In The Know: August 19, 2011

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. E-mail your suggestions for In The Know items to You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail.

Today on In The Know, Sen. Constance Johnston filed a bill that would eliminate life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes. There are currently 48 individuals in the state corrections system serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The Parole Board voted to recommend leniency for one of those offenders on Wednesday. School consolidation in Tulsa will save the district more than $5 million in operating costs, but Superintendent Keith Ballard is warning that state funding cuts of $19 million in the last 5 years are putting the district on perilous footing.

The Oklahoma City lawyer who successfully challenged Oklahoma’s Opportunity Fund in 2007 has filed a new lawsuit against the Quick Action Closing Fund. OK Policy previously discussed some troubling issues in the history of this fund and a similar fund in Texas. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations are suing Oklahoma City to prevent future sales of southeastern Oklahoma’s water without agreements with the tribes. A more dangerous deployment than previous trips to Afghanistan and Iraq is taking a toll on Oklahoma National Guard troops.

A class action lawsuit alleges that many Oklahoma restaurants have been overcharging taxes on liquor sales. A Tulsa organization won a $388k federal grant to help enroll children in health-care coverage. The president of a Tulsa Transportation Workers’ Union is warning about threats to local jobs with American Airlines. In today’s Policy Note, USA Today reports on new rules under that federal health care law that will require health insurers to provide clear and concise information about about their policiesto consumers. Today’s Number of the Day is the percentage growth in the number of public school students doing schoolwork through computer-based programs in Oklahoma in the last three years.

In The News

Oklahoma lawmaker files bill to end life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes

Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson said Thursday that she has filed a bill that would eliminate the life-without-parole sentence for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Johnson said in a news release that she filed the bill after testifying Wednesday in favor of commuting the life-without-parole sentence of convicted drug dealer Larry Yarbrough. The state Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend the 61-year-old Yarbrough’s sentence be commuted to an amount of time that would make him eligible for parole within a year. Yarbrough has served 17 years in prison for a conviction in Kingfisher County of trafficking in illegal drugs after former felony convictions. Johnson said such sentences contribute to prison overcrowding and the rising cost of operating prisons. According to the Department of Corrections, there are currently 48 individuals in the state corrections system serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Read more from this Associated Press article at

See also: Board recommends leniency for drug dealer sentenced to life without parole from NewsOK

For TPS teachers, word of the day is ‘change’

Implementing dramatic change, not abiding more, is the 2011-12 mission with which Tulsa Public Schools teachers were charged Thursday. A consolidation effort known as Project Schoolhouse ushered in not only 14 facility closures but also the reopening of one school and the conversion of eight others. More than 7,200 students and hundreds of teachers had to be reassigned as part of the plan to eliminate 5,600 of the district’s 10,400 empty seats and net more than $5 million savings in operational costs. Ballard acknowledged that he has engaged in extensive public rhetoric on the topic of state funding reductions, including a $34 million statewide shortfall for mandatory teacher health insurance costs. On Thursday, he took the opportunity to show teachers a chart that explained his concerns: State aid to Tulsa Public Schools alone has fallen over the past five years from $116 million to $115 million, then to $110 million and $103 million and finally, to $97 million for 2011-12.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at

OKC lawyer files challenge to closing fund

A legal challenge was filed Thursday to a governor-supported bill that makes changes to a closing fund that would allow withdrawal of state money quickly to seal projects that would bring more jobs to Oklahoma. Jerry Fent, an Oklahoma City lawyer, said House Bill 1953 is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers set out in the state constitution. He also is concerned it’s a move by the state toward socialism because the government is using state funds to help create private jobs. A hearing before a referee is set for Sept. 14. HB 1953, which takes effect late this month, changes the name of the Oklahoma Opportunity Fund, created in 2006, to the Oklahoma Quick Action Closing Fund. It authorizes the governor to make the final decision on a project, subject to consultation with the Speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem. Fent in 2007 won a lawsuit that attacked the constitutionality of the board that approved spending money from the state’s Opportunity Fund.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Previously: A tale of two closing funds, the Chinese Communist Party, and genetically modified mice from OK Policy Blog

Tribes sue Oklahoma City over water transfers

The Choctaw and Chickasaw nations on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in an effort to halt future sales and exports of southeastern Oklahoma water without negotiated agreements with the tribes. The tribes are asking the court to issue a permanent injunction to halt the proposed sale of water to Oklahoma City from Sardis Lake and other future water transfer agreements unless the transactions have been fully adjudicated or agreements reached with the tribes. Oklahoma City has been obtaining a portion of its water supply from southeastern Oklahoma since 1962 and currently gets about half its water from southeastern Oklahoma lakes that are within Choctaw and Chickasaw Nation territories, said Jim Couch, city manager for Oklahoma City. The tribes are not asking the court to interfere with those existing water use agreements, said Michael Burrage, attorney for the tribes.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Fighting season takes toll on Oklahoma National Guard

The deaths of seven Oklahoma Army National Guard soldiers in the last three weeks – five of them in combat – come at a time of year when enemy activity in that country typically increases, according to Maj. Gen. Myles Deering. Deering, Oklahoma’s adjutant general, said Thursday the spring and summer months tend to be the fighting seasons in Afghanistan. “The insurgents,” he said, “have a propensity to leave some areas during the winter and use that time to rest and rearm.” Deering also noted that this deployment is more intense than previous deployments to either Afghanistan or Iraq. “Our soldiers are more exposed to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) than in previous deployments because of the type missions they are performing,” he said. The total number of Oklahoma Guard troops killed in Iraq stands at four, while eight have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of that war.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at

Oklahoma restaurants sued over liquor tax

Restaurants in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and statewide are being accused of collectively charging their customers millions of dollars in taxes that they shouldn’t have had to pay. The lead plaintiff is John Tuel, who says 40 percent of restaurants have been charging too much. “This minority has overcharged consumers, we estimate, in excess of $25 million in the last five years,” Truel said. Here’s how it breaks down: if a restaurants advertised price is $10 for a mixed drink, the liquor tax is supposed to be included. The allegation is that some restaurants add the liquor tax on top, creating an overcharge of 13.5 percent. There are nine named plaintiffs, who claim they’ve visited 1,500 bars and restaurants to determine who is and is not figuring the tax correctly. Many restaurants are just learning they’re being sued, but the state’s industry trade group denies the allegation. The President of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association said all liquor sales are subject to state tax audits.

Read more from NewsOn6 at

See also: The full text of the lawsuit

Tulsa group gets $388k grant to help kids who lack health care

A Tulsa organization was one of 39 across the nation to receive a federal grant to help enroll children for health-care coverage, a federal agency announced Thursday. Morton Comprehensive Health Center, with locations in Tulsa and Nowata County, will receive a $388,190 grant. In addition to putting more people out in the community, the grant will allow Morton to hire and train more “patient navigators” to help keep in contact with the children and their families after an initial contact. “That’s the piece that has always been missing because of the lack of resources,” said Morton CEO John Silva, adding the program will keep more children from falling through the cracks. Health disparities in north Tulsa, Silva said, just beg for this kind of assistance. According to the announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, grants totaling $40 million were awarded to state agencies, health centers, school-based organizations and nonprofit groups in 23 states.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at

Sam Cirri: American Airlines jobs in Tulsa are threatened

A move is afoot to transfer more than 230 maintenance control technician and related jobs to Dallas, which would result in a loss of about $14.6 million in wages that are circulated into the local economy and tax base. But even worse fears are beginning to take shape. American Airlines management recently announced plans to purchase and place options on up to $38 billion in new aircraft. However, many don’t realize that these aircraft won’t need maintenance work for at least 10 years, and as we all know, a lot can happen in 10 years when it comes to a company’s presence in Tulsa. The truth is, despite our world-class maintenance facility in Tulsa and American Airlines’ contractual obligations to keep work here, management may attempt to have this work outsourced. Over the last eight years, American Airlines has received more than $32 million in local and state incentives to grow and retain jobs in Tulsa. In 2007, $5.7 million of the state’s Opportunity Fund was paired with $4.3 million in local funds to build a new hangar in Tulsa for American. That’s on top of the $22.3 million in Vision 2025 funds provided to American by county taxpayers in 2003 for the purchase of new equipment. American Airlines management said that these incentives would guarantee that no jobs would leave Tulsa. Now we see the opposite happening.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at

Quote of the Day

After I learned he was being given life without parole, I was upset about it. I lost it, because we were not told before we voted.
Dennis Will, one of the jurors who convicted Larry Yarbrough, who wrote a letter to the Parole Board supporting leniency.

Number of the Day

400 percent

Percentage growth in the number of public school students doing schoolwork through computer-based programs in Oklahoma in the last three years

Source:  Tulsa World

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

Rules under Affordable Care Act to require clear health insurance info for consumers

Proposed regulations released Wednesday would require health insurers to provide clear, concise and consistent cost information about individuals’ policies in easy-to-understand language. The proposed changes are part of the new federal health care law. The regulations would require insurance companies to present information in a standardized format. One section answers questions — for example, “What is the premium?” or “What is the deductible?” — with the price and an explanation of the term. Then, the new form breaks things down further: by cost for a primary visit for an illness or injury, for medications, for tests, for surgeries and for emergency-room visits. Finally, it gives three coverage examples, so people can better understand what they may be required to pay for when they have a baby, need breast cancer treatment or manage diabetes. The government worked with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and several public advocacy groups to create the rules. If enacted, they would apply after March 23.

Read more from USA Today at

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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