All articles by David Blatt

The conservative case for raising the minimum wage

by | September 29th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Economy, Poverty | Comments (0)
Fast food workers strike at McDonald's in Chicago. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

Fast food workers strike at McDonald’s in Chicago. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

For many working Oklahomans, low-wage jobs aren’t paying enough to support themselves and their families without public assistance. Raising the minimum wage would boost the overall economy while properly shifting the responsibility for ensuring family economic security back towards the private sector and away from government and taxpayers.

Oklahoma is a state with a high concentration of low-wage jobs. Nearly one of every three jobs in Oklahoma (31.9 percent) is in an occupation where the median annual pay is below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four, the fifth highest prevalence among the states. Of this low-wage population, some 60,000 workers earned the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2008 and 2012, some 67,000 Oklahomans worked full-time year round yet earned less than $15,000 for the year, four-fifths of whom were supporting or helping to support an entire household with their wages. 

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Introducing our new class of Research Fellows and interns

by | September 23rd, 2014 | Posted in Blog, OK Policy | Comments (1)

graduation-cap-10Oklahoma Policy Institute is very pleased to announce the selection of four Oklahoma graduate students as our second class of OK Policy Research Fellows.

The 2014-15 Research Fellows are all distinguished by a combination of strong research interests and an active personal commitment to improving the well-being of disadvantaged Oklahomans:

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Oklahoma’s democracy is broken

by | September 16th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Elections | Comments (3)

low turnout2Last month,  Oklahoma voters went to the polls for primary runoff elections. Well, a few voters went to the polls. Average turnout was a paltry 18.1 percent. In 11 of the 16 runoff contests, fewer than one in five registered voters cast a ballot to select their party’s nominee. In the two statewide Democratic primaries for Superintendent of Instruction and U.S. Senator, turnout was less than 11 percent.

Pitiful turnout in primaries is an extreme example of a broader breakdown of democratic participation in Oklahoma. Earlier this year, Oklahoma was ranked 47th among the states for electoral performance in a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. On a majority of indicators in the study, including voter registration, turnout, voting wait time, and registration or absentee ballot problems, Oklahoma ranked among the bottom third of states.

In this post, we examine the signs of weakening political participation and representation in Oklahoma. In a follow-up post, we will consider some of the contributing factors behind our poor electoral performance and look at what we can do about it.

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Schools, housing, & poverty: Thoughts on segregation in Tulsa

by | September 11th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Education, Poverty & Opportunity | Comments (0)

This is an edited version of remarks made to a community form hosted by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice on “Resegregation of Tulsa Schools” held September 4, 2014. All statistics, along with their sources, are compiled in this spreadsheet.

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In a 1974 paper in the American Journal of Sociology, two scholars examined data on segregation in public elementary schools. They looked at schools in 60 cities, just before the start of serious efforts by the federal government to enforce the desegregation of public schools in the South. The researchers used a statistical measure called the dissimilarity index to look at how segregated or integrated the schools were in each city.

Not surprisingly, the research found most US school systems were strongly segregated. On the index where 0 represents perfect integration and 100 represents perfect segregation, the average score for the 60 cities was 79 percent.  The scores ranged from a low of 39 in Sacramento to a high of 97 in two cities – Tulsa and Oklahoma City. We’ve clearly had a lot of ground to make up over the past 40 years.

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Raise your hand if you got a raise

by | September 8th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Budget | Comments (1)

old one dollarFor some 12,000 state employees, the long wait for a pay raise has finally ended. Legislation passed this last session provided selected workers a raise of 6.25 percent or more, effective July 1 (or in the case of state troopers, January 1). But with legislators appropriating significantly less than what an expert study recommended to move the state towards more competitive compensation, a majority of state employees were left out of this year’s pay raise plan.

Legislators also decided to pick and choose which positions received raises without much input from the agencies involved. This ad hoc process left out some workers who are in very similar positions to those who received raises. While the raises were a welcome start, many Oklahoma’s public employee compensation still has many gaps in what we need to attract and maintain enough qualified workers.

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Time to off the runoff?

by | September 3rd, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Elections | Comments (0)

Empty Voting BoothsDr. John Cox won a decisive victory in last week’s runoff election for the Democratic Party nomination for State Superintendent of Instruction, gaining 62.9 percent of the vote and beating challenger Dr. Freda Deskin by some 25,000 votes out of almost 96,000 cast.

It was a convincing victory, with one big caveat — the 60,377 votes received by Dr. Cox represented about 1 out of 15 (6.7 percent) of eligible Democratic voters. Turnout for the runoff race was down 42.8 percent from the initial primary, where Dr. Cox and Dr. Deskin led a field of four candidates. With turnout falling so dramatically, is it time for Oklahoma to consider a better way to decide multi-candidate elections?

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Are Medicaid patients overusing the ER?

by | August 21st, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Healthcare | Comments (0)

ERIn the debate over Medicaid, a frequently heard claim is that Medicaid recipients overuse emergency rooms for non-emergency care, and that we need to address this problem if we are to contain Medicaid spending.

This past session, the Legislature approved HB 2906, which directs the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state’s Medicaid agency, to conduct a study of current and potential ways to reduce trips to the emergency department. Earlier in session, legislation passed the House that would have limited Medicaid coverage to six emergency room visits per year.

However, Health Care Authority data seems to dispel the idea that ER overuse by Medicaid members is as pervasive or as serious a problem as many assume. In State Fiscal Year 2013, there were just over 1 million Oklahomans enrolled in SoonerCare. Of this population, nearly three in four (73.8 percent) made no emergency room visits in a 12-month period. Another 21 percent visited the ER once or twice. Only 11,763 individuals, or 1.1 percent of the Medicaid population, had six or more ER visits. This small population accounted for some 107,000 ER visits, or about one in five of all visits.

ERusageFY2013Since 2004, the Health Care Authority has operated the High ER utilization project, which identifies and contacts members who have been to the ER more than once in a quarter and provides information about appropriate usage and referrals to care management. The program has a provider education component as well. Since 2007, emergency room usage has declined from an annual average of 0.58 annual visit per member to 0.53 annual visits per member. Although we should be careful about making direct comparisons because of differences in demographic make-up and data sources, ER utilization for Medicaid recipients appears comparable to the overall population. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Oklahomans had 488 ER visits per 1,000 people in 2011; OHCA data suggests that Medicaid recipients made 550 visits per 1,000 people in fiscal year 2011.

It’s also not apparent that ER visits are a major expense in the Medicaid program. In fiscal year 2013, total emergency department costs, including facility and professional claims, were $141.0 million, which represents less than 3 percent of total SoonerCare expenditures of $4.97 billion (with ancillary services, the total cost was $178.3 million, or 3.6 percent of total expenditures). The average cost per emergency room visit was $257.31.

The Health Care Authority’s efforts to monitor and prevent inappropriate emergency room usage should certainly be continued. However, the idea that many Medicaid members make unnecessary trips to the ER seems to reflect myths and anecdotes more than reality.

Tobacco tax revenue declined last year. Here’s why that’s mostly good news.

by | August 13th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Healthcare, Taxes | Comments (0)

In 2004, Oklahoma voters approved SQ 713, which increased the excise tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products while eliminating the state and local sales tax on these products. The new revenues from the increased taxes were dedicated to a variety of health-related purposes, including the Insure Oklahoma premium assistance program, a comprehensive cancer center, trauma care, tobacco cessation, and others.

Tobacco tax revenues allocated for health care under SQ 713 rose from $107.1 million in FY 2006, when the new taxes took full effect, to $145.6 million in FY 2012. However, these revenues fell slightly in FY 2013 and then dropped dramatically by $18.3 million (13 percent) in the fiscal year that just ended. The two largest recipients of tobacco tax funds – Oklahoma Health Care Authority general operations and the Insure Oklahoma fund – saw their funding decrease by $7.3 million and $6.0 million respectively in FY 2014. The shortfall contributed to the Health Care Authority having to enact larger cuts to provider payments and services.

TobaccoTaxRev06-14What accounts for the drop in tobacco tax collections? The answer is complicated.

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Two great OK Policy opportunities for Oklahoma college students

by | August 12th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, OK Policy | Comments (0)

OfficeDoor

OK Policy is pleased to announced two exciting opportunities for Oklahoma college students. We are currently accepting applications for our fall internship and for our 2014-2015 research fellowship. Students working with OK Policy have a wide range of opportunities to conduct research, write blog posts, and contribute to OK Policy projects and events. We invite all interested candidates to apply.

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Definition of two small words could have large consequences

by | August 6th, 2014 | Posted in Blog, Taxes | Comments (0)

dictionaryIs a bill that adjusts the tax rates on production of oil and gas a “revenue bill” under the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution? This is the question for the Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide in a challenge filed by Oklahoma City Jerry Fent to HB 2562. Along with a similar challenge to a bill , SB 1246, that cuts the top income tax rate, the Court’s answer could have a dramatic effect on Oklahoma’s fiscal and political landscape.

HB 2562 was the outcome of one of most contentious political battles of the past year. Currently, Oklahoma assesses a standard 7 percent severance tax on oil and gas but offers lower tax rates as a way to support and incentivize various forms of production. The most generous tax break – a 1 percent rate on horizontal wells for the first 48 months of production – is set to expire at the end of June 2015. With an overwhelming share of drilling activity in Oklahoma and elsewhere having shifted to horizontal production in recent years, the question of whether to continue the tax break became one with significant budgetary and economic implications.

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