In The Know: Struggles at Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs start with staffing issues, payroll analysis indicates

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. Click here to subscribe to In The Know and see past editions.

Check out OK Policy’s resources for the Legislative session, including the Legislative Primer and Online Budget Guide.

Today In The News

Struggles at Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs start with staffing issues, payroll analysis indicates: Imagine going to work at a company where nearly two-thirds of the workforce will have moved on in less than two years. That’s the reality at the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, where the turnover rate was 62 percent between 2014 and 2016, according to a Tulsa World analysis of payroll data. The high turnover, coupled with overtime cuts and a recent increase in part-time staff hours worked, has put a squeeze on current agency staff, the data suggests [Tulsa World].

Legislature again takes up the shrinking county tax giveaway: One of the worst legislative ideas we’ve ever seen — the shrinking county tax giveaway — has reared its ugly head again this year. House Bill 1156 would give a 100 percent income-tax exemption for five years to anyone who moves from outside the state to an Oklahoma county with a shrinking population. So, if someone moved from Coffeyville, Kansas, to South Coffeyville, for example, we’d forgive their taxes for five years [Editorial Board / Tulsa World].

Four Weeks into the Session, a Closer Look at Where Things Stand: State lawmakers are officially at the one-quarter point of this year’s legislative session after wrapping up four weeks’ worth of work. So far only one bill – the Real ID compliance act – has made it through the Legislature and been signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. And there remains plenty to do to find a solution to the state’s $878 million budget gap and tackle the hundreds of bills that remain at alive this point. Here are five takeaways from what the Legislature has accomplished so far and what is on the horizon for coming weeks and months [Oklahoma Watch].

The progressive case for increasing the cigarette tax: Out of all the revenue options that Oklahoma has to fix a deep budget hole, the one getting the most attention from legislative leaders is increasing the cigarette tax. Last year’s attempt to increase the cigarette tax received a majority of votes in the House, but it fell short of the three-fourths supermajority required by State Question 640 for any tax increase, with Democrats making up the biggest block of no votes. The Republican leadership is trying again this year for a $1.50 per package increase in the cigarette tax with HB 1841, but to get it done they will need some votes from House Democrats [OK Policy].

Important to properly fund Oklahoma mental health agency: In a brave and poignant remembrance, The Oklahoman’s food editor, Dave Cathey, wrote last week about losing his 19-year-old son, Luke, to an accidental drug overdose. “The rising presence of opioids in our society is truly a scourge,” Cathey wrote. “His family’s only plea is that his passing be a stone in the path to a solution.” To which we say, from his lips to legislators’ ears. Oklahoma faces numerous important issues, not the least of which is the budget — the Legislature this year has $878 million less to work with than it did a year ago, when the shortfall topped $1 billion. This means exceedingly difficult choices await, with cuts to most agencies a certainty, just like last year [Editorial Board / NewsOK].

Oklahoma House passes anti-assisted-suicide bill: The Oklahoma House of Representatives spent 90 minutes Monday arguing about whether something that is already illegal should be even more illegal and finally decided the answer is yes. The House voted 62-26, with 11 members not voting, to send House Bill 1495, by Rep. Travis Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, to the Senate. The bill would require death certificates to list “suicide” as the cause of death in cases of assisted suicide [Tulsa World].

Here’s how HB 1482 would affect the Tulsa area: Last Monday, NonDoc published an editorial about Rep. Scott Biggs’ (R-Chickasha) contentious piece of legislation, HB 1482. The bill would essentially make simple drug possession a possible felony if individuals are busted within 1,000 feet of daycares, schools, colleges, churches, parks and several other public spaces. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) provided a map graphic that we used to accompany the editorial. The map draws upon U.S. Census and other data to create a visualization of the areas of Oklahoma City that would be affected if HB 1482 eventually passes and becomes law [NonDoc]. Read our factsheet and advocacy alert on HB 1482 [OK Policy].

Lawmaker aims to study inmate deaths at jails, prisons: As Oklahoma hovers near the top of the list for inmate deaths, one legislator is pushing to figure out why. “We’re trying to get a handle on why we’re losing people while they’re behind bars,” said state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie. “Anytime we have a vulnerable population, I think it’s important for us to take a systemic look.” She introduced Senate Bill 250, which would have required the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to look into any death in Oklahoma’s county jails and state prisons. But once the bureau raised some logistical concerns, lawmakers started looking into alternatives, Griffin said [Journal Record].

Tulsa Public Schools to try to intervene in lawsuit over state’s shorting districts on funding: The Tulsa school board agreed Monday to attempt to intervene in a lawsuit filed by school districts seeking more than two decades of back pay after an error caused state aid to be “unlawfully apportioned.” Tulsa Public Schools is one of the districts that benefited from the error, receiving property tax revenue that should have gone elsewhere, and is seeking to assert a claim in a lawsuit filed by school districts that were shorted [Tulsa World].

Oklahoma Republicans celebrate success but hear from a few dissenters: Oklahoma Republicans celebrated their mastery of state politics at the Mayo Hotel amid unusual circumstances Friday night. Never has the GOP held so firm a grip on the levers of state government. And never, until Friday night, has it heard voices of dissent outside the party’s annual delegation dinner. The voices were not many — about 30 or so — and about 6:30 p.m. they adjourned to the Mayo’s penthouse lounge to reconnoiter. But they were there, and for a Republican event in Oklahoma, that alone is unusual [Tulsa World].

Wind edges coal in Oklahoma for generation in 2016, EIA data says: Wind generation edged coal in Oklahoma for the first time in 2016 as natural gas remained the dominant fuel source for electricity, according to preliminary data from the federal Energy Information Administration. Natural gas accounted for 46.8 percent of the state’s electricity, with wind at 25.12 percent. Coal generation was 24.65 percent, while other sources made up the rest [NewsOK].

House speaker remains silent on Muslim questionnaire: Oklahoma’s House speaker won’t comment on what has been described as a “hateful” questionnaire given to Muslims visiting another House member’s office. Speaker Charles McCall’s spokesman said the speaker doesn’t need to comment on the actions of state Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw. “The speaker’s position is that all House members are duly elected by their constituents and they are accountable to their constituents for their words and actions,” said Jason Sutton, press secretary and senior public affairs adviser [NewsOK].

Even as minority populations grow, representation lags: Minorities make up a small fraction of every level of government. According to a 2014 study by Women Donors Network, “Just 10 percent of officeholders are people of color, despite representing more than 37 percent of the population.” Diverse views strengthen public policy, but various social factors prevent minorities from seeking public office. The factors limiting political engagement among minority populations include a lack of clearly defined public policy among Republicans and Democrats coupled with a lack of political interest within certain minority communities [Aisha Shah / NonDoc].

Welcome to 51st Place! For the past five years, Oklahoma has lingered at 49th in the nation in teacher pay, just above Mississippi and South Dakota. That is likely to change very soon. According to a recent story from the Associated Press (AP), Oklahoma teacher pay may soon be moving to 51st in the nation. The rankings include the District of Columbia. It might be more descriptive to just say Oklahoma will soon be DEAD LAST! This is because South Dakota and Mississippi state legislatures have both approved measures to specifically increase teacher wages [A View from the Edge].

Prayer walk in Oklahoma City draws hundreds to support immigrants: Morgan Riklan walked for her Shidler Elementary students. Jace Kirk walked for his son and the teens and moms who frequent a local community center and thrift store. Kim Duvall walked because the Lord loves all people. The three of them were among more than 500 people Saturday who made a six-mile prayer pilgrimage from south Oklahoma City to downtown, to show their support for the community’s immigrants and refugees [NewsOK].

Quote of the Day

“Certainly the political reality is that there will be some agency cuts again. How much? Who knows?”

-Senate Pro Tempore Mike Shulz (R-Altus) (Source)

Number of the Day


Estimated unauthorized immigrant population in Oklahoma, 2014

Source: Pew Research Center

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

Kansas Republicans Sour on Their Tax-Cut Experiment: It was only two months ago that Governor Sam Brownback was offering up the steep tax cuts he enacted in Kansas as a model for President Trump to follow. Yet by the time Republicans in Congress get around to tax reform, Brownback’s fiscal plan could be history—and it’ll be his own party that kills it. The GOP-controlled legislature in Kansas nearly reversed the conservative governor’s tax cuts on Tuesday, as a coalition of Democrats and newly-elected centrist Republicans came within a few votes of overriding Brownback’s veto of legislation to raise income-tax rates and eliminate an exemption for small businesses that blew an enormous hole in the state’s budget [The Atlantic].

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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