In The Know: Powdery pollution coated Oklahoma town

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 you should know that NPR has an in-depth investigation of the Continental Carbon company in Ponca City, which was not cited for dangerous pollution until after more than 13 years and more than 700 formal complaints. NPR revealed that the EPA has a watch list of more than 1,600 plants with similar problems across the country, including several more in Oklahoma. Geologists warn that Oklahoma’s seismic activity may be far from over. Speaker Kris Steele shuffled the House leadership team, and one lawmaker is complaining that he was punished for voting against Steele’s favored candidate for Speaker-designate.

A judge ruled there is sufficient evidence for the bribery case against Rep. Randy Terrill and former Sen. Debbe Leftwich to go to trial. Counties which are holding prisoners due to lack of space in state prisons say their reimbursement rate falls far short of the actual cost to keep them, which may violate the state constitution. An increasing portion of Tulsa’s poor population is living in “poverty belts” – areas where more than 40 percent of the population is below the federal poverty level.

Academic shortfalls are putting more financial burdens on Oklahoma schools as they are required to shift federal money into teacher training, school transfers and after school tutoring. A federal lawsuit against several school districts by a group of parents alleging that their special-needs children were denied private school scholarships was dismissed at the parents’ request. Several parents of special-needs students says vouchers have benefited their children, but critics warns that the program is sending public money to private schools with little to no accountability.

An OU student is taking the university to court over a disciplinary ruling which he says failed to allow due process of law. The movement to encourage consumers to take their money out of large banks is having some impact in Oklahoma. A lawsuit was filed against DHS for putting a 6-year-old in the care of a woman who previously had two of her own young children. NewsOK reports that the incident is part of a history of child death problems in Pottawatomie County.

The Tulsa World writes that the state needs to act very soon to establish a health insurance exchange to avoid the federal government imposing one. The OK Policy Blog previously explained why it may already be too late. Today’s Number of the Day is the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma this weekend. In today’s Policy Note, Stateline reports on the pitfalls faced by efforts in several states to eliminate the income tax.

In The News

Powdery pollution coats Oklahoma town

Karen Howe couldn’t believe her luck. As a single mom working a minimum wage job and living with two kids in a crowded one-bedroom apartment in Ponca City, Okla., she was desperate for a three-bedroom house and a lawn. Howe, a member of the Ponca Tribe, was offered tribal housing in a small, tree-lined subdivision of 11 homes on the southern, rural edge of the city. “I was just real excited and happy about it because we had more space and the kids would’ve had their own rooms,” Howe recalls. She didn’t pay much attention to the neighbor across the fence, the Continental Carbon Company, and its industrial complex of pipes, storage tanks and smokestacks. Continental Carbon produces a fine black powdery substance called carbon black, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as a potential human carcinogen.

Read more from NPR.

See also: Secret ‘Watch List’ Reveals Failure To Curb Toxic Air from NPR

Oklahoma’s seismic activity may not be over, experts say

The 5.6 magnitude earthquake that shook the state Saturday night did not cause significant damage nor have any serious injuries been reported — but the seismic activity may be far from over, scientists said. The brunt of damage has been reported in Lincoln County, the epicenters of recent quakes, and in adjacent Pottawatomie County. Minor damage to 12 homes was reported, and a stretch of U.S. 62 buckled in Lincoln County, said authorities. One building on the campus of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee also was damaged. After the main shock, there were 12 temblors registering at magnitudes of 3.0 or higher and more than 70 quakes with magnitudes of 1.0 to 2.5, Oklahoma Geological Survey research scientist Amie Gibson said Sunday. While scientists cannot predict earthquakes, Gibson said she would be surprised if they suddenly stopped considering the high amount of seismic activity over the weekend.

Read more from NewsOK.

House Speaker shuffles leadership team

A Kay County lawmaker was named Friday to succeed Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan in the House of Representatives. Steele, R-Shawnee, said Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman, will assume his new duties Dec. 1, when Sullivan’s resignation takes effect. Sullivan was hired last month to head the Grand River Dam Authority. Steele named Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, as deputy floor leader to assist with the duties of the floor leader’s office. House Speaker Kris Steele also removed Rep. John Trebilcock as chairman of a House committee. The speaker denied Trebilcock’s claims the move was in retaliation for his not voting for Steele’s favorite as the next designated speaker, a spokesman said Friday. In removing Trebilcock as chairman of the House Energy and Utility Regulation Committee, Steele named Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, to take his place. Peters served as chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee on human services. Steele named Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, to succeed Peters.

Read more from NewsOK.

Judge rules sufficient evidence for bribery trial of state Rep. Randy Terrill, former Sen. Debbe Leftwich

A judge Friday ruled prosecutors have sufficient evidence against state Rep. Randy Terrill and former Sen. Debbe Leftwich for a bribery trial. Judge rules sufficient evidence for bribery trial for state Rep. Randy Terrill, former Sen. Debbe Leftwich “Unseemly actions and even unethical behavior doesn’t necessarily constitute a criminal act,” Oklahoma County Special Judge Stephen Alcorn said during his ruling. “However, when the evidence is looked at as a whole in this matter, in its entirety, it is clear this exceeds business as usual.” Terrill and Leftwich have not formally been ordered to face trial yet. The judge held off on that step because prosecutors may appeal part of his ruling. Prosecutors had asked him to add a conspiracy count to the felony case, and he refused. Prosecutors said they likely will appeal that refusal to a district judge.

Read more from NewsOK.

State inmates cost counties millions

Inmates stacked up in county jails awaiting transfer to state prison could be costing counties millions of dollars a year or more. The practice, which was criticized by an independent audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in 2008, is the result of overcrowding at state facilities. The audit found delaying the intake of state inmates “was the only relief valve available” to address bed shortages in state prisons. While the practice may reduce overcrowding at the state level, county officials say it strains operations at local jails and taxes residents who fund them. State law requires the state corrections department to reimburse counties that keep state prisoners until bed space is available. County officials say the reimbursement rate, capped at $27 a day for each prisoner kept, falls short of the actual cost to keep them. That, according to an attorney general’s opinion published in July, violates the state constitution if ad valorem taxes are being used to subsidize the costs of incarcerating state inmates at the county level.

Read more from The Muskogee Phoenix.

Extreme poverty on the rise in Tulsa County

An increasing portion of Tulsa’s poor population is living in “poverty belts” – areas where more than 40 percent of the population is below the federal poverty level. That concentration of need means some 10,000 local residents not only suffer from their own lack of income, but also find that the educational, health and crime cards are stacked against them ever getting to a better station, according to a report released this week by the Brookings Institution. Nationally, the study found that the number of people living in poverty belts rose by one-third over the course of the last decade, led by growth in the Midwest and South and in suburban areas. The study also found the residents of extreme poverty neighborhoods are increasingly likely to be white and native-born U.S. citizens. The report identified nine poverty belts in Tulsa County.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

Academic shortfall puts financial burden on Oklahoma schools

Landing on the needs improvement list is more than a black eye for 61 school districts in Oklahoma. It’s a financial burden loaded with paperwork and red tape. Districts and schools on the list must yank federal funding from the general budget and drop it into funds for teacher training, school transfers and after school tutoring. Some of the programs get little use — particularly school transfers — and the funds sit unused and untouchable for the entire school year. And because districts received notification of their performance three months late this year — reports were finalized last week — some are scrambling to meet the requirements more than 10 weeks into the school year.

Read more from NewsOK.

Parents drop private school voucher lawsuit

A federal lawsuit filed against the Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa and Union school districts by a group of parents alleging that their special-needs children were denied private school scholarships was dismissed Wednesday at the parents’ request. Eric Rassbach, who represents the parents as an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said there is no reason to keep the case going. “Now that the state Department of Education is running it rather than these rogue school districts, they actually will get their scholarships going forward,” he said. The school districts have long maintained that they paid out all the scholarships in 2010-11. Their issue is the belief that the law violates the Oklahoma Constitution’s prohibition against using public taxpayer dollars for private sectarian purposes. Of 42 private schools approved to receive the scholarships, only two are not religion-based. In September, Jenks and Union countersued parents in state court to challenge the law’s constitutionality after a federal court judge recommended that such a determination would best be rendered at the state level.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

See also: School voucher critics cite lack of accountability from The Tulsa World; Parents say vouchers helping special needs kids from The Tulsa World

Student taking OU to court over disciplinary council ruling

A sophomore pre-law student at the University of Oklahoma is taking the university to court claiming his constitutional rights have been violated. Frank George, 19, has filed a petition for review of a final agency order made by the university’s Campus Disciplinary Council in district court in Cleveland County. Samuel Talley, George’s attorney, said because the university is a state agency, his client has the right to petition review at the district court pursuant to the Oklahoma Administrative Procedures Act. On Feb. 18, George was arrested by campus police on a charge of public intoxication. This led to an appearance before the university’s Campus Disciplinary Board on an alleged violation of the institution’s student drinking code. Though the board found George guilty for public intoxication, he denies being drunk during his arrest at 3 a.m. Feb. 18 and claims the council failed to allow him due process of law.

Read more from The Norman Transcript.

Movement urging consumers to move accounts out of large banks has some impact in Oklahoma

For some Oklahoma consumers, smaller is better when it comes to banking. A national consumer movement to punish large banks by urging customers to move their accounts to credit unions and smaller banks appears to have had some impact in Oklahoma. Matt Stratton, senior vice president of marketing for Tinker Federal Credit Union, said Tinker opened nearly twice as many consumer accounts in October as it normally does. Tinker is the state’s largest credit union. “I don’t know that I can attribute all of that to the (consumer) movement or maybe just the fact that credit unions have been in discussion so much lately,” Stratton said. “I haven’t seen a lot of Oklahoma discussion on it; most of what I’ve seen has been on the national level.” Roger Beverage, president of the Oklahoma Bankers Association, said state community banks in metro areas saw “a trickle” of new accounts opened up by customers leaving Bank of America or other large banks.

Read more from NewsOK.

Lawsuit blames DHS for Shawnee child death

DHS is being blamed for another girl’s death. This time, the state agency is being criticized for leaving 6-year-old Alexis Morris and her younger brother in the care of a stepmother who previously had two of her own young children die under tragic circumstances. DHS chose to leave Alexis and her younger brother, Jordan Morris, there despite receiving 27 complaints of possible child abuse to those two children. The complaints came from multiple sources, including a doctor, teacher, neighbor, school counselor, child care provider and the children’s natural mother, a lawsuit states. The stepmother, Jennifer Jimenez, 29, of Shawnee, was charged with child abuse in November 2010 in Pottawatomie County — more than a year after Alexis’ Sept. 25, 2009, death.

Read more from NewsOK.

See also: Oklahoma counties have history of child death problems from NewsOK

Tulsa World: State must act soon on insurance exchange question

Apparently the political quandary over meeting a key requirement of federal health-care reform has all but paralyzed state lawmakers. The legislative task force studying the possible impacts of federal reform on the state was told recently that Oklahoma needs to get moving on building a health-insurance exchange by April, or face the prospect that the federal government will create one for us. An exchange is essentially an electronic marketplace for consumers that helps them find the type of insurance program that fits their needs and also enroll. The federal law requires that exchanges be ready for use by Oct. 1, 2013. Supporters say exchanges will also make insurance plans more competitive and help keep health-care costs down. But despite evidence exchanges are good for health-care consumers, here in Oklahoma they’re seen more as an element of some nefarious Communist plot. State lawmakers have refused three separate times to create an exchange, and some are even insisting the state should continue to refuse to do the job.

Read more from The Tulsa World.

Previously: Clock ticks down on state-run health insurance exchange from the OK Policy Blog

Quote of the Day

I can put a tablespoon of carbon black powder in a 40-by-40 room and just blow it with an air conditioning vent, and it would literally coat everything in the room.
Dennis Hetu, President of Continental Carbon, which operates a plant in Ponca City that was not required to fix its pollution problems for 13 years in which there were more than 700 formal complaints.

Number of the Day


Number of earthquakes in Oklahoma this weekend, including the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the state.

Source:  New York Times

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

Abolishing a state income tax is easier said than done

On September 24, 1980, a few weeks before Ronald Reagan was elected president, Alaska Governor Jay Hammond signed into law a bill abolishing his state’s personal income tax. In the past 31 years, no other state has taken that step. But lawmakers in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma are talking seriously about it. All these plans reflect an important piece of conservative orthodoxy: that taxes on the creation of wealth are undesirable because they impair economic growth. To turn that principle into reality, however, anti-income tax activists will have to overcome both political and practical concerns. After all, getting rid of the personal income tax, currently a central revenue source in each of these states, means one of two things. It either means cutting state revenue deeply, which, critics warn, wouldn’t leave enough money to pay for state services. Or it means finding new tax revenue somewhere else, most likely through levies that will fall more heavily either on low-income people or on businesses.

Read more from Stateline.

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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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