Closure of William S. Key heats up Alva Community Coffee
• Legislators say it’s not done; recommend letter writing campaign
June 20, 2021
The first Alva Chamber Community Coffee in a year was held Friday on the Northwestern Oklahoma State University campus. Three legislators talked about what they’re doing at the capitol, but the hot topic in the question and answer period was closure of William S. Key Correctional at Ft. Supply.
NWOSU President Dr. Janet Cunningham welcomed guests. “If I’m smiling it’s because we got some new money this year so thank you to the legislators,” she said. “That has actually become somewhat unusual to be in that situation. So we are very pleased the state is doing pretty well and we were able to benefit from that.”
Since the last day of the spring semester, the campus has done away with social distancing and masks. “Northwestern was fortunate to really be able to have a more normal set of semesters than most institutions across the state, and I think kudos go to our staff, our faculty and our students for really complying in everything we asked them to do,” said Cunningham. “It ended up being a fairly safe environment.”
Although people think of summer as being a break for the university, NWOSU has been busy with two women’s basketball camps and a big baseball camp. About 250 students attended the basic STUCO leadership camp and another one is scheduled for July. In addition, about 50-60 Upward Bound students have been on the campus.
“These are great facilities and we need to have them in use all year round,” said Cunningham. “We’re hoping all those people that we are bringing in buy a tank of gas or stop at the local restaurant or maybe run downtown and grab something to help the economy here, and I think they do. I think that absolutely does happen.”
Senator Casey Murdock
Sen. Casey Murdock was the first of the legislators to speak. “This year, with all the difficulties, was a very good year. My first three or four years it was horrible, you know, with holes in the budget from a $600 million hole to a $1.3 million hole,” he said.
This year legislators were able to replace a lot of the cuts they made during those tough times. The regents for higher education had a 5.5 percent increase from $770 million to $812 million. “Across the board we fully funded 1017, we got $60 million for new science textbooks for education,” said Murdock. “The fights still happened but they were different. My first three years we were fighting over ‘don’t cut this, don’t cut that.’ This year we fought over ‘let’s send money here, let’s send money there.’ There are still fights, but instead of cuts we’re fighting over where we’re going to send the money.” He said the financial change was due to CARES money which is a one-time thing.
County roads and bridges were given more money, and the allocation has been changed from a population base to the number of miles of county roads. Murdock said metro areas were getting far more money for fewer miles of roads.
Oklahoma State University asked for $4 million extra for the veterinary school and was given $3 million for scholarships for large animal veterinary students. The school is graduating plenty of small animal vets, but there’s a shortage of large animal vets.
Murdock said in the bad years, REAP grants have been under attack with some legislators wanting to do away with them. But these grants help rural communities with streets, water, etc. One percent of the sales tax in the state is supposed to be put in the REAP grant fund. Because a lot of Oklahomans go to the bigger cities to do their shopping, the REAP grant was designed to make up for sales tax lost to rural Oklahoma. “We were able to give more money for the cities and protect the REAP program,” said Murdock.
“They got it up to $54.5 million, something like that,” added Rep. Carl Newton. “Right now the REAP grant is divided nine different ways. The metro areas, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, get one share and the other eight go out to rural areas. If we increased it more, the metro areas would get a full share so that’s why we got it up to a certain level and held it there. So you keep more of the money in rural areas instead of to the metro areas.”
Murdock said a few years ago, he talked about filing 60 bills and how dumb that was. “This year I only filed 30 bills. Out of those 30, I got 18 signed by the governor,” he said.
“Probably the bill I was tied to emotionally, the hardest bill I ran was SB310 youthful offenders,” Murdock said. He said a constituent, a 16 year old girl who was horribly raped by her boyfriend, came to him after her attacker got basically a slap on the wrist.
“It was not right. She’s going to have to deal with that the rest of her life,” he said. Although it didn’t change the penalty in this case, it increases the penalty for such crimes. Murdock said the first meeting he had with the girl “she was timid, she was scared.” But the girl and her mother attended every committee hearing and he saw her grow and come out of her shell. “That girl was a very, very strong girl. She’s going to be alright,” he added.
Murdock got a gun bill passed so Oklahomans can carry a long rifle in their vehicles. “I’m just trying to keep my constituents legal because I know probably every rancher out there carries one ready to go,” he said. When constitutional carry was passed, the wording left out long guns.
Another of Murdock’s bills passed allows counties to hire employees for pay higher than any county elected official. He said the Woodward County Commissioners had difficulty keeping a manager for their event center due to low pay, and this will improve that situation.
Another bill passed addresses foreign investors in marijuana grow facilities. Foreign investors must be disclosed.
Murdock ran a bill to protect high fence game areas from losses of animals to coyotes. He said one such facility lost quite a few baby deer. The bill allows them to use a state trapper to put out cyanide traps for coyotes.
Representative Carl Newton
Representative Carl Newton took the floor and led off talking about getting SB335 passed. He said he and Sen. Pederson ran mirror bills in the house and senate, and Pederson’s got the support. This cemetery bill, which had been proposed by Rep. Jeff Hickman years before, allows small cemeteries to reclaim abandoned burial plots. If a cemetery has had no contact with a plot owner for 75 years, they can give a year’s notice and reclaim the plot. This is a great help to small, landlocked cemeteries.
In redistricting this year, Newton said Sen. Pederson expanded his district by 80 square miles. Newton’s district grew from 3,572 sq. mi. to 3,997 sq. mi. And. Sen. Murdock has the distinction of covering over one quarter of the state in land mass. Newton joked that Murdock will have to get a new pickup every year to cover his district.
Newton said he was glad to be able to keep his rural district intact. “If you want your voice to count in rural Oklahoma, you need all these rural legislators,” he said.
The legislators will have to go back for a special session in October after census numbers are finalized. State redistricting will remain the same unless some of the numbers are way off, but the legislature still has to do the congressional redistricting.
Newton said the legislature did some work on states’ rights. If federal executive orders contradict state laws, the state attorney general has been given power to evaluate those, and he has also been given additional money to fight those if needed to protect the rights of the citizens of Oklahoma.
“We did fully fund your transportation. Last year we took $180 million out of there. Their cap right now is $575 million. We increased that to $590 million,” said Newton. “We’re trying to make better roads in the state of Oklahoma. I would love to drive from Texas into Oklahoma and go onto a better road.”
He said the last two years the state has been concentrating on bridges with over 1300 not meeting qualifications so those had to be redone first. “From here to Bouse Junction, you can go if the road’s really crappy. But you can’t go if the Cimarron River Bridge is out.”
Now the concentration will be on roads and paving, he said. The legislature approved that the Department of Transportation could take out a bond issue of $200 million to be used on two-lane roads and deficient bridges. The interest rate on the bond is only 1.1 percent. “If you have a bad road, let me know,” said Newton. He added that it has to be a state road.
He talked about elections, saying recounts were not allowed on state questions. The vote on SQ802 was very close. Now recounts will be allowed on state questions. Also if a state question has a financial impact on taxpayers, it must state that on the ballot “so that you know what it’s going to cost you.”
Regarding interim studies, Newton said he and Murduck are doing a drift study to make sure farmers can spray their crops if in proximity to grow houses.
“We have a lot of problems with pipelines and wind companies protesting their taxes to counties,” said Newton. This affects budgets for the county commissioners and schools.
He said he’s also going to look at ag sales tax exemptions. They did pass an ag sales tax bill, but they’re going to look at it a little bit more to see if they need to refine to make sure the true farmers are getting the benefit.
Senator Roland Pederson
Although he does not represent Woods County, Sen. Roland Pederson lives just 20 miles away from Alva in Burlington. When he comes to Alva, he gets lots of questions about the legislature.
Pederson said four of the best years of his life were spent at NWOSU. “Dr. Cunningham, I think this is what you have … when you have a farm girl running a university. Just common sense things and so much success here, and thank you for what you do,” he said. “You are a shining light to the rest of the universities.”
Pederson said he actually came to the meeting to get away from greasing a combine. “We’re right in the middle of it (wheat harvest),” he said.
Endowed chairs for universities have been a concern. Money donated by citizens for these chairs was supposed to be matched by the state, but they quit funding them. Pederson said he’d been assured by Sen. Roger Thompson “that the money is coming.”
Concurrent enrollment is fully funded this year, a big plus for the universities. National Guard money is fully funded this year, Pederson said.
Discussing the distribution of CARES money, Newton chimed in to talk about the Restoring America Plan with 12 representatives and 12 senators on that committee. Sen Murdock is on that list.
Newton said he’s been talking to the governor about “some prison out west” referring to the recent news that the Department of Corrections plans to close William S. Key at Ft. Supply by the end of the year.
Newton said his number one thought on the federal money is there needs to be a paved road from Avard to US281.”Since we have a facility out there, I think that would be great,” he said to applause. “That’s one of my number one things I’ll be pushing.” He was referring to the Avard Rail Park. “You talk about restoring America, we need to be able to ship things out and move things around. I think that would be a great place to start.”
Pederson said on redistricting he picked up about 80 sq. mi. on the east side of his district. “I would love to come to Alva. That’s only 20 miles away.” However, he said it wasn’t up to him and Sen. Murdock does a good job representing the area.
“Amtrak has a Southern Flyer that goes from Oklahoma City to Ft. Worth. Sen. (Ken) Luttrell and I and ten other senators and representatives, we’re going to try to extend that and call it the Northern Flyer and go up to Newton (Kansas) and meet that Southwest Chief maybe,” said Pederson. “Right now there’s a bus that transfers people back and forth.”
Questions from the Audience
Todd Holder of Alva asked, “Does anyone know the percentage of endowed chairs this university (NWOSU) holds in comparison to other universities in the state?” Murdock said, “It’s the largest in the state.”
Holder asked, “So if we’re the largest, does that mean we’ll get the most money out of those endowed chairs?” Murdock answered, “Well, you would think.”
“Do you think our communities give more to our universities than other universities?” Holder continued with affirmative head nods from all three legislators.
“If that’s true, how can we be taking 120-130 jobs out of our community that gives back to its community by closing a prison (William S. Key)?” Holder asked. Murdock said, “I agree with you 100 percent.”
“How in the world can we figure out to do something with that facility as just opposed to losing those jobs?” Holder asked. “I appreciate what you guys are doing but those jobs are so vitally important to northwest Oklahoma. One way we’re going to keep you three and not change redistricting … is to put jobs back into the area.”
Pederson said, “You make an excellent point, Todd. The Greer campus down there is just growing up in weeds, and it’s a state property. It’s going to be just like that out there. We’ve got to get to work. You’ve got to send some letters.”
Newton said two years ago the closure of William S. Key was staved off after letters were sent by the community members. “This thing came down quick,” he said. “We heard about it Tuesday, and it was a done deal.”
Murdock said people from Buffalo called the governor’s office, and his office people who answered the phone didn’t know what was going on. “This is how fast it came down,” he said. “And I think it came down fast because we did stave it off two years ago, and they didn’t want to give us time to stop it.”
Janice Melton, who retired as the first warden at Bill Johnson Correctional Center in Alva, said she’s been with the Department of Corrections (DOC) a long time, and there’s a history how the DOC gets saddled with these old facilities. “But there are so many more options than closure, and I am equally offended that the communities, I can say this now, that the department wasn’t more transparent in involving the community in looking for options that might not be as damaging to northwest Oklahoma,” she said. “The majority of the facilities are on the east side of the state already.
“So those jobs and how that affects our population, we already fight an uphill battle keeping those kinds of industries, and it is, on our side of the state.’
Melton continued, “There are done deals, and there are some not so done deals. Some of those done deals can be changed if people say, ‘Look, let’s slow this down. Let’s see what we can do.’ That may be the best we can do.”
She said William S. Key is a money pit and always has been due to the aging infrastructure. She said the facility at Pauls Valley closed and those buildings are going unused. “As a state, that’s not a Department of Corrections issue,” she said. “There need to be better solutions for closing down facilities that we don’t need.”
She spoke about options such as knocking down some of the old buildings and erecting new metal ones. “It may not be for Corrections, it might be for something else,” she said.
Murdock said Newton has been talking to the governor while he has been talking to the AB Chair in the senate. “The AB Chair in the senate is hot over this issue,” he said. “Director Crow was in his office the day before (Monday).” Crow said they were thinking about it but he would bring a plan before they (DOC) did anything. The next morning the press release came out. “He basically misled the AB Chair of the senate,” Murdock said.
“Roger Thompson (AB Chair) is mad,” said Murdock. “He’s after them to pull this decision back … because they did not bring in the legislature.”
“We even gave them funding,” said Newton. “We gave extra money for the repairs out there,” Murdock added.
“We have brilliant people in the state, we have brilliant people in northwest Oklahoma, who would partner with the state, who would partner with the Department of Corrections,” said Melton. There could be some better ideas out there, she added.
Both Murdock and Newton said earlier they talked to the DOC about partnering with neighboring communities. It was suggested people and communities in the area might contribute and help building a new metal building for housing prisoners.
Dr. Cunningham suggests using some of the CARES money for the facility. Murdock said he’s on that committee and that’s one of the things he’ll be pushing. With $1.6 to $1.9 billion in the fund, Murdock said, “I think we could use some of this money for William S. Key.”
Cunningham asked, “What can we do?” Murdock and Newton recommended contacting the governor. “He’s the one who will make this decision,” said Newton.
Murdock said he sent out a press release “calling for everyone up here to write letters. I know two years ago there were people in Boise City writing letters. I think I had everyone in my senate district writing letters and calling the governor. That’s where this decision is going to get changed.”
Discussion ensued about Governor Kevin Stitt’s push to gain more control over state boards. Newton said the Board of Corrections includes five people from Tulsa, one from Shawnee and the remainder from the metro area. “They’re all urban,” said Murdock. Newton pointed out that Holder used to be on the Board of Corrections, and Murdock said he pulled every string he could to get Holder back on the board but failed.
Newton said despite rumors, Bill Johnson (Alva) and Crabtree (Helena) are not on a list to be shut down. “Bill Johnson is their shining star for the Department of Corrections,” he said. Of Crabtree, Newton said, “It’s the most efficiently run prison in the state.”
“Who was number two?” asked Holder. “William S. Key,” answered Newton.
The work ethic of people in northwest Oklahoma is better, said Murdock. “Those guards and employees at Williams S. Key … they were loyal, they showed up to work. You can’t beat the workforce we have in northwest Oklahoma. To shut it down and move these jobs out of here is not a smart management decision in my mind.”
Jane McDermott of Alva, a regent with RUSO (Regional University System of Oklahoma), said, “Susan Winchester is the new appointed head of the governor’s reorganization of boards and commissions. She is also a regent for the RUSO system. She is our friend.”
McDermott suggested working through her as well as contacting the governor. “She is a Chickasha girl, she is a farm girl, she is excellent, a former legislator” McDermott added. “I encourage people to include her in your letter writing.”
A video of the entire meeting may be viewed at http://www.AlvaReviewCourier.com under the Videos tab.