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Guest Blog (Susan Sharp): Rethinking female incarceration

by | December 6th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (6)

Dr. Susan F. Sharp is the L. J. Semrod Presidential Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. She has conduced extensive research on the criminal justice system and is the author of numerous reports on female prisoners and their children.

Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rate is harming our state.  If our state had an exceptionally high crime rate, we might be able to justify having the highest per capita incarceration rate of women in the United States.  Indeed, our female incarceration rate of 132 per 100,000 is nearly double the national average of 68 per 100,000.  But, our crime rate is not double the national crime rate.  We rank 17th in violent crimes, and our violent crime rate is very similar to the national average.  So, we are not incarcerating women as a matter of public safety.

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Guest Blog (Doug Enevoldsen): "Healthy Cities, Healthy Oklahoma"

by | December 2nd, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Budget | Comments (1)

Doug Enevoldsen is City Manager for the City of Bixby. He has served in a variety of legislative and executive branch positions at the highest levels within Oklahoma state and local government.

Cities and towns are the backbone of Oklahoma’s economy, and the state’s health is critically dependent on their well-being. Virtually all commerce, common education, higher education, health care, state, and even many county government services take place inside a city or town. Those institutions cannot fully achieve their own respective missions if their host cities are not healthy, functioning entities. We are all in this together.

Ours is the only state in the nation whose municipalities are required to operate primarily on the sales tax, a highly volatile revenue source whose base has steadily been eroded over time through legislated tax exemptions and rising Internet sales.

Because they are so reliant on sales taxes to pay their daily bills, most cities and towns focus the bulk of their efforts on attracting retail sales instead of industries which feature higher-paying jobs, or adding rooftops. This is understandable, since the latter pursuits increase demands on municipal services without directly providing commensurate operating revenues. However, as UCO economist Mickey Hepner points out, this ultimately results in a less diversified, less prosperous Oklahoma economy.

Pursuit of retail also pits communities against one another since there is only so much of the retail pie to go around, creating an unhealthy competition which undermines regional collaboration which might otherwise emerge, and limits cost savings opportunities for all.

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Upcoming event: Brookings Institute fellow to discuss poverty & opportunity

by | November 30th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Upcoming Events | Comments (1)

On Monday, December 6th, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute will be giving a lecture titled, “Creating an Opportunity Society” as part of the Policy and Practice Lecture series organized by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and University of Oklahoma Center for Public Management. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held from noon to 1 pm at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. Click here for full details.

Dr. Haskins is a senior fellow in the Economic Studies Program and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, MD. He is widely acknowledged as among the nation’s foremost experts on social welfare policy, having served as Senior Adviser to President George W. Bush for Welfare Policy and as a top Congressional staffperson. Dr. Haskins has published books and articles on a number of education-related topics, including intellectual development, day-care policy, federal expenditures on social programs and federal budget and tax policy, including Creating an Opportunity Society, a book that he co-authored with Isabel Sawhill.

His Oklahoma City talk will address indicators of poverty and policy recommendations founded on four values-based premises about the appropriate role of government.  The lecture is sponsored by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative and OKDHS Family Support Services Division.

We're hiring!

by | November 29th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, OK Policy | Comments (0)

Update: The application deadline is now passed. Thank you to everyone who applied.

OK Policy is now accepting applications for a highly-qualified, full-time policy analyst.  The primary responsibilities of the position will be to conduct research and analysis on state policy issues, and to prepare, write and disseminate quality research-based issue briefs, reports, fact sheets, blog posts and other materials.

For a copy of the job announcement that provides a full list of job responsibilities, qualifications, and information on how to apply, click here (PDF) or here (HTML). The application deadline is December 13th. Please share the announcement with others who might be interested.

How many football stadiums would it take…

by | November 24th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Poverty & Opportunity | Comments (0)

Last week, the US Department of Agriculture released its annual report on household food security. They found that for the 3-year period from 2007-09, an average of 15.2 percent of Oklahoma households experienced food insecurity, which means that they “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” This was the 5th highest rate in the nation, up from 14.6 percent for the period from 2004-06 and 13.1 percent from 1996-08. Nationally, food insecurity from 2007-09 averaged 13.5 percent.

Given Oklahoma’s total population of 3.7 million, and assuming that households experiencing food insecurity are the same size as the average of all households, this means that some 560,000 Oklahomans live in households that struggle with access to adequate food.  To get a clearer sense of how many people this is, imagine that on a Saturday afternoon this fall, the population in households that experience food insecurity in Oklahoma were all invited down to Norman and Stillwater to attend the football games.

Give or take a few thousand people, the food insecure could completely fill OU’s Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (capacity: 82,122) AND OSU’s Boone Pickens Stadium (capacity: 60,218) four times over.

To find out ways to help fight hunger and food insecurity in Oklahoma, contact the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma or the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

May everyone have a joyful and healthy Thanksgiving holiday.

Doing more with less? State employee association directors says "We're there"

by | November 22nd, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Budget | Comments (0)

The ongoing state budget crisis has meant fewer state employees are assuming greater responsibilities.  Sterling Zearley is Executive Director of Oklahoma Public Employees Association, the largest association representing state employees. I spoke with him by phone on November 16th. Here’s a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

David Blatt: The past two years have seen increasingly deeper cuts to the state budget. What has been the impact on state employees?

Sterling Zearley: Well, as you know, we’ve lost approximately 2,000 state employees in the last year, which concerns us because we know state employees provide a great service to the state of Oklahoma…Last year we did a voluntary buy-out (VOBO) which helped to keep from doing so many RIFs (Reductions-in-Force). The problem is, when you do VOBOs, you lose a lot of your long-term employees and you lose a lot of institutional knowledge when those employees leave state service.

DB: What agencies are currently facing the greatest challenges in managing budget cuts and shortfalls?

SZ: Well the main one we’ve been most worried about is DOC. Right now we’re at 70 percent staffing and we’re at 99 percent inmate capacity. That really concerns us for the safety not only of the employees but of the general public. Right now they’re doing furloughs one day a month. You still have to have minimum personnel to manage those inmate populations. We know pretty much each week  you have only 75 percent percent of your staff there of that 70 percent because that’s their furlough week . [See DOC Director Justin Jones’ recent post on the agency’s funding crisis]

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Guest Blog (Tricia Brooks): CMS proposes a Medicaid rule you (and states) may like

by | November 19th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Healthcare | Comments (0)

This blog was authored by Tricia Brooks, a Senior Fellow at the  Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University. It originally appeared on November 4th on Say Ahhh! A Children’s Health Policy Blog and is cross-posted here with permission. For prior blog posts on health care reform and additional resources, click here

I’m not big on rules. When I ran New Hampshire’s Children’s Health Insurance Program  and had to talk with a family who was unhappy about some bureaucratic rule, I often diffused the conversation by saying “I don’t make the rules, if I did there wouldn’t be any.” I know, that was a cop-out but it worked. Now I take those words back. This is one rule I might love!

The Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services (CMS) has published a proposed rule in the federal register that would broaden the definition of “claims” to include “claims of eligibility” in regard to Medicaid management information systems. What does this really mean? It means that eligibility systems may qualify (assuming the rule is adopted) for a 90 percent federal financial participation to support the design, development, testing and implementation of new or enhanced eligibility systems capacity through 2015. Systems could also qualify for an ongoing 75 percent federal match once they are operational.

Is this a big deal? Indeed it is. States have been severely encumbered by a lack of resources to make system innovations or replace decades old legacy systems that, quite frankly, have outlived their usefulness due to a lack of major overhauls. Moving forward on streamlining efficiencies and the use of data matching to verify eligibility helps both states and real people but requires the latest in systems architecture and performance to achieve the innovations that we know are possible. These kinds of system transformations, along with seamless integration with Exchange IT systems, require major investments and the enhanced federal funding will be welcome news to cash-strapped states.

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State budget outlook: With no more help from Washington, the worst is still yet to come

by | November 17th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Budget | Comments (0)

Last week I attended the annual State Fiscal Policy conference hosted by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the top non-governmental organization analyzing state fiscal policy across the nation. The message we heard was clear and grim: As rough as the past two years of  revenue shortfalls and budget cuts have been here in Oklahoma and across the states, the upcoming budget year, FY ’12, is going to be even worse.

This chart created by the Center presents the story succinctly:

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7,500 unemployed Oklahomans at risk of losing benefits unless Congress acts

by | November 15th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Economy | Comments (1)

Despite encouraging signs that an economic recovery is gaining strength, unemployment remains at stubbornly and unacceptably high levels. Nationally, the jobless rate in October stayed stuck at 9.6 percent, while the latest state unemployment numbers found that 121,800 Oklahomans, or 6.9 percent of the workforce, are out of work. While some workers have relatively short stints of unemployment between jobs, the magnitude of the job losses this recession and the slow pace of recent job creation have left a large segment of the unemployed population unable to find work for extended periods. According to the National Employment Law Project, the unemployed are experiencing record periods of joblessness: nearly 42 percent of the 15 million jobless workers are “long-term unemployed”—that is, out of work for six months or longer. With there being 4.6 unemployed workers for every available job, most of the unemployed continue to be without work through no fault of their own.

For many of these jobless workers and their families, weekly Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits provide an essential safety net allowing them to recoup a portion of their lost income – about $290 per week on average – and  pay the bills without additional public support or a full-blown financial emergency. As in past national recessions, Congress has responded to high levels of unemployment by approving federally-funded extensions of UI benefits that go beyond the basic 26 weeks of state-funded benefits. Under the main temporary program of federal jobless benefits, called Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC),  qualified unemployed workers who are actively seeking work receive an additional 34 to 53 weeks of UI benefits, depending on the state’s unemployment rate. NELP reports that so far, in 2010 alone, nearly 9.5 million workers collected federally funded benefits, contributing an estimated $68 billion to the nation’s economy.

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Play it again: Why government can't be run more like a business

by | November 12th, 2010 | Posted in Blog, Budget | Comments (1)

Note: As the economy continues to struggle and revenue collections remain well below pre-downturn levels, we thought this a good time to repost a blog we first ran in January of this year challenging an argument we continue to hear about the need to just keep cutting public budgets.

Last week I attended the Stand Up for Seniors advocacy forum which focused on the impact the state’s worsening economic and fiscal situation is having on programs serving seniors. State Treasurer Scott Meacham was among the elected officials who addressed the gathering. In laying out the budget challenges we are facing and the limited tools at our disposal for mitigating the severity of budget cuts, Treasurer Meacham shared a conversation he had a couple of months back with a friend who expressed frustration at the inability of state government to operate more like a business. Businesses in the downturn are responding by cutting back, reducing expenses and payroll, and simply doing whatever it takes to get through until the economy recovers. Why, asked his friend, can’t state government just do the same?

The Treasurer’s response, which he echoed in this Oklahoman article,  is worth sharing and elaborating upon, because it gets to the very heart of why the state fiscal crisis is so difficult and why this matters so much. Businesses are driven by supply and demand, and by the obligation to maximize profit for shareholders. To use the proverbial private sector example, if demand for widgets declines in a downturn, then Acme Widget company will produce fewer widgets. This may mean laying people off or even going out of business, which will have an unfortunate impact on employees, their families, and communities.  But there is no obligation on any widget maker to  produce more widgets than can be profitably sold.

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