Rebuilding Oklahoma: Policy Recommendations to Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Strengthen Our State for the Long Term

The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant health and economic effects in Oklahoma, which will require an aggressive state and local policy response. Oklahoma must work in cooperation with the federal responses in order to rebuild our state into a place where all Oklahomans can thrive. The Oklahoma Policy Institute has evaluated legislative and administrative actions — both state and federal — that will best prepare the state for a long-term recovery that benefits the health and well-being of all Oklahomans.

Budget & Taxes  |  Economic Opportunity  |  Education | Health Justice System  |  Voting & Elections

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Budget & taxes

Oklahoma’s state budget supports education, health care, public health and safety, and dozens of other services that are essential to civil society. Oklahoma struggles to do these things well because its tax collections are below average, and its revenue is comparatively volatile due to the importance of the petroleum industry to the state economy. These factors have kept Oklahoma from supporting those in need and investing in a modern economy. As a result, state and local revenues fluctuate dramatically with the national economy and petroleum prices, and show little improvement in the long run. The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a dual threat to Oklahoma’s revenue and state services: Citizens are earning and spending less, as in every other state, but historically low oil and natural gas prices will make the impact worse in Oklahoma. Elected officials should work to diversify the revenue base for state and local governments, invest strategically in programs and services that serve our state’s long-term future, allocate dollars based on need rather than available revenue, make the budget process more transparent, and create a tax system that would be fairer, simpler and more supportive of economic growth.

Legislative

  • Use available savings accounts to stabilize the state budget. Key state services such as education, health care, human services, and basic public safety cannot be allowed to deteriorate when they are needed most. The economic and fiscal pictures are changing quickly and the Legislature should expect to make multiple adjustments in the coming months and possibly years.
  • Get money to Oklahomans who need it. The Legislature should immediately allocate additional funds to provide direct financial support to the most vulnerable Oklahomans and provide an infusion of cash into all of our communities. They can do this by expanding low-income tax credits, and by speeding adoption and delivery of state employee retirement cost of living adjustments.

Administrative 

Additional Resources from OK Policy 

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Economic Opportunity

Ensuring economic security for Oklahoma residents is especially important following the global pandemic and the resulting impact on our state. Oklahoma historically has included a higher than average poverty rate and a higher than average share of low-wage jobs. This leaves many Oklahomans especially vulnerable during economic downturns. This current downturn will be severe, and experts are unsure how long it will last. It is crucial right now that all families — especially those who are experiencing job loss, reduced incomes, and poverty — receive adequate support to help them avoid financial devastation. Key to providing economic security will be addressing issues around child care, eviction, foreclosure, and homelessness. 

Legislative

  • Re-establish work share in Oklahoma to increase access to unemployment benefits. The CARES Act, recently passed by the federal government, includes a provision to support work share programs as a way to lessen unemployment. In states with work share programs, employers can avoid lay-offs by placing workers on part-time work schedules. Affected workers can then collect partial unemployment benefits to recoup some of their lost income. In the case of work share, the employer submits the documentation for all affected workers, and the employees do not have to submit individual claims for unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s work share program was repealed in 2014. The federal CARES Act includes grants to states to offset costs of establishing work share programs, and Oklahoma lawmakers should pass legislation restarting the program. In addition, the federal government will fund 50 percent of workshare unemployment benefits for the remainder of the year. 
  • Protect existing access to unemployment benefits. The Legislature must also immediately stop consideration of HB 3096, a bill that would reduce the number of weeks that unemployment benefits are available in Oklahoma from the current 26 down to just 12 as long as the unemployment rate is officially below 5.5 percent. The bill passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives in March and awaits Senate consideration.
  • Boost refundable tax credits for working families. The Legislature can also take action to put money back in families’ pockets right now when they most need it. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Sales Tax Relief Credit (STRC) are both targeted at low-income families and provide an important income boost during tax time. The legislature must take action to increase the effectiveness of both of these credits by restoring EITC refundability and increasing the amount and income limit of the STRC, neither of which have been updated in 30 years.

Administrative

  • Additional unemployment benefits. The CARES Act also includes three enhancements to existing unemployment benefits: an additional $600 per week for everyone receiving unemployment insurance through July 30; an additional 13 weeks of benefits for those who exhaust their regular benefits; and expanded eligibility for the self-employed.
  • Increase access to food aid. The federal government has temporarily waived the requirement that adults without dependents work at least 20 hours per week to receive benefits for longer than three months. Oklahoma has also enacted emergency supplemental benefits for SNAP households to increase their ability to stock up on necessary food, extended the certification period to allow more time for SNAP households to certify their eligibility, and waived in-person interview requirements for existing and new SNAP households. To further increase SNAP’s effectiveness during this public health emergency, the federal government could boost the maximum SNAP benefit by at least 15 percent and increase the monthly minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $30. 

Additional Resources from OK Policy

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Child Care 

Oklahoma child care providers are the backbone of our state’s economy. They are playing an especially vital role during the pandemic, caring for some of 267,000 young Oklahoma children whose parents work in essential industries such as health care, grocery stores and pharmacies. However, while some families need child care now more than ever, other families are pulling their children out of care, putting the industry at risk: estimates show that 60 percent of the child care supply in Oklahoma could be lost without sufficient intervention, which would be a staggering blow for an industry that provides a $900 million economic impact annually. Parents are struggling to cover copays and tuition and essential workers also need assistance finding and paying for care in the midst of increased or unpredictable hours and child care closures. The state should utilize existing Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funds along with the additional $49.5 million in additional CCDBG funding the state will receive as part of the federal CARES stimulus package. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has implemented some changes including waiving copayments for families in March and April, as well as lifting the place holding fees DHS was charging families to hold their subsidy spot in a child care facility. However, more is needed to support providers and families.

Administrative

  • Reimburse child care providers based on enrollment rather than attendance. This includes paying child care providers that have closed to allow them to cover fixed expenses. Costs can be calculated based on February payments and this strategy would be cost-neutral to the state. 
  • Expand the development of networks for child care facilities to get needed supplies. This can be done by utilizing the existing Shared Services network operated through Oklahoma Child Care Resource and Referral and funded by new CCDBG funds. In addition, child care providers should be exempt from quantity limitations of groceries, cleaning supplies, thermometers, and other supplies needed for their businesses. 
  • Pay all child care providers for loss of income across all care settings. Just as the state is doing for the PK-12 education system, the state should provide emergency funding to cover fixed costs so providers can pay staff wages during closures to ensure enough workforce and facilities when the emergency ends. 
  • Extend 12-month child care subsidy eligibility. No family should lose subsidy during the coronavirus. 
  • Coordinate care for essential workers and pay these providers accordingly. 
    • Like other states, use surveys to document needs and match families of essential workers with available care or partner with the Oklahoma Child Care Resource and Referral Association to utilize their existing referral services. 
    • Focus on existing licensed child care sites as the primary way to provide child care for essential workers with young children (ages 0-5), particularly infants and toddlers. Existing programs already have the equipment and physical structures, as well as trained staff, to provide the safest care to young children given their unique needs.
    • Reimburse providers at the three-star rate and pay child care workers at these facilities hazard pay due to increased risk.
    • Allow teachers and teacher’s aides with background checks to step in as temporary child care workers and hire child care providers who have been laid off as the first priority when staffing expanding emergency child care centers. 
    • Extend in-home care options to allow children of essential workers to be cared for by trusted friends or relatives and receive subsidy payments. 
    • Avoid temporary “pop-up” care facilities in faith organizations or other community sites that have received provisional licenses to provide care during the crisis but lack training and standards of established licensed care facilities.
  • Ensure child care providers have access to a variety of small-business protections. These include direct grants, zero-interest loans, mortgage forbearance, deferral of rents, and support for utilities and insurance for a minimum of three months. Provide assistance in securing SBA loans and ensure all workers have access to paid family leave and paid sick leave. 

Additional Resources from OK Policy

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Eviction, Foreclosure, and Homelessness

High rates of poverty, incarceration, and eviction mean that for many Oklahomans, having a home to shelter in is not a guarantee, with 1,200 people experiencing homelessness in a 2019 point-in-time count in Oklahoma City alone. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to have medical conditions that put them at greater risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19, and state and local officials must develop specific outreach strategies to create access to shelter and care. 

Administrative

  • Expand Medicaid now. Ensuring that people experiencing homelessness have access to needed health care will enable more to seek medical care when they need it, not before a health care problem becomes a crisis and puts their lives and the lives of first responders in danger. Medicaid expansion also means that providers will be paid for the care they ultimately deliver for people experiencing homelessness, to the benefit of our health systems and other payors. 
  • Halt breaking up homeless encampments. Oklahoma should issue a statewide ban on municipalities breaking up homeless encampments, ensuring that people experiencing homelessness have a reliable place to rest and where outreach workers can bring sanitation supplies and other important materials. 
  • Utilize all available housing options. People experiencing homelessness are substantially more likely than the general population to be at greater risk for serious illness if infected due to preexisting conditions but are by definition less likely to be able to obey a “safer at home” or “shelter at home” order. Municipalities should collaborate with nonprofits to create low-barrier homeless shelters in buildings such as stadiums and hotels to house people experiencing homelessness.
  • Equip outreach workers with personal protective equipment. Law enforcement officers and other outreach personnel should be equipped with masks, gloves, and other vital protection in order to distribute hand sanitizer and screening for fevers among people experiencing homelessness. 

Additional Resources from OK Policy

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Education 

Pre-K to 12 

The Oklahoma State Department of Education’s efforts to keep students and staff safe during this crisis has been commendable. On March 25, the Oklahoma State School Board voted to close schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year and all districts would adopt distance learning programs through the semester’s end. The Department along with school leaders, teachers, and support staff have worked to transform school operations to meet student needs, including ensuring that students had access to meals. This is especially vital in a state where 61 percent of all Oklahoma public school students receive free or reduced price lunch. Without this support, many students could go hungry when schools are closed. 

Administrative

  • Pay support staff. On April 2nd, Governor Stitt issued the order which will allow districts to pay support staff through local board approval, following a letter from Superintendent Hofmeister asking him to do so. Previous action by the state School Board had allowed school administrators and teachers but not support staff to receive pay during school closures. 
  • Increase access to school meals. Oklahoma State Department of Education applied and was approved for seven waivers, which collectively allow all students in the state regardless of income level to receive two meals a day at pick-up sites across the state.
  • Extend SNAP to families with low-income children. The federal Family First Coronavirus Act, which was passed on March 18th, includes the Pandemic EBT Act, which extends SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps) to families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and attend schools that have been closed for 5 or more consecutive days. 

Additional Resources from OK Policy

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Higher education

Economic recessions are often accompanied by an increased interest in pursuing higher education. Unfortunately, between 2008 and 2017, college tuition in Oklahoma increased by 38.9 percent, and state spending per student dropped by $3,294. This shifted 54 percent of the state’s higher education budget onto students. Investing in Oklahoma higher education not only significantly increases lifetime earnings for graduates, but also generates $9.40 in economic output for every dollar that is invested. Lowering college tuition will stimulate the entire Oklahoma economy. 

Administrative

  • Institute a tuition reduction. The Regents for Higher Education should direct each school that receives federal funding from the CARES Act to reduce tuition by ten percent or more for the 2020-21 academic year, when many displaced workers will be seeking to improve their skills.

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Broadband

Oklahoma’s limited access to broadband internet connectivity has set back business, education, and health care across the state. The state ranks 47th in broadband connectivity, with nearly 1 in 3 Oklahomans with no or limited internet access. As business, education, and health care move increasingly online in the wake of the pandemic, Oklahoma needs to make significant investment in broadband to ensure equal access for all residents. 

Legislative

  • Subsidize and incentivize broadband access: Stimulus checks to Americans should include a subsidy to access the internet at broadband speeds broadband speeds (25/3 Mbps upload/download) and higher (25/25 Mbps). In addition, Congress should appropriate funding for broadband deployment where it does not currently exist, prioritizing rural America and Indian Country, and incentivize internet service providers to eliminate data caps, throttling, overage fees, and shut-offs for the duration of the public health crisis. 
  • Increase wireless internet access: The Federal Communications Commission can help students and others access wireless by waiving rules around E-Rate, which makes telecommunications affordable for schools and libraries. This would allow patrons to check out wireless hotspots to access the internet at home.
  • Prioritize infrastructure development at the state level: The Legislature should create and appropriate an office of broadband development to work with stakeholders to improve affordability and access to services and ensure Oklahomans understand the broadband options available to them. This office should leverage grants available for middle- and last-mile infrastructure to reach underserved and unserved parts of the state.

Additional Resources from OK Policy

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Health

With the second-highest uninsured rate in the U.S. and high rates of chronic disease, access to even basic care is uncertain at the best of times, let alone in a pandemic. As much as 40 percent of the state’s adult (18+) population is at risk of major health care problems if they contract COVID-19, including 1 in 4 working-age adults (18-64). In addition to taking advantage of flexibilities offered through 1135 waivers through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Oklahoma should maximize access to care for as many people as possible. 

Legislative

  • Suspend agency consolidation efforts. Before the health crisis hit, lawmakers were advancing a measure to subsume the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services into the state Medicaid agency. Given the current health crisis, both agencies need to be prioritizing meeting present needs, not moving forward with a complicated merger on a tight time frame. 

Administrative

  • Expand Medicaid now. Oklahoma’s uninsured rate is among the highest in the U.S., with 1 in 4 working-age adults uninsured. To get more people the health coverage they need, the state should amend and refile the SoonerCare 2.0 State Plan Amendment retroactive to the first day of the second quarter and effective as soon as possible 
  • Withdraw SoonerCare 2.0 waiver or extend the comment period. Oklahoma is in the process of petitioning to be the first state to convert its Medicaid expansion (currently scheduled to take effect July 1, 2020) into a block grant in 2021, and to impose administrative barriers to health care. The state Medicaid agency, providers, patients, and advocates are not able to give this issue the attention it deserves. Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) should withdraw the waiver and repost it for public comment after this health care crisis resolves. Alternatively, if OHCA is not allowed to withdraw the waiver, the agency should extend the public comment period by another 30 days and substantially revamp its virtual public meeting procedures to ensure greater participation. 
  • Issue a stay at home order. In order to slow the virus’s spread and decrease the burden on the state’s health care providers, Gov. Stitt should have issued a statewide stay-at-home order clarifying and building on his previous “safer at home” order, with travel to work (if essential) and essential errands (food, health care) permitted. Given the highly contagious nature of the disease and lagging access to testing, Oklahoma should have take statewide action to protect residents and providers. 

Additional Resources from OK Policy

Resources Regarding Gov. Stitt’s Health Care Proposal

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Justice System 

Oklahoma has been a national leader for incarceration, but recent reforms from lawmakers and advocates has reduced that incarceration rate. Advocates also have sought increased investments in treatment for people struggling with addiction, trauma and mental illness in crisis; ending the court system’s reliance on fines and fees; and reforming Oklahoma’s use of pre-trial detention and cash bail. Oklahoma’s criminal justice system remains uniquely vulnerable to the threat posed by COVID-19, and actions are needed to be able to address the short term needs. For the long term, Oklahoma would be well served to implement justice reform measures that invest in people rather than punishment.

Legislative

  • Fund best practices. The Legislature must provide resources to put in place best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Bureau of Prisons for sanitation, quarantine, and testing in order to stave off the public health catastrophe in Oklahoma’s prisons and jails, which also threatens communities outside prison walls
  • Protect and expand access to health care. Oklahoma’s long overdue moves toward expanding Medicaid would ensure more individuals exiting incarceration would have access to health care. In addition, the Legislature should halt the Governor’s plans to consolidate state agencies. The consolidation plans would negatively impact all Oklahoma drug courts, mental health courts, Smart on Crime diversion initiatives, coordinated response teams, and mental health crisis law enforcement training. 
  • Reject opportunities to undo progress. Lawmakers should be focused on legislation that humanely reduces the scope and cost of Oklahoma’s incarceration system. Given the risk the pandemic poses to overcrowded prisons, lawmakers should end any efforts to increase criminal penalties for low-level non-violent offenses. 
  • Ensure funding for vulnerable children. The Office of Juvenile Affairs has long needed additional funds to provide adequate services for our state’s most vulnerable children. The Legislature must appropriate adequate funding for staffing, mental health treatment, and proper sanitation of facilitates.

Administrative 

  • Complete approved commutations. To safely decarcerate Oklahoma’s prisons, the Governor should sign the commutations of 283 individuals who have been approved for release by the Pardon and Parole Board since December 2019. He should also consider expediting the release of anyone eligible for parole during the next six months. The Governor should also grant compassionate release to any aging, immune compromised, pregnant or high health risk inmates. The Department of Corrections should create a COVID-19 specific re-entry plan for those who are released that takes into account shelter at home conditions. 
  • Move as many individuals out of jail as possible. County jails should expand the use of own recognizance bonds, which allow defendants to leave jail without paying cash bail. No one should be detained solely for an inability to pay cash bail and all law enforcement should be issued site and release directives for non-violent offenses by District Courts. 
  • Suspend criminal fees and fines. Gov. Stitt should sign an executive order suspending the accrual and collection of criminal fines and fees for the duration of this crisis. All failure-to-pay warrants and fee-related drivers license suspensions should be halted by District Courts.
  • Ensure due process is respected. Gov. Stitt should sign an executive order mandating the preservation of due process for all incarcerated and justice-involved Oklahomans. No one should be incarcerated any longer than their release date; all pre-trial detainees should have access to bond hearings; and those sentenced should be guaranteed what are known as rule eight hearings which ensure defendants are not assessed financial obligations from the court that they can never pay. This executive order should also mandate continued access to constitutionally guaranteed remedies, including access to legal representation, protections from coercive plea agreements, and guaranteed access to speedy trials. 
  • Guarantee unlimited phone visitation for youth in custody. Providing children with free unlimited phone contact with family is an essential service. Without additional staff, most facilities will have little or no capacity for an increase in telephone visits.

Additional Resources from OK Policy

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Voting & Elections

Many votes in the coming elections will likely be cast from home, as Oklahomans opt to use absentee ballots in order to maintain social distancing guidelines. A May 4 Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling would have made this easier and safer by removing the requirement that absentee ballots be notarized. The Legislature and Governor moved swiftly to nullify the Court’s ruling and dismantle that progress within 72 hours of the Court’s ruling. Senate Bill 210 reinstated the notary requirement for absentee ballots in typical election years. It also included a requirement for voters to include a photocopy of a form of identification with their absentee ballots in 2020 elections as a temporary measure during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Both the notary requirement and the identification requirement create unnecessary barriers to voting from home. The vast majority of other states rely on signature verification or witness signatures, methods that do not require voters to pay any money or leave the house. Instead of making it harder to vote from home, Oklahoma should reduce barriers and rely on other proven security measures. 

Legislative 

  • Overturn SB 210
  • Implement alternatives to ensure voting integrity without barriers 

Additional Resources from OK Policy

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.

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