In The Know: Nex Benedict’s death ruled a suicide | Oklahoma tax dollars fund national promotion of State Supt. Walters | State grocery tax cut could stifle city repairs | Every voice matters when shaping public policy

In The KnowIn The Know is your daily briefing on Oklahoma policy-related news. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Some stories included here are behind paywall or require subscription. OK Policy encourages the support of Oklahoma’s state and local media, which are vital to an informed citizenry. Subscribe to In The Know and see past editions.

New from OK Policy

Policy Matters: Every voice matters when shaping public policy: Every voice matters when it comes to shaping public policy. This was on display earlier this year when an outcry from advocates helped shelve draconian changes to the state’s commutation process. [Shiloh Kantz / Journal Record]

Oklahoma News

Death of transgender student Nex Benedict ruled suicide by medical examiner: The death of Oklahoma student Nex Benedict has been ruled a suicide, according to a medical examiner’s report released Wednesday. The medical examiner’s report listed probable cause of death as “combined toxicity” from two drugs, one of which is available over the counter and the other by prescription. [NBC]

  • Death of nonbinary teen Nex Benedict after school fight is ruled a suicide, medical examiner says [Associated Press]
  • Oklahoma medical examiner rules Nex Benedict’s death a suicide [The Hill]
  • Medical examiner says Owasso teen died by suicide [KOSU]
  • Medical examiner says Nex Benedict died by suicide [Public Radio Tulsa]
  • Oklahoma teen Nex Benedict’s cause of death revealed in autopsy report [The Oklahoman]
  • LGBTQ+ advocates, Libs of TikTok react to Oklahoma teen Nex Benedict’s autopsy results [The Oklahoman]
  • Nonbinary student died by suicide after fight at Owasso High School, autopsy indicates [Tulsa World]
  • Nex Benedict’s death ruled a suicide in medical examiner’s report [Oklahoma Voice]

In states with laws targeting LGBTQ issues, school hate crimes quadrupled: School hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ people have sharply risen in recent years, climbing fastest in states that have passed laws restricting LGBTQ student rights and education, a Washington Post analysis of FBI data finds. Since 2020, Oklahoma has adopted several laws restricting transgender rights. The legislature is considering additional measures this year, including a ban on changing one’s gender on birth certificates and requiring that schools teach that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait” that cannot be changed. [Washington Post]

Why a state grocery tax cut causes concern for Oklahoma’s local government leaders: Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce says he’s all for the state eliminating its sales tax on groceries, but not at the cost of cities and towns losing the freedom to choose what’s best for their communities. Pausing local governments’ ability to manage their main revenue source could mean vital city projects across Oklahoma being delayed or canceled. [KOSU]

State Government News

Bill on penalizing larceny would undo 2016 state question: Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Executive Director Damion Shade said the bill undercuts State Question 780, which Oklahoma voters approved in 2016 with the campaign promise that it would decrease incarceration. [KJRH]

House moves to make initiative petitions more complicated with criminal background checks, higher fees: Circulating an initiative petition and getting it on the ballot in Oklahoma could be getting more complicated. Legislation passed late Wednesday afternoon by the House of Representatives’ Republican supermajority would require every person gathering petition signatures to undergo an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation criminal background check, extend the petition protest periods before and after circulation from 10 to 90 days, and impose a $1,000 filing fee. [Tulsa World]

Oklahoma lawmaker aims to restrict state aid to undocumented immigrants, sparks debate: An Oklahoma lawmaker is working to prohibit state tax dollars from being used to provide benefits to undocumented immigrants. [The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma lawmakers attempt to set further restrictions on motorists who linger in left lanes: Some state lawmakers say it’s time to limit how long vehicles can drive in the left lane. While state law already generally forbids vehicles from driving in that lane except to overtake and pass a vehicle, House Bill 3452 seeks to place a maximum limit on how long people can linger there and take to pass each other. [Oklahoma Voice]

Car tag bill sparked by Senate pro tempore’s son’s traffic accident clears Oklahoma Senate: Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat came one step closer to achieving his main goal for the 2024 legislative session Tuesday when his bill, which changes the way vehicles are tagged and registered after purchase, cleared the Oklahoma Senate. [The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma Gov. Stitt, AG Drummond clash over holding more than one office: Disagreement continues between Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Gentner Drummond over the ability for state officials to hold two public office positions. Stitt on Tuesday vetoed Senate Bill 1196, a measure carried over from the 2023 legislative session that would have created emergency exemptions for two agency directors to simultaneously serve on the governor’s cabinet. [Journal Record]

‘Unanimous acclamation’: As part of new process, Senate budget resolution takes shape: Senate leaders have embarked on this unprecedented effort for fiscal transparency one year after tumultuous state budget negotiations drew frustrations from stakeholders. Throughout the first six weeks of this year’s session, House leaders have expressed skepticism about the Senate’s new process and have said their existing subcommittee process is transparent enough. [NonDoc]

Opinion: Public information gives power to people. FOI Oklahoma names best, worst in public openness.: FOI Oklahoma, a statewide advocacy group for open meetings and records, recognizes those who have shown through their actions to be dedicated to public transparency. It also shines light on the worst. [Ginnie Graham / Tulsa World]

Federal Government News

TikTok ban bill: See how all Oklahoma members of the House voted on fate of social media app: The U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass legislation Wednesday to force TikTok’s parent company to sell the social media app or it’ll face a ban in the United States. The House passed the bill in a 352-65 vote, and all five of Oklahoma’s representatives voted in favor of it. [The Oklahoman]

Public input sought on proposal to raise Keystone Dam, boosting flood protection: The public is being asked to comment on a proposal to increase the height of the Keystone Dam by nearly 11 feet to reduce the risk of a failure. The proposal, details of which were made public in a draft environmental assessment this month, comes from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. [Tulsa World]

Senator Elizabeth Warren Sponsors New Bill for Expanding Rural Tribal Housing Resource: Under the Tribal Rural Housing Access Act, the USDA would be required to set aside 5 percent of its funding under certain Rural Housing Service programs for use by tribes, tribally designated housing entities, tribal members, and tribal-owned entities. [Native News Online]

Tribal Nations News

Oklahoma court recognizes Wyandotte reservation in response to McGirt ruling: The Wyandotte Nation reservation still exists in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, the state’s highest criminal court has found. The decision comes nearly four years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling on tribal reservations in Oklahoma. [The Oklahoman]

Some states profit from land owned within reservations: Data analyzed by Grist and High Country News reveals that a combined 1.6 million surface and subsurface acres of state trust lands lie within the borders of 83 federal Indian reservations in 10 states. [ICT News]

State Route 66 association pushes for more equitable Native representation: Oklahoma’s Route 66 Association aims to highlight Native American culture along the Mother Road in a more accurate and equitable way than in years past. More than half of Route 66 runs through tribal land, touching 13 reservations throughout the country. But the route has been marketed with stereotypes of Native Americans in years past. [Public Radio Tulsa]

$10 million goal set for Dream Keepers Park ‘to create a cultural destination’: The Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission is working with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, local tribes and other organizations to raise millions of dollars to upgrade and reactivate Dream Keepers Park. [Tulsa World]

Voting and Election News

Enid city commissioner to face recall election after white nationalist allegations surface: The man, Judd Blevins, represents Enid’s Ward 1 commissioner seat, and some of the city’s residents want to remove him from office amid claims he’s tied to a white nationalist group. [The Oklahoman]

Health News

Oklahoma had some of the most ‘excess’ deaths during the first year of the COVID pandemic: Oklahoma, along with other southern states, had some of the highest excess mortality rates in the country. Excess mortality is the number of extra people who died during a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to expected mortality rates under normal circumstances. [The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma Human Services survey seeks input of seniors to improve support as state population ages: Oklahoma seniors are expected to outnumber children in the next ten years. Oklahoma Human Services (OHS) is creating a plan to prepare for this shift, and it’s seeking the perspectives of the state’s seniors in a survey due on Friday. [The Oklahoman]

Special Diabetes Program for Indians Funded Until the End of 2024: The U.S. Senate voted to fund the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI), the program backing both diabetes care and type 1 diabetes research until the close of 2024 as part of a comprehensive package funding multiple federal agencies. President Biden signed on Saturday, March 9, 2024. Established by Congress in 1997, the Special Diabetes Program aims to propel type 1 diabetes research forward and tackle the disproportionate impact of type 2 diabetes on American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. [Native News Online]

Criminal Justice News

Gangsters, money and murder: How Chinese organized crime is dominating Oklahoma’s illegal medical marijuana market: A quadruple murder in Oklahoma shows how the Chinese underworld has come to dominate the booming illicit trade, fortifying its rise as a global powerhouse with alleged ties to China’s authoritarian regime. [The Frontier]

Housing & Economic Opportunity News

Oklahoma 1 of 6 states where landlords can legally retaliate against tenants: Oklahoma is one of six states where landlords can legally retaliate against tenants, leaving its 1.3 million renters in a sort of legal limbo. Oklahoma lawmakers had the opportunity to remedy this concern in the 2023 legislative session by passing House Bill 2109, which would have added anti-retaliation protections to the Landlord-Tenant Act, but the bill failed to advance. [KATU]

Oklahoma legislator Julia Kirt speaks on Equal Pay Day: March 12 is Equal Pay Day, which is a day to draw attention to the pay gap between men and women. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2022, the difference between the median wages of men and women working full time was 16 percent. A large driver of the pay disparity is job segregation, with women working in undervalued jobs that, on average, pay lower wages than those jobs mostly held by men. [KWSO]

Education News

Oklahoma could require extra math course to graduate high school: Oklahoma students could be required to take a fourth math credit to graduate high school, but they would have an extra year to complete it, if a new proposal becomes law. The state House overwhelmingly approved a measure on Wednesday in a 95-2 vote to add a fourth math credit to graduation requirements. House Bill 3278 would allow students to begin taking high school credits in eighth grade. [Oklahoma Voice]

Late campaign reports cost state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters: State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters is paying a total of $4,200 for filing campaign reports late. The Republican already has used campaign funds to pay $1,200 to the Ethics Commission for two late reports. [The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma education czar hammers Pete Buttigieg’s husband: Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters slammed the husband of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg Tuesday for allegedly pushing political ideologies in his work with children. [FOX25]

State Dollars Prop Walters’ National Media Blitz: The Oklahoma Department of Education hired Vought Strategies, a communications firm in Arlington, Virginia, to write speeches and op-eds and book Walters on at least 10 national TV and radio appearances per month. Some are questioning whether Walters is simply boosting his national profile at the public’s expense. [Oklahoma Watch]

  • Oklahoma tax dollars funding national promotion of State Superintendent Walters [KOKH Fox 25]

Tulsa Public Schools administrators received $341,000 in donor funds without school board’s knowledge: Public records reveal at least $341,000 in donor funds was paid to top district administrators at Tulsa Public Schools, in addition to their taxpayer-funded salaries as public employees, during Deborah Gist’s last five years as superintendent. [Tulsa World]

Long Story Short: Stillwater Schools Settle Sexual Misconduct Suit (Audio): Jennifer Palmer reports on the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a former Stillwater middle school student over the sexual misconduct of one of her teachers, Alberto Morejon, who played a high-profile role in 2018’s teacher walkout before he was convicted of Engaging in Sexual Communication with a Minor by Use of Technology. [Oklahoma Watch]

Community News

After a year, Oklahoma City’s MLK neighborhood is still changing the narrative: ‘We can do this’: The neighborhood sits between NE 30, Martin Luther King Avenue, NE 23 and Glen Ellyn Avenue. It is home to just under 800 residents and, as part of the city’s northeast community, is historically majority Black. [The Oklahoman]

  • See the latest changes in the MLK neighborhood in Oklahoma City [The Oklahoman]

Governor Stitt joins Bible Reading Marathon at state Capitol: Organizers of a Bible Reading Marathon at the Capitol wanted elected leaders to take a turn reading the holy book, and their hopes were realized on Wednesday. Gov. Kevin Stitt joined the marathon before it reached its conclusion, reading several chapters of Ecclesiastes while a crowd of about 40 people gathered on the Capitol’s south plaza. [The Oklahoman]

Local Headlines

  • Dan Straughan set to retire as executive director of the Homeless Alliance in OKC [The Oklahoman]
  • Frustrated Tulsa city councilors reject proposed ordinance on illegal immigration [Tulsa World]
  • Oklahoma County to begin negotiating for jail land near Crooked Oak schools [The Oklahoman]
  • Oklahoma legislature considers reinstating state park at Hugo Lake [The Oklahoman]

Quote of the Day

“…I think it’s evident that community is what we need right now. Isolation is a tool of oppression. And I think that’s what folks in the Legislature want. So I think showing up in an act of solidarity not only for Nex but also for ourselves is really important too.”

– Rep. Mauree Turner, D-OKC, encouraging their fellow Oklahomans to attend a rally for Nex Benedict at the Oklahoma State Capitol and stand in solidarity against anti-transgender legislation and rhetoric that further contributes to increased suicide and bullying risks among transgender youth. [Oklahoma Voice]

Number of the Day


The number of cents on the dollar that women earn compared with men at the same education level. [Census Bureau via Associated Press]

Policy Note

Getting a Good Job Depends More on Race and Gender than Education: Conventional wisdom dictates that the key to a better quality, higher-paying job is more education. Generally, this hypothesis holds true—those who go to college make more than those who don’t, and those who earn graduate degrees tend to have the highest wages. But looking closer, a different picture emerges. When broken out by race and gender—even after decades of increased educational attainment by people of color—job-quality disparities remain. [Urban Institute]

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Kandis West is a communications professional with more than 15 years of experience. Most recently, she served as the Communications Director for the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus. She spent nine years in the Olympia/Tacoma area of Washington organizing compensation campaigns for teachers for the Washington Education Association. Kandis has a proven track record of increasing community engagement, public awareness and media exposure around the most pressing issues that impact citizens. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism.