In The Know: May 11, 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, a state budget deal was announced yesterday with $218 million less than last year and the largest cut to common education since shortfalls began. OK Policy has a spreadsheet tracking agency cuts since FY ’09, and Data Watch is annotating this year’s budget. On the OK Policy Blog, we explain why the severity of budget cuts this year was a choice that could have been avoided.

Gov. Fallin signed five pension reform bills which will, among other things, increase the retirement age for public employees and mandate that cost-of-living-adjustments be funded by the legislature. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that local school districts aren’t required to cover the tax payments for teacher bonuses but can take them out of the bonuses themselves. The legislature stopped providing funds to cover those taxes as part of measures to deal wtih last year’s budget shortfall. A bill to require state agencies to go through the Attorney General’s office rather than hiring outside lawyers has stalled over objections to an exemption for higher education. A bill to allow guns in vehicles on CareerTech campuses narrowly passed in conference committee.

A Canadian company that wants to build a pipeline for transporting tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico is threatening Oklahoma landowners with eminent domain. The newly elected mayor of Pawnee was denied a pardon for a previous felony conviction in Arizona, which under Oklahoma law will prevent him from taking office. The ACLU and others have filed Appeals Court briefs against Oklahoma’s Sharia Law ban. In This Land Press, Hannibal Johnson discusses the importance of teaching about the Tulsa Race Riots.

In today’s Policy Note, a new report finds that the House GOP budget plan would leave up to 44 million more Americans without health insurance. These stories and more below the jump.

In The News

Oklahoma budget deal calls for deeper cuts to education

Public schools and higher education will face their biggest cuts in years in a state budget agreement announced Tuesday by legislative leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin. Budget cuts for agencies range from less than 1 percent to 9 percent as the Republican leadership, who control the Legislature and the governor’s office at the same for the first time in history, wrestled with a $500 million shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year beginning July 1. House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Earl Sears said leaders aren’t upset with public education. “It wasn’t that they fell out of favor,” said Sears, R-Bartlesville. “It’s just at this particular time that their cuts were not as small as they have been in the previous years.”

Read more from this NewsOK article at

See also: Budget proposal’s cut wide-ranging from The Tulsa World; Agency Appropriations, FY ’09-’12 from Oklahoma Policy Institute; Annotating the Oklahoma budget agreement from Data Watch

Budget cuts are a choice

In a recent article on state budget negotiations, House Speaker Kris Steele said he and other state leaders are “doing our best to minimize the cuts” to core agencies. He contrasted the treatment of core agencies to the larger cuts that would be made to other areas of government. This is a red herring. Perhaps education will be cut 5 percent, compared to, say, a 10 percent cut to the Department of Environmental Quality. But those areas identified as core services (education, health and human services, public safety, and transportation) already make up almost 90 percent of state appropriations. The real issue is not how the vast majority of the budget is treated compared to a few of the smallest state agencies. Speaker Steele and other lawmakers cannot claim in good faith to be protecting core services while ignoring revenue options and voting to make the problem worse.

Read more from the OK Policy Blog at

Okla. governor signs state pension overhaul bills

New Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed five separate bills on Tuesday designed to shore up the state’s underfunded pension systems. The bills require, among other things, that some new public employees and teachers work longer before retiring and mandating that cost-of-living adjustments be funded by the Legislature. Flanked by House and Senate leaders, Fallin signed measures designed to reduce the state’s estimated $16.5 million unfunded pension liability, which is the amount owed to pensioners beyond what the systems can afford to pay.

Read more from this Associated Press article at

Court rules that district can withhold taxes from teacher bonuses

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently cleared the gray as to whether local school districts were authorized last year to withdraw tax obligations from teachers’ National Board certification bonuses, saying districts shouldn’t be accountable to shoulder tax expenses for a state-promised reward. Court documents state that the bonuses are divvied to 122 National Board certified teachers in the district (among about 2,600 in the state) as part of Education Leadership Oklahoma — a program that promotes National Board certification — from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. The attorney for Norman Public Schools, Robert Pendarvis, said in prior years the state sent $5,000 for each bonus, plus the amount for FICA. Last year, however, because of a budget shortfall within the Legislature, only $5,000 was sent to school districts, minus the amount for FICA.

Read more from this Norman Transcript article at

Bill to curb hiring of lawyers by state agencies hits a snag

A bill to make it harder for most state agencies to hire outside attorneys stalled Tuesday in the state House. Although arguments center on who wasn’t covered by the proposal, Tuesday’s result could be that no state agency will be covered by it. House Bill 1223 would give the attorney general the right to act as the attorney for most state agencies before they could contract with external law firms. Also, the bill would require that contracts with outside attorneys would have to be approved by the attorney general and that details of attorney contracts be posted on the Internet. Most of Tuesday’s questioning and debate on the bill centered on a Senate amendment that would exempt the state higher education system from the new rules.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at

Oklahoma House panel advances CareerTech guns bill

The last remaining gun bill in this year’s session narrowly remained alive after a close vote in a legislative conference committee. House Bill 1652 received a majority of votes — seven — to advance Tuesday from a House of Representatives conference committee. The measure would allow students, teachers and visitors who have concealed-carry permits to leave their guns secured in their vehicles on CareerTech campuses. The measure now goes to a Senate conference committee and must clear both chambers. Pat McGregor, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of CareerTech Education, said all 29 CareerTech superintendents are against the measure.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

Can a company based in Canada use eminent domain in Oklahoma?

On one side is the company, TransCanada. On the other, are landowners fighting to keep a pipeline off their property. “It is ours. They didn’t work and pay for this land. They don’t have a right to bully their way across here and take whatever they want,” said Sue Kelso, whose family is facing eminent domain court proceedings. Kelso and her siblings don’t want TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline to go through their property. The pipeline expands one that currently ends in Cushing and takes it south to refineries in the Gulf Coast. It will travel through eight counties in Oklahoma. Kelso’s family has other natural gas pipelines under the farm. But, she says this company was different. “The very first meeting we had, we were told we would take it or they would condemn our property anyway,” said Kelso.

Read more from this NewsOn6 article at

No pardon for felon elected mayor in Oklahoma

Christopher S. Linder has had many monikers over the years: Big Slim was his gang nickname, 151011 was his inmate number, and he has been mayor-elect since voters in Pawnee, Okla., chose him to lead their small town. But Mr. Linder cannot take office until he first wipes clean his felony convictions, according to Oklahoma state law, which is what brought him Tuesday before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency seeking a pardon. The five-member board had many questions for Mr. Linder and none involved his plans for Pawnee, an ailing town where the lone hospital has closed, the population of about 2,000 is on a downward trend and residents are in significant financial distress.

Read more from this New York Times article at

Groups ask Appeals Court to block Oklahoma Sharia Law measure

A Muslim man alleges that a proposed amendment to Oklahoma’s Constitution that would prohibit state courts from considering international or Islamic Sharia Law when deciding cases stigmatizes his religion and infringes on the religious rights of Muslims. Muneer Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Oklahoma, sought an injunction last year against State Question 755 — approved by 70 percent of voters Nov. 2 — that he said transforms Oklahoma’s Constitution into “an enduring condemnation” of Islam by singling it out. A legal brief filed for Awad by the American Civil Liberties Union says supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment acknowledge that state courts have never improperly applied Sharia Law and that the state is unable to explain or justify the stigma it imposes on Muslims statewide.

Read more from this NewsOK article at

The importance of teaching about the 1921 Tulsa race riots

Despite its significance as the worst so-called race riot in American history, even some Tulsans remain oblivious to the tragic events of late May 1921. Still more claim only a superficial familiarity with it. We need to teach and learn about the Riot. We need to know what happened and why. We need to hold people accountable; assign moral responsibility for the gross depredations and injustices perpetrated on Tulsa soil. If, and only if, we teach and learn about the Riot will we begin the process of reconciliation in earnest, recapture a lost sense of shared humanity, and create for posterity a community more open, inclusive and loving than the one in which we live today.

Read more from This Land Press at

Quote of the Day

Everyone holds the past against somebody. In Chris Linder’s case, his past made him know what it takes to overcome.

Pawnee resident Ronnie Jestes, speaking about Pawnee’s newly elected mayor who may not be allowed to
take office due to a prior felony conviction.

Number of the Day

11.4 percent

Increase in foreclosure filings in Oklahoma between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the 1st quarter of 2011.

Source: RealtyTrac

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

Up to 44M more uninsured under GOP budget

The House Republican budget would leave up to 44 million more low-income people uninsured as the federal government cuts states’ Medicaid funding by about one-third over the next 10 years, nonpartisan groups said in a report issued Tuesday. The analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Urban Institute concluded that Medicaid’s role as the nation’s safety net health care program would be “significantly compromised … with no obvious alternative to take its place,” if the GOP budget is adopted.

Read more from this Associated Press 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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