The Oklahoma Legislature could have done more to support everyday Oklahomans

Co-authors: Sabine Brown, Infrastructure and Access Senior Policy Analyst; Gabrielle Jacobi, Child Well-Being Policy Analyst / KIDS COUNT Coordinator; Josie Phillips, Policy Fellow; Gabriela Ramirez-Perez, Immigration Policy Analyst; Emma Morris, Health Care and Revenue Policy Analyst

Oklahoma legislators have it in their power to create a state with healthy families and safe, thriving communities. By protecting the well-being of average Oklahomans, and not just corporations or the wealthy few, Oklahoma can be a place where every person can reach their full potential. While legislators took some positive steps — including ensuring Medicaid funding, providing a needed tenant protection, and protecting state questions — many opportunities to invest in hard-working Oklahomans were left on the table. Oklahomans will go another year without adequate support systems like a minimum wage increase or paid family medical leave. Lawmakers can — and — should come back next session committed to advancing policies that allow every Oklahoman to thrive.

Legislators missed opportunities to support the economic well-being of Oklahomans

This session, the legislature had the opportunity to greatly increase the economic well-being of low-income Oklahomans by raising the state’s minimum wage, which at $7.25 per hour is currently less than half of Oklahoma’s living wage for a single person with no dependents. There were three bills (Senate Bill 332, House Bill 1232, and HB 1614) that would have raised the minimum wage to between $12 and $15, depending on the particular bill. Unfortunately, none of these bills were heard in committee and died early in session. Next year, Oklahoma’s policymakers should consider increasing the minimum wage to reflect the actual costs that Oklahomans face just to survive.

The legislature also had the opportunity to invest in Oklahoma’s health, financial security, and economic competitiveness by creating a state paid family and medical leave program. Two bills (HB 1615 and HB 2456) that would have implemented paid family and medical leave programs were eligible to be heard this session, but they, too, failed to receive a hearing in committee. If Oklahoma’s legislators want to get residents back to work while also investing in both parental and child health, they should reconsider these proposals during the 2023 legislative session.

Unfortunately, the legislature has taken steps backwards when it comes to bolstering our state’s workforce by significantly reducing the duration of unemployment insurance benefits through HB 1933. Oklahoma’s unemployment insurance program is a significant source of support to both our workers and our economy as a whole. In future legislative sessions, lawmakers should seek to strengthen this support rather than undermine it.

With 1 in 5 Oklahoma children growing up in poverty, this leads to disproportionately lower academic and health outcomes, as well as high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences and child maltreatment. When it comes to policies for our state’s children, our lawmakers this session focused their attention on culture war issues like book bans, bathroom policies, and critical race theory. This is especially disappointing given the many barriers facing Oklahoma families today. HB 1613, SB 1502, and SB 1849 — all of which would have improved accessibility and affordability of child care for working families — failed to even receive a committee hearing. As previously noted, efforts to improve family economic security by raising the minimum wage or improving tax credits [link to Emma’s blog] also failed. Additionally, our chronically underfunded public schools were given a flat budget despite record-high inflation and staffing shortages statewide. 

This session, Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City, authored SB 1591, a bill that would have allowed people who file their taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to get a driver’s license. This form of identification could have allowed immigrants who contribute millions of tax dollars to our economy to open a bank account, buy a house, and even get a library card. However, after passing the Senate 30-11, the bill failed to get scheduled to be heard in the House, resulting in the bill dying. The legislature missed an important opportunity to not only pass inclusive legislation for more Oklahomans, but it also missed an opportunity to increase state revenue and increase road safety. If this bill had passed, revenue would have increased by almost $2.5 million dollars and it would have saved Oklahoma drivers almost $40 million in insurance premiums, according to OK Policy analysis. 

Oklahomans will benefit from Medicaid funding and a much needed tenant protection

This year, lawmakers again showed a dedication to ensuring that Medicaid expansion is fully funded. They appropriated $164 million to the Rate Preservation Fund, which was created to help maintain Medicaid provider reimbursements when federal matching funds fluctuate. Though the reasoning for this specific appropriation is not included in the appropriations bill, $164 million is the amount that lawmakers have generally accepted as the annual state cost of Medicaid expansion. While the state’s share of expansion costs will likely continue to be paid for by the measures approved in the 2021 legislative session and state savings, this extra funding will ensure that expansion –— and Medicaid more generally — continues to be protected should other revenues fall. 

Lawmakers also approved a change to the way Medicaid is administered in Oklahoma. SB 1337 directs the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) to implement a managed care system. Currently, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program is administered in-house at the OHCA. With this bill, program administration would be outsourced to “contracted entities,” such as commercial insurance companies or provider-led entities that coordinate care. This change to the Medicaid delivery model has been an ongoing discussion at the Capitol in recent years, but this year’s bill does include some provisions that address concerns raised last year, such as temporary provider payment requirements and the prioritization of existing patient-provider relationships. Despite these improvements, this shift will require monitoring during implementation to record the full impacts of this measure. 

The Oklahoma Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (ORLTA) needs updates to create equity between landlords and tenants, and legislators took an important step in this direction this session. Signed into law by Gov. Stitt, HB 3409 increases the amount a renter can deduct from their rent if they have to make repairs to their rental. The bill increases the maximum reimbursement from $100 to a full month’s rent. This legislation helps ensure renters can address health and safety concerns in their home when a landlord fails to take action. Unfortunately, language that would have provided tenants with protection against retaliatory eviction from their landlord for reporting health and safety violations was dropped from the final bill; legislators should revisit this effort next year.

Attempts to add new barriers to the state question process failed to pass

Legislators this session filed several bills that would have increased the threshold for citizen-led petitions or raised the bar needed to approve them once they’re on the ballot. House Joint Resolution 1002 would have required that the signature threshold for initiative petitions be met in every county rather than statewide. HJR 1058 and HJR 1059 would have required a 55 percent majority to pass a constitutional amendment by initiative petition and legislative referendum respectively. Thankfully, none of these bills were passed this session. Oklahoma law already requires a rigorous process to get a state question on the ballot, and lawmakers were right to protect Oklahomans’ right to shape state laws via the state question process.

Legislators should return next sessions committed to smart investments in Oklahoma

Too many hard-working Oklahomans are struggling to get by and provide for their families. From insufficient child care to lack of paid medical leave, everyday Oklahomans face daunting challenges that keep them from fully thriving.

During this session, Oklahoma legislators hastily created $700 million in tax incentives to benefit an out-of-state company that was considering building a facility here. Everyday Oklahomans deserve the same level of urgency as lawmakers consider measures that could reduce the burdens and barriers residents face daily. Lawmakers should return next session committed to smart investments in public services that will drive the people of the state forward.

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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