support this tax credit, but Murphey argued that, "The taxpayers should not be forced to pay for restaurants to mitigate smoking-related issues."

In fact, much of the legislative votes used for the RIED Index appeared to what many refer to as "corporate welfare," or the favoring of big business interests with tax credits or other such subsidies.

In recent years, efforts have been made by many governmental entities around the country to expand the use of eminent domain. Eminent domain is the power of government to take a person's property for a "public use." The United States Constitution limits the use of eminent domain by requiring "just compensation" to the property owner for the taking of the property, and also requires the property taken be used only for a "public use," not a private use. The Oklahoma State Constitution restricts eminent domain even more than the federal Constitution, saying that private property cannot be taken for a private use, without the owners' consent, regardless of whether compensation is given.

Despite this, powerful business interests have persuaded governmental authorities in different parts of the nation to take private property, with eminent domain, turning that property over to the use of a private concern. The argument is that this will generate more economic activity and, ultimately, greater tax revenue. While this would seem to violate both the U.S. Constitution and the Oklahoma State Constitution, powerful corporate interests in Oklahoma and across the nation argue that it should be legal for government to take private property and give it to another private interest, if it simply serves a perceived public "purpose," rather than requiring a public "use" for the government-seized property.

In the past legislative session, Rep. Mike Ritze offered HB 1641, which would have placed important restrictions on the government's use of eminent domain, in order to offer greater protection to owners of private property.

The RIED Index told legislators that they opposed Ritze's bill to limit the use of eminent domain. Ritze's bill would have required the state of Oklahoma, or any political subdivision of the state, "as a cost of acquiring real property, pay moving expenses and rental supplements, make relocation payments, and provide financial assistance to acquire replacement housing and compensate for expenses incidental to the transfer of property if an individual, family, personal property of a business, a farming and ranching operation, or a nonprofit organization is displaced in connection with the acquisition."

Furthermore, Ritze's bill would have required an entity with eminent domain authority to make a "bona fide offer to acquire the property from the property owner voluntarily." If a court hearing a suit under the legislation determined that the "condemning entity failed to make a bona fide offer to acquire the property from the property owner voluntarily as required, the court shall dismiss the suit and order the condemning entity to make a bona fide offer and pay all costs and reasonable attorney fees incurred by the property owner in the condemnation."

While HB 1641 died in committee and it can be assumed was not used to grade legislators supporting private property rights as "anti-business," perhaps no issue better illustrates the difference between the Oklahoma Conservative Index and the RIED Index in the selection of issues to rate lawmakers. The Oklahoma Conservative Index uses the criteria of free enterprise to score legislators, while the RIED Index assigns grades to legislators for their support of the interests of big business. As any private property owner who has had his property taken under eminent domain in order to further the interests of some corporate big business, there is a huge difference.

One legislator told the Oklahoma Constitution that this bill, which failed to even get out of committee, was strongly opposed by the RIED folks. "It was like they wanted to dance on its grave," making sure legislators clearly understood that they were not to attempt the reform of eminent domain law to be more favorable to property owners.

According to the RIED website, RIED is a group of business people "who care about Oklahoma's future." The Institute was founded in 1997 by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce. Today, it is a "stand alone non-profit," which evaluates legislators in order to advance "business interests."

RIED's stated goal is to "provide non-partisan information" about the voting records of Oklahoma lawmakers on "business issues," so as to "firmly establish a pro-business legislature." They do this through the RIED Report, which profiles each legislator's record on bills. Free enterprise is not among the goals listed by the RIED Report.

Greg Love of Love's Country Stores is chairman of the RIED Board Officers, while former state Representative Susan Winchester is the current president. Other officers of note include Larry Nichols of Devon, Fred Morgan of the state chamber of commerce, Mark Funke of the Bank of Oklahoma, and David L. Thompson, who recently left as publisher of the Oklahoman newspaper. It is not expected that the careful scrutiny we have given the RIED Index will be repeated in the Oklahoman.

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