Effects of war in Iraq judged top state story

Saturday, December 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The effects of the war in Iraq on soldiers and families in Oklahoma dominated state news coverage in 2003.

It was voted the story of the year in The Associated Press' annual survey of Oklahoma members.

At the height of the war, about 5,000 troops from Fort Sill were involved in the fight. About half of that total was still in Iraq by year's end. Seventeen soldiers from the U.S. Army base died in the war, including six killed in a single helicopter crash.

An additional 1,800 National Guard troops from Oklahoma were either on alert or mobilized to aid in the military effort.

The effects of the war received first-place votes from seven of the 13 AP newspapers voting in this year's survey.

In second place was the campaign financing scandal surrounding former state Sen. Gene Stipe. The Democratic political icon, who served longer in the state Legislature than anyone in Oklahoma history, faces possible prison time for lying about his schemes to funnel more than $245,000 into the failed 1998 congressional campaign of Walt Roberts. Three others involved in the conspiracy, Roberts, Stipe's aide Charlene Spears and former state Sen. Jim E. Lane, were sentenced.

Last year, the collapse of a bridge on Interstate 40 near Webbers Falls was voted by AP Oklahoma members as the top story. Fourteen people died in the accident.

Here are the top 10 stories of 2003, as ranked by AP members:

1. EFFECTS OF THE WAR IN IRAQ: On Nov. 2, 15 soldiers, six from Fort Sill, were killed in Iraq when their Chinook helicopter was shot down.

More than 1,000 soldiers, family members and friends packed the Sheridan Theater at Fort Sill to pay tribute to the soldiers. Pictures of the men lined the stage, which was bordered with artillery shells, flowers and U.S. flags. Desert camouflage boots and helmets with the men's names and stripes rested on standing M-16 rifles. Dog tags hung from the gun sights.

A total of 17 people from Fort Sill had died in Iraq by year's end. Thousands of Oklahomans were affected by the war in ways big and small throughout the year as loved ones left for overseas duty.

2. GENE STIPE: Sentencing in Washington for the former state senator, who was convicted for his role in a 1998 campaign scandal, was delayed Dec. 2 for the sixth time, five times because of his health problems. His attorney said Stipe, 77, has a condition where an excess of fluid builds up inside his brain and it wasn't safe for him to travel to the East Coast.

A week later, Stipe, using a walker, showed up at a courthouse in Fayetteville, Ark., to get a license to marry Mary Thetford, a 71-year-old Tulsa real estate agent. The couple were wed later in the day in a private ceremony.

3. STATE BUDGET CUTS: The state closed out the 2003 fiscal year with general fund collections 5.1 percent less than the year before. Effects of the recession hurt the fund, financed primarily by income, sales, motor vehicle and gross production taxes. The revenue shortfall prompted a series of budget cuts that trimmed $352.3 million from allocations to state agencies, including education, health and prisons.

By the end of the calendar year, indications were that revenue collections had increased enough to trigger an automatic decrease in the income tax rate to 6.65 percent from 7 percent. However, state officials were predicting another tight budget year and said it might be difficult to sustain current budget levels.

4. UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA FOOTBALL: The Oklahoma Sooners put together a perfect 12-0 season before a stunning 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game. Still, the third-ranked Sooners managed to keep their spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game against LSU in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. Quarterback Jason White won the Heisman Trophy.

5. DEPEW SHOOTINGS: Scott Eizember, a suspect in a double killing in Depew, was the focus of a 37-day manhunt. He was captured Nov. 23 after being shot four times by an Arkansas physician he allegedly kidnapped at gunpoint.

6. SEN. DON NICKLES: Saying he ``didn't want to be a lifer'' in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Don Nickles, 54, stood near a museum statue of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, and announced he was leaving public office after four terms. Democratic Rep. Brad Carson and Republican Kirk Humphreys, Oklahoma City's outgoing mayor, emerged as leading candidates to succeed him.

7. TORNADOES: Tornadoes strike the Oklahoma City area on May 8 and May 9, leaving more than 300 homes destroyed, dozens injured and one person dead.

8. PUBLIC SMOKING LEGISLATION: The Oklahoma Legislature passes a law banning smoking in most public places. The law gives restaurants until March 1, 2006, to go smoke free or build separately ventilated smoking rooms.

9. LOTTERY LEGISLATION: The Oklahoma Legislature puts a measure on the November 2004 ballot that would authorize a state lottery intended to provide money to aid public education.

10. METHAMPHETAMINE: The state struggles with the problems of methamphetamine use and production. Between 1992 and 2002, the number of clandestine meth labs discovered in Oklahoma went from zero to 1,254.