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Upcoming Event: An evening with Matthew Yglesias and Lauren Zuniga, Sept. 27

by | August 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, OK Policy | Comments (1)

Matthew Yglesias

On Thursday, September 27, Oklahoma Policy Institute and Booksmart Tulsa will host an evening with author and blogger Matthew Yglesias. The event will be at the Dilly Deli, 402 East 2nd Street, Tulsa, OK 74120, beginning with refreshments at 7 pm and the program at 7:30 pm. It is free and open to the public.

Matthew Yglesias is one of America’s most widely-read and respected bloggers and columnists. He is a business and economics correspondent for Slate in Washington, DC, where he writes the Moneybox blog. Previously he was a fellow at the Center for American Progress, an associate editor at The Atlantic, and a staff writer for the American Prospect.

Yglesias frequently writes about foreign policyhealth caretechnologypolitics, and more. He is the namesake for popular blogger Andrew Sullivan’s Yglesias Award, given to “writers, politicians, columnists or pundits who actually criticize their own side, make enemies among political allies, and generally risk something for the sake of saying what they believe.”

Yglesias will discuss his e-book original, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” published by Simon & Schuster in March. From the publisher’s description:

From prominent political thinker and widely followed Slate columnist, a polemic on high rents and housing costs—and how these costs are hollowing out communities, thwarting economic development, and rendering personal success and fulfillment increasingly difficult to achieve. Rent is an issue that affects nearly everyone. High rent is a problem for all of us, extending beyond personal financial strain. High rent drags on our country’s overall rate of economic growth, damages the environment, and promotes long commutes, traffic jams, misery, and smog. Yet instead of a serious focus on the issue, America’s cities feature niche conversations about the availability of “affordable housing” for poor people. Yglesias’s book changes the conversation for the first time, presenting newfound context for the issue and real-time, practical solutions for the problem.

Lauren Zuniga

Oklahoma poet Lauren Zuniga will kick off the event with a poetry reading. Recently voted Best Local Author by Oklahoma Gazette’s Best of OKC 2012, Lauren Zuniga is a nationally touring poet, teaching artist and activist. She is one of the top 5 ranked female poets in the world, the 2012 Activist-in-Residence at the OU Center for Social Justice, and the founder of Oklahoma Young Writers.

Her new book is “The Smell of Good Mud” from Write Bloody Publishing. You can see Zuniga performing one of her poems here.

In The Know: Rural Oklahomans least likely to have health insurance

by | August 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, In The Know | Comments (0)

In The KnowIn The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today you should know that Oklahomans in the more rural areas of the state are least likely to have health insurance, and the state is sixth-worst overall for percentage uninsured, according to new Census numbers. Improving state education funding and urging the state to join the Medicaid expansion are top priorities of the regional One Voice agenda of the Tulsa Metro Chamber. David Blatt’s Journal Record column discusses the new hope and opportunities for undocumented immigrants brought to Oklahoma as young children.

Oklahoma City’s unemployment rate, already the lowest among the nation’s large cities, fell to 4.8 percent in July. LeFlore County had the highest unemployment rate last month in the state, at 10.1 percent. Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett responded to criticisms of the Vision2 sales tax proposal. Americans Elect will not be on the Oklahoma presidential ballot in November, and a state group was denied in their attempt to put Libertarian candidates Gary E. Johnson in the Americans Elect slot.

Both the Oklahoma Policy Institute and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs are calling for reforms to allow citizens to better monitor state budget decisions. McClatchy writes that Gov. Fallin’s speech at the Republican National Convention omitted major chunks of federal government involvement in Oklahoma’s history. The Southern Poverty Law Center is reporting growth of anti-government groups in Oklahoma.

The Number of the Day is the annual average employee contribution for a family health insurance plan in Oklahoma. In today’s Policy Note, Atlantic Cities discusses a new report on the mismatch between available jobs in American cities and the workforce’s education background.

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In The Know: Mullin, Wallace win runoffs to succeed Rep. Dan Boren

by | August 29th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, In The Know | Comments (0)

In The KnowIn The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today you should know that Republican Markwayne Mullin and Democrat Rob Wallace won primary runoff races and will compete to succeed U.S. Rep. Dan Boren in the November general election. Shawnee and Tulsa have new Senators after Ron Sharp and Nathan Dahm won Republican primary races in districts with no Democratic or independent candidates challenging for the seat. Rep. Joe Dorman says he plans to file legislation to allow all registered voters to vote in primaries when there is no general election, due to only one candidiate from one party filing for office.

Norman Superintendent Joe Siano wrote an op-ed to defend schools’ use of carry-over funds criticized by Rep. Jason Nelson. NewsOK writes that ACT scores show critical weaknesses in the science and math foundation of Oklahoma students. StateImpact Oklahoma collected stories from Oklahoma’s volunteer firefighters battling wildfire throughout the state. The OK Policy Blog proposes some regulations for Oklahoma to eliminate.

Tulsa City Councilor Blake Ewing spoke out against the Vision2 sales tax proposal, saying it was taking advantage of the potential loss of aviation industry jobs to fund a wide range of unrelated projects without sufficient public discussion. Twenty-four Oklahoma hospitals will stop sending baby formula home with new moms in order to encourage breastfeeding. Reuters reports that the weekly rig count data provided by oil service firms, often relied on by energy investors as an important indicator of future production, is highly unreliable.

The Number of the Day is how many years since Oklahoma has adjusted the gasoline tax for inflation. In today’s Policy Note, The Washington reports that out of 512 surveyed companies employing more than 1,000 workers each, none plan to stop providing health insurance when the Affordable Care Act fully goes into effect.

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Summer Re-Run: When "business-friendly" regulations are bad for the rest of us

by | August 28th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Economy | Comments (1)

Yesterday, an Oklahoman editorial made the case that many of Oklahoma’s job licensing requirement are unnecessary and harmful to consumers. We made a similar argument in this blog post, originally published in February 2011.

keyOne theme of Gov. Fallin’s State of the State speech was that we should eliminate regulations to make the state more business-friendly. A common refrain from members of the business community is that environmental and safety regulations are too onerous. But even from free-market advocates, we hear much less about the regulations that protect existing businesses from competition.

A case in point – the Wall Street Journal reports on the growing number of jobs that require state licenses. For example, in Texas hair-salon “shampoo specialists” have to “take 150 hours of classes, 100 of them on the ‘theory and practice’ of shampooing, before they can sit for a licensing exam.”

Oklahoma also makes an appearance in the WSJ story:

Dusty Brummitt, a locksmith in Enid, Okla., says a new state law licensing his trade ensures the public gets quality work. Anyone who wants to be a locksmith must now prove he’s in the U.S. legally, submit to a criminal background check, pay fees of up to $350 a year and pass a 50-question exam. Just 32% of applicants pass the locksmith exam, state data show.

Mr. Brummitt says the law has “gotten rid of about 90% of the scammers in our state” since it took effect in 2007.

But it’s unclear how many scammers there were. The consumer-protection unit of the state attorney general’s office received just two complaints about locksmiths in more than a decade—one in 2006, the year before the law took effect, and one in 2008, the year after, according to Tom Bates, who runs the division. Three applicants for licenses were rejected because of criminal history.

Mr. Brummitt says licensure wasn’t intended to stifle competition. But he acknowledges that in some Oklahoma cities, the requirements have prompted immigrant entrepreneurs and retirees who did the work as a hobby—and who often undercut traditional locksmiths on price—to drop out of the trade. As a result, he said, some veteran locksmiths, who didn’t have to pass the exam because they were grandfathered in, have “definitely seen an increase in business.”

The trend continues in the current legislature. For example, HB 1462 by Rep. Lee Denney (R-Cushing) would require a state license for music therapists. The licensing would be overseen by a “Music Therapy Practice Board”, the majority of which is currently practicing music therapists. In other words, individuals already established in the field are tasked with developing rules that make it harder for newcomers to compete with them.

There’s certainly a case for licensing in fields where shoddy work can have dangerous repercussions, such as medicine. It’s also legitimate for professional associations to provide their own certifications based on whatever standard they see fit, but they shouldn’t be able to enlist the state to enforce it. That regulation may be friendly to existing businesses, but it harms consumers and new entrepreneurs.  If the legislature and governor are intent on reducing regulation, this would be a good place to start.

In The Know: Oklahoma's state employee decline ranks among the nation's largest

by | August 28th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, In The Know | Comments (0)

In The KnowIn The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today you should know that Oklahoma shed more than 2,000 state employees between 2010 and 2011, a 3.1 percent drop that is one of the biggest declines in the nation. OK Policy previously discussed some effects of the shrinking state employee workforce. The OK Policy Blog calls for a more honest discussion of the trade-offs involved in tax and budget decisions.

The executive director of Oklahoma’s Temporary High Risk Pool spoke about the program that was established as a bridge to cover uninsured people with pre-existing conditions until the Affordable Care Act takes full effect. OK Policy previously explained this component of the new health care law.  The Tahlequah Daily Press writes about how the Affordable Care Act will improve accountability and patient care within Medicare.

Drought conditions that have plagued Oklahoma and stunted the state’s cotton crop are now trickling into other areas of the farm economy. Oklahoma City was ranked 80th and Tulsa was ranked 95th among America’s 200 largest cities for the likelihood of drivers getting into an auto accident.

Oklahoma schools are changing to healthier lunch menus under new federal rules. The Tulsa World writes that Rep. Jason Nelson’s claim that Oklahoma schools have extra money because they carry over a portion of their operating budgets is nonsense. Polls are open today for a variety of state and county runoff elections, school bonds, and city sales taxes.

The Number of the Day is the percentage of mortgages in Oklahoma that are past due or seriously delinquent. In today’s Policy Note, Michael Grunwald discusses why the 2009 stimulus bill was was one of the most important and least understood pieces of legislation in modern history.

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Keeping it honest

by | August 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Budget | Comments (0)

In a recent blog post, we pointed out that while most core services have seen significant cuts in recent years, transportation has been spared. At a time when many state agencies were absorbing funding cuts of more than 20 percent, spending on roads and bridges has more than tripled.

In response to our blog post, The Oklahoman published an op-ed to defend the additional spending on transportation. They wrote:

Yes, the amount of additional state funding directed to the repair and upkeep of roads and bridges in recent years has been significant. But it has needed to be significant because during the 20 years before things began to change, the Legislature wrote the same size check to ODOT every year — translating to a 45 percent reduction after inflation.

In a fitting coincidence, the 45 percent decline in transportation spending is the exact percentage that the value of the gas tax has dropped since it was last increased in 1987. Oklahoma taxes gasoline at a constant 17 cents/gallon and diesel at 15 cents/gallon. Therefore the real value of the gas tax declines with inflation.

Both The Oklahoman and our earlier post pointed out that an increase in the gas tax was rejected in 2005 by a large majority of voters. At the time, Oklahomans were clearly not willing to pay more taxes for road maintenance and construction. Yet since 2005, we’ve dramatically increased transportation spending anyway and committed ourselves to increased of several hundred million dollars more in the years ahead. Are those same voters today willing to give less to education and other core services in order to spend more on roads? We don’t know, because no one has asked.

When Gov. Fallin announced her plan to boost transportation spending last year, she emphasized that it would be done without any increases in taxes or tolls. Her spokesperson said that the plan “does not reflect a lack of commitment to other areas of government.” Yet by definition, spending more on roads without bringing in new revenue means there will be less for all other public services. Much like with the tax cut debate, there is no free lunch.

The problem could be avoided if Oklahoma adopts pay-as-you-go budgeting, which requires lawmakers to identify ahead of time how they will pay for any new spending or tax cuts. In the end, perhaps Oklahomans would agree with the decision to shift resources to transportation. Either way, we deserve a more honest discussion of the trade-offs involved.

In The Know: As Oklahoma inmate population ages, more die in custody

by | August 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, In The Know | Comments (0)

In The KnowIn The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today you should know that most of the 205 inmates who died over the past three years while in Oklahoma Corrections Department custody did so of natural causes, a trend that likely will continue as the prison system’s population grows older. Some legislators are asking Gov. Mary Fallin to block state tax money from going to nonprofit groups. An Oklahoma trade association contends out-of-state contractors are receiving favorable treatment on construction projects at Fort Sill in violation of federal law.

DREAM Act Oklahoma is hosting clinic to help young undocumented immigrants apply to work without fear of deportation. More than 1,000 Oklahomans lined up for free basic health care offered by the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps. Drug testing done by Oklahoma employers comes up with few positive results, two-thirds of which are marijuana. A tobacco compact between Oklahoma and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation settles a lawsuit over tribal stores selling cigarettes with the wrong and much cheaper tax stamp.

Oklahoma City Public Schools plans to go after a federal Race of the Top grant that could bring $40 million or more to the district to help teachers and administrators tailor their lessons to individual students. The OU graduation rate has increased steadily with new initiatives to retain students. Oklahoma colleges and universities are looking at new tools to more quickly tailor their course offerings to hiring trends. Gov. Fallin and OKC Mayor Mick Cornett will speak tomorrow at the Republican National Convention.

NewsOK writes that Oklahoma consumers would benefit from fewer job licensing requirements for professions like barber and cosmetologist. Okie Funk discussed the new push for income tax cuts. The Number of the Day is how many metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted through natural gas consumption in Oklahoma. In today’s Policy Note, The Atlantic explains why returning to the gold standard would be a terrible idea.

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The Weekly Wonk: August 24, 2012

by | August 24th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, OK Policy | Comments (2)

What’s up this week at Oklahoma Policy Institute? The Weekly Wonk is dedicated to this week’s events, publications, and blog posts.

This week OK Policy examined the results of chronic underfunding of the agency tasked with investigating violent deaths in Oklahoma. The sixth annual Indian Country Business Summit is taking place August 26th-28th in Norman. Multiple polls show that Oklahoma voters aren’t happy about the Legislature’s lack of support for education.

Also this week, we re-ran a post on why businesses will be better off providing their workers’ coverage under the new health care law. OK Policy Director David Blatt’s Journal Record column shared a personal story about what it means to need medical care and not have health insurance.

The Oklahoman published an op-ed responding to our blog post about transportation funding. The Oklahoman also spoke with our director about the need for more openness in the state budget process.

Policy Notes

Quotes of the Week

  • We’re not against the state question passing, but there was no measure there to make up the shortfall if this thing passes. It becomes an unfunded mandate instantly. –Garfield County assessor Wade Patterson on SQ 766. This state question on the November ballot would exempt all intangible property from property taxes, costing Oklahoma counties and schools as much as $50 million in 2013
  • It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s trying to use older equipment to fight things that are outrageous. We went to suppress it with our engine, and our engine went down right in the middle of it and shut the pump off. –Jason Bradley, Assistant Chief of the  Silver City Volunteer Fire Dept., which has struggled with inadequate and unreliable equipment when fighting wildfires due to a lack of funding
  • Oklahoma kids aren’t just going to compete with Oklahoma kids for jobs and careers. They have to be able to compete nationally and internationally. The gaps remain and we’ve got to close those gaps. –State Superintendent Janet Barresi, on a new report showing Oklahoma high school students scored lower than the national average on science and math ACT scores
  • I think that’s fantastic. I think that’s the only way we were going to be able to recover. At least these people will have some hope that they have something to live in. –Mannford Town Administrator Mike Nunneley, on the announcement that federal aid will be provided to wildfire victims in Creek County
  • I am extremely disappointed in FEMA’s decision to deny disaster assistance to all Oklahomans who have been tragically impacted by these fires. It seems ridiculous to me that houses lost in fires occurring within the same period, on the same day in some cases, would arbitrarily qualify for aid in some counties while not in others. –Governor Mary Fallin, on a decision by FEMA to provide federal assistance to wildfire victims in Creek County but not Cleveland, Oklahoma and Payne counties

Click here for this week’s Numbers of the Day

In The Know: Governor Fallin says income tax cuts coming next year

by | August 24th, 2012 | Posted in Blog, In The Know | Comments (0)

In The KnowIn The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today you should know that Governor Fallin told the Wall Street Journal that she will continue the push for income tax cuts next year. See OK Policy’s collected research and coverage of this year’s tax debate on our tax reform information page. Federal officials turned down Oklahoma’s request for assistance to wildfire victims in Oklahoma, Cleveland and Payne counties. The average cost of child care in Oklahoma rose by as much as 21 percent during the past five years.

Rep. Jason Nelson said school administrators are being disingenuous to complain about receiving less state aid when districts have millions of dollars in their general funds. The okeducationtruths blog responded that carryover balances are necessary to avoid bouncing checks written at the beginning of the fiscal year. An employee benefits attorney told the Tulsa World that businesses need to be planning now for their new responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act. The OK Policy Blog explained why businesses will be better off providing their workers’ coverage under the new law.

Months after Oklahoma set an all-time high for the number of residents receiving food stamps, U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas is pushing to restrict eligibility for what is viewed as the nation’s most important safety net. Pikepass customers are being urged to get the new windshield sticker tags before the old units they have are deactivated. An energy conservation program for state agencies and educational institutions officially begins today, along with numerous other laws passed this year.

The Number of the Day is the percentage of Oklahomans who say they keep a firearm in or around their home. In today’s Policy Note, an infographic from the Congressional Budget Office shows how scheduled tax increases and spending cuts are expected to affect the economy and federal debt.

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Employers better off keeping workers’ coverage under new health law

by | August 23rd, 2012 | Posted in Blog, Healthcare | Comments (5)

This post originally ran on our blog in November 2011 and is part of an ongoing series of posts examining the Affordable Care Act. For links to previous posts and additional resources, please visit the health care reform page on our website. 

Employer-based health insurance coverage is the single largest pillar of the American health insurance system. Unemployment and rising costs continue to erode employer-based coverage, but more than half of all Americans – 169 million –  are still insured through employers.  The federal tax code has long encouraged employers to provide coverage by making employer health care expenditures tax-deductible.

The new federal health care law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aims to expand health insurance coverage in the United States in part by strengthening employer-based coverage. The law provides sizable tax credits to small businesses (≤25 employees) that offer insurance. Beginning in 2014, large employers (≥50 employees) will have new responsibilities to provide coverage.  Known as the ‘play or pay’ provision, the law outlines that:

  • If a large employer does not offer coverage and any of its employees receives a premium subsidy through a health insurance exchange, it will be subject to a fee of $2,000 per full-time employee (in excess of 30 employees);
  • Large employers that offer only unaffordable coverage to workers will also be subject to a fee if employees receive subsidized coverage through an exchange;
  • Large employers must automatically enroll employees into their lowest-cost plan if the employee does not sign-up for or opt-out of the employer’s coverage.

Critics of this provision claim that employers will drop employee coverage and simply pay the penalty instead. The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan financial scorekeeper for the federal government, has determined such assertions to be inaccurate.  Opponents of the law disregard the CBO findings, instead frequently citing a survey of employers by McKinsey and Company, which reported that 30 percent of employers said they would definitely or probably stop offering coverage after 2014.  The McKinsey survey  is considered deeply flawed by health policy experts.  However, it formed the basis for a U.S. House Committee report claiming the ACA will lead to a large erosion of employer-sponsored coverage and for testimony before Oklahoma’s Task Force on the Federal Health Law asserting that “most employers WILL drop coverage.”

Yet, actuarial analysis released recently by a large Oklahoma employer contradicts the McKinsey survey’s findings.  Mike Rogers, Health Care Committee Chair of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce, addressed a state legislative task force concerning the likelihood that his company BancFirst (1,425 employees) would maintain or drop employee coverage in 2014.  They concluded it would be significantly more expensive to their company to drop coverage:

BancFirst found that maintaining employee coverage would cost them an additional $410K. This reflects the costs of more employees signing up for coverage (+70 employees) and penalty costs ($3,000 per employee) for 54 employees for whom the company’s insurance would be unaffordable and who would instead receive premium subsidies through the exchange.  Conversely, dropping coverage would cost BancFirst an additional $1.2M.  These increased costs reflect: 1) losing the 35 percent corporate tax deduction and 7.65 percent FICA tax deduction they currently receive for employee health insurance expenses, and 2) paying the $2,000 per employee penalty for their entire payroll (exempting the first 30 employees).  According to their own analysis, it will cost BancFirst an additional $771K to drop employee coverage when the new ACA provision goes into effect in 2014 versus continuing coverage.

This analysis offers strong empirical evidence to support the claim that employers will play, not pay, in 2014.  As companies crunch the numbers and consider the full range of costs and savings, especially tax deductions for employer health care expense and penalties for not offering coverage, they will likely reach the same conclusion as BancFirst’s actuaries: providing coverage will be best for business’ bottom line.