Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed Senate Bill 844 by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, which is his latest effort to implement State Question 781 that was passed by vote of the people in 2016. Its companion measure, SQ780, changed simple drug possession and property theft less than $1,000 into misdemeanors when they were previously felonies in Oklahoma. SQ 781 directed the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) to calculate the savings to the state from the anticipated decrease in the prison population and directed the legislature to deposit the savings into a fund to be used by county governments to provide mental health treatment and substance abuse programs.
Both state questions went into effect July 1, 2017, but SQ 781 has never been fully implemented. The first year, OMES calculated the savings at $63 million based on a formula with which both the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the legislature disagreed. In subsequent years, OMES and DOC, along with advocates for SQ 781 have worked to find agreement on a calculation formula. Later estimates were around $10 million per year. As time has passed and other events have intervened, the task has become more difficult. Meanwhile, the savings intended by the people to go to potential life-saving county programs for mental health and substance abuse treatment have not been allocated to the counties.
SB 844 would do three important things. First, the bill would transfer the duty to calculate the savings from OMES to the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT). Sen. Thompson, along with Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, chair both the LOFT Oversight Committee and the appropriations committees of the House and Senate. Thompson says that “LOFT is the perfect agency to dive into those numbers and determine the way to calculate the savings.” Second, the bill directs the savings, once calculated, to a revolving fund in the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) where it would be made available each year for counties to apply for the funding based on requests for proposals by ODMHSAS. Third, the bill gives a broader structure to the types of programs for which the money may be spent, such as pretrial diversion, employment, housing, and education programs, as well as mental health and substance abuse programs.
This will be a new role for LOFT, but as a legislative arm, perhaps it will be able to do what OMES was unable to do. This may not be quite the process proponents of SQ 781 envisioned, but it’s past time to do something. Lives may depend on it. Sen. Thompson has been at the center of trying to implement SQ 781 for several years, and hopefully his work will pay off if SB 844 passes and works as intended.