Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Governor signs ATV helmet law

A state law requiring persons under 18 to wear a crash helmet while riding an all-terrain vehicle on public lands was signed into law Tuesday and takes effect Nov. 1.
State Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman, House author of the legislation, said the measure was two years in the making and could not have passed without bipartisan support. Co-sponsor was Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City.
Besides legislators from both parties, Nations credited the help of the state health department’s Dr. Michael Crutcher and Kevin Pipes, the parents of injured children and the emergency trauma staff at the OU Health Sciences Center.
The law, signed by Gov. Brad Henry Tuesday, requires riders and passengers under age 18 to wear helmets while riding on public lands. In addition, the law prevents passengers from riding on ATVs unless that vehicle was designed to carry passengers.
The bill allows peace officers, including park rangers, to enforce the bill’s provisions. There are also penalties for adults who allow an underage rider to ignore the law.
Oklahoma now becomes one of 35 states that have enacted some safety requirements for children and teenagers driving and riding ATVs.
“As a result of the combined efforts of many professionals and involved families, lives will be saved and expensive disabling traumatic head injuries to children will be reduced,” Nations said. “This is a reasonable way to begin reversing the increases in ATV injuries and deaths in Oklahoma’s children. Although the legal aspects of this statute are aimed at preventing injuries on public lands, it is our hope that parents will take this as an encouragement to all parents to voluntarily ensure proper training and helmet use no matter the location.”
Nations said helmets reduce deaths by 42 percent and nonfatal head injuries by 64 percent. So far in 2007, seven Oklahomans have died while riding an ATV. That total includes three children. In 2006, 19 Oklahomans including three children died in ATV crashes.
“The State of Oklahoma was made a safer place for children because of the passage of this new law. By preventing devastating traumatic injuries, we will be able to save people from a lifetime of physical, emotional and financial suffering,” said Crutcher, secretary of health and the state’s commissioner of health.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chesapeake to Court: Stop Plant Hearings

An attorney for Chesapeake Energy Corp. said Tuesday the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is using judicial powers it does not have to hold hearings on a proposed coal-fired power plant the natural gas producer opposes.

Chesapeake, the third largest independent gas producer in the U.S., took its case to a state Supreme Court referee in an attempt to stop hearings that began on Monday before the commission on whether the proposed 950-megawatt, $1.8 billion generating unit is needed.

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake has questioned plans to build coal-fired generating facilities in Oklahoma and Texas. Natural gas competes with coal as a fuel for power plants.

Chesapeake attorney Robert A. Nance told referee Daniel Karim the commission does not have legal authority to pre-approve power plants and that the hearings are an "unauthorized use of judicial power."

"The Corporation Commission is a tribunal of limited jurisdiction," Nance said. "They're exercising judicial force without authority."

Attorneys for the state and a coalition of power producers that proposed the plant said it is a legislative - not judicial - function of the commission to hold hearings on the need for the proposed plant and other public utility projects.

A determination that the plant is needed will allow power producers to recover construction costs as the plant is built by adding them to customer rate bases. Utility officials have said the proposed plant's high cost will prevent them from building it unless it is preapproved by the commission.

"We'd like to know what the rules are ahead of time," said David A. Kutik, an attorney for Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company, which proposed the Red Rock generating unit with Public Service Company of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority.

The proposed plant will be built in Noble County about 80 miles north of Oklahoma City. PSO will own 50 percent, OG&E will operate the facility and own 42 percent and the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, which provides electric power to about 20 communities in the state, will own 8 percent.

Red Rock would be located next to OG&E's Sooner Power Plant facilities.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Humes said recent changes in state law authorized the commission to review utility projects in advance rather than in hindsight. The commission can bar utilities from recovering construction costs of plants already built if it finds the costs were not reasonable.

Utility officials have said the proposed Red Rock plant will help the utilities keep up with growing consumer demand for electricity and keep costs down by using low-cost coal as a fuel instead of natural gas. Coal costs 85 percent less than natural gas, which has increased in price 117 percent over the last five years.

PSO's generating plants are primarily fueled by natural gas but the company also uses wind power and other fuels. If the company had relied solely on natural gas as a fuel over the last five years, its customers would have paid $1.7 billion more in fuel costs, according to company officials.

Opponents, including environmental groups, say natural gas burns much cleaner than coal and causes fewer environmental problems.

Karim said he will make a recommendation to the Supreme Court in about a week.
By TIM TALLEY 07.10.07, 6:06 PM ET

Ruling blocks direct sales of wine from producers to stores and restaurants

Gene Clifton, owner of Canadian River Winery & Vineyard near Norman, has more on his mind than this year's grape harvest.
He's worried his business will go belly-up because of a recent court ruling prohibiting wineries from selling directly to retailers and restaurants. For Clifton, direct distribution makes up 65 percent of his sales.
"Like most wine makers, we based our business plan on outside sales, so now we're stuck,” he said. "It's almost impossible to make up that kind of hit.”
In 2000, Oklahoma voters approved a measure that made wine makers exempt under Oklahoma liquor laws, which require all alcohol manufacturers to sell through a wholesaler.
But a change came after three large liquor wholesalers sued the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission in federal court last year. In November, a federal judge ruled the provision was in violation of interstate commerce laws. He gave the Legislature six months to fix it, but lawmakers failed to directly address the issue during the 2007 session. So on June 15, the judge ruled in favor of the wholesalers, striking down wineries' exemption and upholding a three-tier system for alcohol distribution.
Liquor wholesalers argue the three-tier system reinforces the way Oklahoma taxes, regulates and enforces alcohol laws. Winemakers say reverting to the pre-2000 law burdens the fledgling wine industry and puts the reins on agritourism, with vineyards and wineries playing a major role. Winemakers statewide also fear wholesalers will overlook newer, less established wineries and their brands. They also say wholesaler costs — about 22 percent — will cut too deep into their profits.
Mike Greenfield, co-owner Greenfield Vineyard and Winery, said the new regulations are prohibitive for startup vineyards that only produce a few thousand bottles of wine a year. His vineyard, for example, doesn't produce enough to offer large discounts to stay competitive, he said. He already discounts 33 percent to compensate for the retailer's mark up; an additional discount would be cost-prohibitive.
"Even if we wanted to use a wholesaler at this point, they don't have to use us. It's a huge hardship. My prediction is there're going to be wineries that go out of business,” Greenfield said. "We invested everything we had — bet the farm basically — that we were going to be able to directly distribute, so that if traffic was low a particular month we could hit the retail market hard, but we can't do that ... unless we use a wholesaler and we can't make any money that way.”
Alexander said a few wholesalers are placing orders with the wineries that are posting their prices with them. Alcohol manufacturers are required to post their prices to wholesalers every month. Those who waited to hear the federal judge's ruling probably will post July 15 in order to make the deadline for Sept. 1 orders.
Alexander said Oklahoma City-based Central Wholesale Liquor Co. has placed orders with the eight wineries that have posted prices.
"As far as I know, every major wholesaler in the state is carrying Oklahoma wines right now and has ordered Oklahoma wines. Now that doesn't mean that they'll order every specific brand,” he said.
Alexander said many Oklahoma wineries don't have enough demand for their products, and that's not the fault of the wholesalers or the Legislature.
Besides direct distribution, many Oklahoma wineries also were shipping their products. In April, Gov. Brad Henry signed into law HB 1753 which made it illegal for wineries to ship in state. Wineries are still able to ship products out of state, but most say they don't have a need to.
"This was not specific to stop Oklahoma wineries. This was specific to stop anyone else from shipping directly,” Alexander said. "If Gallo and other wineries could ship directly to consumers, it would absolutely affect wholesalers. We can't allow Oklahoma companies to do something that California companies or Arizona companies are not allowed to do.”
Gary Butler, president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Wine Makers Association, said wholesalers are concerned more about the future of their industry than the 53,000 gallons of wine Oklahoma wineries sold last year. The group Oklahomans for Modern Laws is trying to legalize the sale of strong beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores, and is making headway on a petition that could put the issue before voters.
"The wholesalers, I think, are primarily concerned about losing revenue with the large retailers if it does get in grocery stores,” he said. "I think they're more concerned about leaving the door open for large retailers to bypass (the wholesalers).”
Recently, Costco, a large discount chain, challenged alcohol distribution laws in Washington state and won the right to order directly from wineries. But Butler is most concerned that the law will cause small wineries to go out of business and make it difficult for people to enter the industry.
"Self distribution is crucial,” he said. "It gives small farm-based wineries an opportunity to build their businesses without huge capital investment.”
For seven years, winemakers have enjoyed self distribution, and the fledgling industry grew from two wineries to 45 licensed wineries, said Marta Patton, deputy director of the ABLE Commission, the agency that regulates Oklahoma's liquor laws.
"It's a trade off. It costs them. They make probably less for their wine because there's a markup when it goes through the (wholesaler), but if someone wants it, they're willing to pay for it. That's supply and demand.”
Much like the wine they grow, Patton said winemakers are a "resilient” group of people and will survive.
"I know this is a setback for them in their minds, but I also know the system is set up to help them,” she said.
Rewriting the law to include production caps could help appease winemakers and distributors, said Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Woodward. He wrote one bill that would have required wineries that produce more than 10,000 gallons a year to use a wholesaler.
Hickman said he is hopeful that the wholesalers and winemakers can reach common ground next session. But he doesn't have much hope for overhauling the entire alcohol distribution system.
By Trisha Evans
Business Writer

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Principal chief retains leadership in Cherokee Nation elections

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma went to the polls June 23 and reaffirmed their confidence in the leadership of Principal Chief Chad ''Corntassel'' Smith and Deputy Chief Joe Grayson Jr. Smith was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote for a third four-year term as principal chief, beating out his opponent, former Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice Stacy Leeds. Grayson was approved for a second term with 61 percent of the vote, over Raymond Vann, a retired General Motors foreman. During pre-election debates, Leeds challenged the current leadership's distribution of gaming revenues, claiming more money should be designated for health care services. Smith disagreed, arguing that at the present time, developing tribal business and employment opportunities was most critical. Currently, 30 percent of Cherokee gaming revenues are allocated for tribal services and 70 percent for business development. Smith said that solidifying existing Cherokee business ventures and expanding new ones has been the strategy of his administration that has worked best for the tribe in achieving its current level of success. He contended the nation must continue to build on that success. ''When I [first] got into office, we didn't have two nickels to rub together,'' he said. ''Cherokees have a long history of surviving abject poverty. The question now is, can we survive prosperity?'' The tribe currently employs some 6,500 people, and many new jobs have been created under Smith's leadership through expansion of the tribe's casino operations, which feature seven casinos in northeastern Oklahoma. During the debates, Grayson indicated that there has been an approximate 50 percent increase in tribal employment over the past three years, but he supports Smith's assertion that maintaining these advancements are critical. ''We're competing in the private sector now, so we need people that have experience in the private sector to run the businesses and keep them going.'' Smith and Grayson both emphasized the continued need to focus on improving diplomatic relations with state and federal entities. Grayson said the struggle to assert and solidify sovereignty is essential. ''The state doesn't realize that we are the largest employer in northeastern Oklahoma and every two weeks we pump into the economy of northeastern Oklahoma about $3.5 million in salaries - money funneled back into Oklahoma by the Cherokee Nation.'' Smith also cited long-term strategies to improve tribal leadership as another important challenge for the nation. He said consensus is the key to achieving goals the tribe has set. ''We need leaders that will pull together,'' he pointed out. He said statesmanship and leadership focused on the best interests of the whole tribe leads to greater success. He placed special prominence on ideas for developing culturally based leadership qualities and skills among the nation's youth. ''What greater honor can you ever be engaged in than passing on [our] great Cherokee legacy with discipline, compassion and the idea that we're doing it for something bigger than ourselves?'' he asked. Prior to his service as principal chief, Smith taught Indian law at Dartmouth College, Northeastern State University and Rogers State University. He has written college curricula in tribal operations and authored a 600-page course book on Cherokee legal history. He holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Georgia; a master's degree in public administration from the University of Wisconsin; and a juris doctorate from the University of Tulsa, according to the Cherokee Nation Web site. He also served with two previous administrations as director of tribal planning, legal historian, attorney, tribal prosecutor, director of justice and adviser to the tribal tax commission. Smith has also worked as a prosecutor in Creek County and a public defender in Tulsa County, and operated his own private law practice. Grayson is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, having served in the U.S. Army, 4th Infantry Division. He is a member of the Masonic Lodge and the American Legion. His professional life has been spent as a plumbing contractor and employee of W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, according to Chad Smith's Web site. Grayson has co-chaired the Cherokee National Holiday Committee, the Tahlequah Public Schools Indian Parent Committee and served as chairman of the Cherokee United Way. In 2005, he was elected National Congress of American Indians Vice President for Eastern Oklahoma. Fifteen tribal council members were also confirmed in the election. They include Bill John Baker, Cherokee District 1; S. Joe Crittenden, Trail of Tears District 2; David W. Thornton and Janelle Lattimore Fullbright, Sequoyah District 3; Don Garvin, Three Rivers District 4; Harley L. Buzzard and Curtis G. Snell, Delaware District 5; Chris Soap and Meredith Frailey, Mayes District 6; Cara Cowan Watts, Will Rogers District 7; Buel Anglen and Bradley Cobb, Oolagah District 8; Charles ''Chuck'' Hoskin Jr., Craig District 9; and Julia Coates and Jack D. Baker, councilors at large. A run-off election is scheduled for July 28, to decide the winners of two undecided seats between incumbent Audra Smoke-Connor and Tina Glory Jordan in District 1, and incumbent Jackie Bob Martin or Jody Fishinghawk in District 2. In addition, the election also yielded a vote to affirm the removal of mandatory federal approval for amendments to the Cherokee Nation Constitution, with 67 percent carrying the question.
by: Patti Jo King

Legislator Wants to Talk About Water Sale

An Oklahoma state senator is taking a politically unpopular stance by saying his state should consider selling what he describes as "excess runoff water" to Texas if it will help raise money to pay for new roads, bridges and other projects in his district.
State Sen. Jeff Rabon, a Democrat from Hugo, said a proposal made by the Tarrant Regional Water District to buy water from Oklahoma before it flows into the Red River will not drain the state's lakes, empty its aquifers or leave its farmers high and dry, as critics have contended.
Although additional studies are needed, Rabon argues that refusing to even think about selling the water is irresponsible. The state has a moratorium on out-of-state water sales that the water district is challenging in federal court as unconstitutional.
"What is the problem in talking about it?" asked Rabon, who represents a southeastern Oklahoma district that includes one of the basins where the water district wants to get the water. "I've never understood the notion or mind-set that you don't talk about it. At the end of the day, when the study is done or the courts have wrangled, it may in fact not be a good public policy.
"But you don't get there without talking about it. I'm not afraid to keep it on the table for discussion," Rabon said.
Jim Oliver, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Water District, said the district has made progress with other Oklahoma lawmakers as well.
"When we've met with a number of elected officials they were cautiously positive on our deal but they do understand politically that it is a tough thing for them to get in front of," Oliver said.
He said the cities in southeastern Oklahoma need the money.
"The towns are sitting at reservoirs, but they can't afford the pump stations and stuff to get the water," he said.
Other Oklahoma lawmakers reject any suggestion of selling water to Texas until a new statewide water use study is completed, and environmental and economic groups are concerned about how the idea will affect the quality and quantity of water flowing into the Red River.
"Now that Oklahoma lakes are full and the drought is broken I hope we don't forget what kind of desperate problems we had when we were in a drought and make some rash decision," said state Rep. Mike Reynolds, a Republican from Oklahoma City.
Water into money
While getting water from Oklahoma for Fort Worth and Dallas is not a new idea, the Tarrant Regional Water District's recent proposal has so far met with little public support. Even Oklahoma state Sen. Jeff Rabon acknowledges that it's a "touchy subject."
Rabon, a Hugo Democrat whose district includes the Kiamichi River basin, one of the areas where the water district wants to collect water, is among a few legislators who have spoken out about studying selling the water to North Texas.
Oklahoma Water Resources estimates that 1.5 million to 1.7 million acre-feet of water, or 488.7 billion to 553.9 billion gallons, empties from the Kiamichi River every year, Rabon said. He said that is "four times the amount [of water] the entire state uses in a year, Oklahoma City and Tulsa included."
The money could be used to pay off a $68 million debt the state owes the Army Corps of Engineers for building Lake Sardis as well as bridges, roads and pipelines to carry water to communities in his district that can't afford them, he said.
"This part of the state needs the money," Rabon said. "I have done all I can to improve the economic well-being of the district, and just because it's uncomfortable I won't breach that responsibility" by not talking about turning a natural, replenishing resource that may be wasted, to a large degree, into a revenue stream.
Not so fast
Oklahoma state Rep. Jerry Ellis, chief sponsor of the moratorium blocking out-of-state water sales, said the majority of Oklahomans oppose the sale. He said Rabon is willing to talk about the idea because term limits prevent him from serving after 2008.
"He feels like he can do what he wants to, but my feeling is to do what the majority wants you to do," Ellis said.
Ellis echoes concerns from several groups that once water goes to Texas, it will be hard to get it back during a drought.
"When we're wet, you are too. When we need water, you need it too," said Ellis, a Democrat from Valliant. "We think the local people ought to be taken care of; there is no guarantee that they will be."
Legal update
The water district applied for permits to capture water from the Cache Creek and Beaver Creek basins, near Lawton, and the Kiamichi River basin near McAlester. The district wants to divert about 7 percent of the water before it goes into the Red River and absorbs too much salt to be drinkable.
The Upper Trinity Regional Water District, which serves Collin, Dallas and Denton counties, also filed for a permit.
The Tarrant Regional Water District sued the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Water Conservation Storage Commission to keep the state from automatically dismissing or denying its permits while the matter is in court. The Tarrant water district contends that a state moratorium blocking out-of-state water sales violates federal law concerning interstate commerce.
The water district's research also indicates that when Oklahoma encouraged the federal government to build reservoirs there in the 1950s, the state encouraged the Corps of Engineers to consider the future demand for water from Fort Worth and Dallas.
"If they lose the lawsuit, it opens the door for us and others to apply for the run of the river and stored water and that is the risk they are facing," Oliver said.
Oklahoma wants the case dismissed, saying that no contract exists for selling the water, and since the moratorium applies only to contracts, there is no basis for the lawsuit. A letter from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission stating its concern about how the plan will affect water flowing into the Red River was also was entered into evidence.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton has not scheduled arguments.
Star-Telegram staff writer
Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714