As 2020 wound to a close, our OK Policy staff reviewed the previous 12 months. As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over nearly every aspect of our work and our lives. When the virus’ threat began to emerge in the spring, the OK Policy team shifted our work to analyze state and federal policies in every sector of our work. We developed this list based on website traffic, which indicated that Oklahomans were hungry for non-partisan information about the pandemic and its impact on their daily lives. Additionally, Oklahomans sought out OK Policy for non-partisan information and analysis in order to help them make informed decisions during this year’s election cycle. What follows is a countdown of 2020’s top stories and topics from OK Policy:
One of the most high profile issues in the coming Legislative session will be identifying a funding mechanism for Medicaid expansion, which was passed by voters in June 2020. While doomsayers have said Oklahoma will need to raise taxes or cut programs to fund this important health program, the state has many ways to pay for Medicaid expansion. OK Policy published an analysis that identified $600 million — through savings from eliminating ineffective tax breaks, repurposing existing taxes, or the economic growth expansion will provide — that could pay for expansion three times over.
Oklahoma’s prisons and jails may have been an afterthought for many Oklahomans considering the pandemic’s impacts, but OK Policy and our partners pointed out that a COVID-19 outbreak would endanger community health both inside and outside prison walls. OK Policy led a coalition of organizations from both ends of the political spectrum to ask the state to enact changes that would prevent or slow viral outbreaks. Our policy team put forward robust, evidence-based procedures that could combat this health emergency. The state adopted many of these recommendations, which slowed the virus’ transmission during the summer and fall. However, our correctional system remains a public health concern to contain the virus.
In the pandemic’s earliest days, OK Policy examined how the virus would impact workers, specifically those in the service, hospitality, and retail industries. As Oklahomans were looking for information, they turned to our work outlining actions the state could take to soften the pandemic’s negative economic effects — starting with expanding access to unemployment insurance.
During the last weekend in May, the nation’s eyes focused on Tulsa as the community leaders commemorated the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. These commemorative activities coincided with nationwide protests stemming from the police killing of George Floyd. OK Policy provided a comprehensive wrap-up of articles that examined this shameful chapter of Tulsa’s history and also lifted up a 2016 post that highlighted efforts for justice and reparations for Greenwood and its survivors through education, recognition, legislation, and litigation.
6. School meals are a lifeline for Oklahoma families. P-EBT extends that lifeline to ensure children get the food they need. (Guest Post)
Even before the pandemic struck, food insecurity was a major issue in Oklahoma where 1 in 5 Oklahoma children lived in households where access to food wasn’t always reliable. The broad economic impact caused by COVID-19 made that worse, leaving many Oklahomans — including those with children at home — reporting they didn’t have enough to eat during the previous week. OK Policy worked with our friends at Hunger Free Oklahoma to spotlight the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) card, a program that served as a lifeline for families to help feed their school children.
Among the many adaptations Oklahomans took during the pandemic, the processes by which we could vote safely were among them. The June 30 special election — with Medicaid expansion on the ballot — was the first election following the pandemic’s start. During the spring session, lawmakers prioritized health and safety by approving a temporary measure that streamlined our absentee voting system with alternatives to notarizing ballots. (While this change was temporary, Oklahomans should ask for them to be made permanent in order to increase access to their government.) Our work highlighting the new voting processes and options for safely voting was among the most visited stories on our website last year.
4. The Federal Government has taken significant action to shore up the unemployment insurance program — and there’s more Oklahoma can do.
When the CARES Act passed in March, it provided a significant boost to unemployment insurance to help people who find themselves unable to work right now. (Little did we know at the time that it would be nine months until the second relief bill was passed.) In those early days, we outlined other actions that Oklahoma could take to shore up the state’s unemployment program and provide support for Oklahomans facing job loss or reduced hours.
3. Policymakers must do more to prevent evictions and foreclosures during and after the COVID-19 crisis. We’re tracking these cases with our new Oklahoma Court Tracker tool
Oklahoma had long been a national leader for evictions, with Oklahoma City and Tulsa being among the Top 20 national markets with the highest eviction rates. When the pandemic struck, the issue of evictions and housing insecurity became magnified as a record number of Oklahomans had their hours cut or lost their jobs completely. OK Policy and its Open Justice Oklahoma program quickly developed a tool that tracked eviction filings in Oklahoma, which drew national attention to this issue. In a little more than nine months, Oklahoma landlords have filed nearly 20,000 eviction cases with nearly 8,000 of them granted. As the federal eviction moratorium expires on Jan. 31, this is an issue we can expect to continue growing during the coming year.
In the early days of Oklahoma’s state of emergency, Gov. Stitt issued his “safer at home” order that placed some limits on public gatherings, but fell short of a statewide stay-at-home order seen in most other states. Instead, residents were asked to exercise their personal responsibility to protect themselves and others. Residents were forced to negotiate a patchwork of local ordinances where requirements varied even between neighboring communities. OK Policy called for a statewide stay-at-home order in early April to provide uniform action to preserve the health and well-being for Oklahomans. While Oklahoma never enacted statewide stay-at-home order (or a statewide mask order for that matter), our call for collective statewide action was our site’s second most discussed topic during 2020.
Oklahoma voters decided three state questions at the polls this year: SQ 802 (Medicaid expansion); SQ 805 (a proposal to limit sentence enhancement for felony cases); and SQ 814 (a proposal from the Legislature to reallocate funds from the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement). In recent years, the state question process has been a crucial route for Oklahomans to advance meaningful policy change, and OK Policy has embraced our role providing voters with non-partisan information about the choices they are being asked to determine. During the past year, our state question fact sheets provided information and voting resources for hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans before they cast their ballots.