In The Know: June 10, 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, an audit of Broken Arrow Public Schools has cleared the district of several charges, but the attorney general continues to investigate possible open records violations and favoritism to vendors. You can see the full audit report here. House Minority Leader Scott Inman is charging that the Board of Education vote to expand Superintendent Barresi’s powers was not legitimate. Inman has requested an attorney general’s opinion. The Tulsa Community College Board of Regents approved a tuition and fee increase and continued a salary freeze for the third year.

PSO announced its plans to comply with EPA regulations on coal plant emissions by idling two plants in 2016 to install scrubbers. Chesapeake Energy is looking for alternative sources of power for operations in areas not served by the grid. House Majority Leader Kris Steele writes in NewsOK about the task force to examine the numerous tax breaks in Oklahoma. OK Policy previously released an issue brief on how Oklahoma can improve the transparency and accountability of tax breaks. A Lawton man mailed back $160 in tax rebates, saying the state needed it more than he did. On the OK Policy Blog, we delve into unemployment data to see what’s really going on with Oklahoma’s job market.

The Art in Public Places program has been suspended for three years, but some are questioning whether that will actually save the state any money. Representative Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, has asked the attorney general to investigate the legality of new ordinances in two Oklahoma towns that ban the sale of pseudoephedrine. A National Science Foundation grant is will fund a workshop to help revitalize American Indian languages, and FEMA grants are paying 75 percent of the cost of new storm shelters in a number of Oklahoma communities. The courtroom in Drumright will stay open after the City Commission voted to reduce the rent by half.

In today’s Policy Note, The New York Times reports that despite public hostility to the idea from Governor Perry, behind the scenes Texas is planning for an insurance exchange. More below the jump.

In The News

Audit clears Broken Arrow Schools on some accusations; investigation continues on others

The state auditor’s office finally released its report on Broken Arrow Public Schools. The district first came under scrutiny in the fall of 2008, when former Superintendent Doctor Jim Sisney claimed he was fired because he questioned the district’s preferential treatment of a heating and cooling company, Air Assurance. The audit took on several accusations that had been lobbed against the company, including that Air Assurance performed work that hadn’t been requested and that they were overcharging the district. Auditors found all of those claims to be untrue. The audit confirmed that Broken Arrow Public Schools did not follow competitive bidding laws. But the auditors say these violations were due to “inadequate training,” and not a deliberate intention to break the law. Two items – a section on open records and special favoritism to vendors – were excluded from release. The AG’s office is still investigating those areas for possible criminal violations.

Read more from this NewsOn6 article at

See also: The full audit report from the Office of the Attorney General

Barresi’s actions questioned again by lawmaker

A lawmaker has requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi had the authority over the past month to hire and fire a number of employees at the state Education Department. House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, contends a 3-1 vote by the Education Board, giving Barresi authority over the department, was one vote shy of the required majority. Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Assistant Attorney General Grant Moak wrote an opinion in May stating Barresi improperly used private funds to pay the salaries of three staff members because she could not get the board’s approval to bring them into the department as state employees. The May 9 vote effectively made board approval unnecessary and allowed Barresi to hire two of those staff members immediately, and to fire several other employees.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Regents approve tuition and fee hike for Tulsa Community College students

The cost of student tuition and fees at Tulsa Community College is going up. TCC’s Board of Regents voted Wednesday to increase student tuition and fees by $5.80 per credit hour for in-state students. In addition, the board decided to continue a third year without salary adjustments for TCC employees in order to absorb a 5.8 percent cut to state appropriations for higher education for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011. The college says for a student taking a full-time load of 12 hours, the increase equates to about $69.60 per semester.

Read more from this NewsOn6 article at

Public Service Company of Oklahoma announce $780M plan to cut emissions

Public Service Co. of Oklahoma’s parent company on Thursday unveiled its plan to comply with proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. American Electric Power plans to idle two PSO coal plants in Oologah in 2016 for a year or more to install emission-reduction equipment. Those units provide 935 megawatts of electricity. One plant would return to service by the end of 2016, but the other is expected to be out of commission for two years.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Chesapeake looking for alternative power options

Chesapeake Energy Corp. is turning to alternative energy sources to fuel some of its operations. A pumping unit near Kingfisher is powered by an array of batteries that are recharged by a 3 megawatt wind turbine, with occasional help from a natural gas-powered generator. The pumping unit north of Kingfisher also is equipped with solar panels to power the communications equipment that allows Chesapeake personnel to monitor the unit remotely, but officials said that has become a common practice in the industry. Ready access to electricity is a common problem for oil and gas producers, who typically operate in areas not served by the nation’s power grid.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Kris Steele: Tackling the Oklahoma tax code

For too long, Oklahoma’s tax code has been approached in a piecemeal fashion rather than as a singular issue. This approach has resulted in a tax code some say looks like a block of Swiss cheese, tattered with seemingly random holes and cutouts. The Swiss cheese comparison is a fair one and a big reason why the piecemeal approach must end. The Legislature is breaking this habit during the current interim by conducting the most comprehensive state tax code review in recent history. Specifically, this task force will focus on the hundreds of tax benefits — credits, deductions, exclusions and other tax breaks — in the tax code. In the interest of transparency, the task force will do its work in a series of public meetings beginning in July.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Previously: Shining the light on tax breaks from Oklahoma Policy Institute

Lawton man gives back Oklahoma tax rebates

Saying his adopted state needed it more than he did, a Lawton man wrote a $160 check to pay back tax rebates he’s received from Oklahoma the past two years. Bob Murphy said he realizes the money won’t go far. The state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $6.5 billion and lawmakers this past session had to deal with a $500 million shortfall caused mostly by declining revenues as a result of the national recession. Murphy last month made out his $160 check to the state treasurer and included a short note. The treasurer’s office checked with its legal staff and determined that it could accept the check as a gift if it was presented to the governor, said Tim Allen, a spokesman for state Treasurer Ken Miller. The money was deposited in the state’s general revenue fund account, the principal funding source for state government.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Falling unemployment: Are workers gettings jobs or getting discouraged?

The national unemployment rate rose for the second consecutive month in May, edging up to 9.1 percent. Fortunately for Oklahoma, the unemployment rate is moving in the opposite direction, dropping for a fifth consecutive month in April to 5.6 percent, giving us the 6th lowest unemployment rate in the nation. While this is good news for the state, inconsistent job growth locally and nationally suggest that the road to labor market recovery will continue to be rocky. While any encouraging news is worth celebrating, we need to look beyond this standard indicator to better gauge the overall health of Oklahoma’s labor market.

Read more from the OK Policy Blog at

State leaders debate whether cutting Art in Public Places program really saves money

Some state programs and agencies saw 30% cuts, as legislators battled a half billion dollar shortfall for this upcoming fiscal year. But state leaders are now at odds over whether cutting one program will actually save any money. Representative Leslie Osborn wrote the law that put a three-year moratorium on the Art in Public Places program to save money, but the director of the program says putting a hold on art won’t save any money at all. “When the House and Senate introduce a bill to affect the program, they do fiscal impact studies, and the results of both of those studies showed that eliminating or putting a moratorium on the program will not affect the budget,” said Debby Williams the Director of Art in Public Places. Williams says when a construction project goes out for a bid, the 1.5% that’s supposed to be spent on art is already included in the total.

Read more from KJRH at

Oklahoma lawmaker questions city restrictions on pseudoephedrine

State Representative Mike Ritze said Thursday he plans to ask Attorney General Scott Pruitt to investigate the legality of new ordinances in two Oklahoma towns that ban the sale of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used in making meth. Wagoner and Holdenville recently passed ordinances that would require citizens to have a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine, which is used in several over-the-counter allergy medications. Similar legislation, House Bill 1235, was considered during this year’s legislative session but failed. Ritze, a Broken Arrow Republican, said he recognized the meth problem in Oklahoma, but said the new restrictions would only add burden to patients and the state’s healthcare system.

Read more from this NewsOn6 article at

American Indian language program receives $90k grant

Jim Hopper worries some young members of his tribe are facing a cultural identity crisis. They want to know what it means to be Otoe-Missouria, but they don’t understand the tribe’s native language, Hopper said. Last summer, Hopper attended an intensive, weeklong program called Oklahoma Breath of Life — Silent no More. The workshop, hosted at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, was designed to give participants the tools they need to help revitalize American Indian languages that are endangered. Organizers have received a $90,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the program.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

FEMA grant program helps some Oklahomans with shelter costs

Storm shelters are in high demand after recent tornadoes, but if you live in some Oklahoma communities the federal government may cover 75% of the price to put one in your home. It’s part of a FEMA grant program where your community has to apply and be awarded the money. According to state emergency management officials almost two dozen Oklahoma cities have either received or at least applied for the grant. In Midwest City, the response has been so great, city leaders are requesting additional funds. The city of Yukon is in the process of applying for the same grant. Oklahoma County says it is looking into ways to get a similar grant.

Read more from this NewsOn6 article at

Creek County’s Drumright courtroom to stay open

Creek County’s courtroom in Drumright will remain open, Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Taylor announced Thursday. Budget shortfalls and a low volume of cases prompted officials to look at consolidating the Drumright and Bristow court divisions. The Drumright City Commission voted to reduce the court’s rent in the building by 50 percent. “The chief justice felt that showed that the city really wanted the court there. He and our (state) senator (Brian Bingman) made it happen,” Vassar said.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at

Quote of the Day

I love this state – I don’t think they owe me the 80 bucks a year.

Bob Murphey, a Lawton man who sent the state a $160 check to pay back tax rebates he had received the past two year.

Number of the Day


Average monthly cost per person for stay in an assisted living facility in Oklahoma, 2009

Source: MetLife Mature Market Institute

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

Behind the scenes, Texas plans for insurance exchange

Gov. Rick Perry has made no secret of his disdain for federal health reform or for one of its key tenets, a Travelocity-like state insurance marketplace in which consumers could choose from public and private health plans. But among Mr. Perry’s gubernatorial peers, his stance on the health insurance exchange appears to be losing popularity: Politico reported last week that the Republican governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin are taking steps to comply with that piece of the law — even as they continue to oppose the federal health care program over all. Meanwhile, despite Mr. Perry’s stated opposition to a federally-mandated health insurance exchange and the state’s participation in lawsuits aimed at overturning federal health reform, officials at the Texas Department of Insurance acknowledge that since last fall, with the help of a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, they have been working quietly to plan for a health insurance exchange.

Read more from this New York Times article 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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