We told you in February that the Legislature would have several opportunities to improve the lives of hard-working Oklahomans and their families. Unfortunately, only a few of these measures passed. Lawmakers enacted occupational licensing reforms and defeated legislation that would make it more difficult for people struggling with food insecurity to get help, but they also created a new high-interest loan product and overlooked many other policies that could have improved the lives of working families, leaving a lot of work still left to do.
The justice-involved will soon have more career options
The adoption of HB 1373 means that many licensed occupations will soon be more accessible to individuals with a criminal history. This bill will do away with “blanket bans” and instead require licensing boards to create a list of the criminal records that would disqualify an applicant for the license — and that list can only include crimes that are directly related to the occupation. HB 1373 also removes all current statutory language requiring that license holders be “of good character” or refrain from “moral turpitude” in order to get and keep their license, as the vagueness of these requirements could be used as a loophole to deny someone a license for previous justice-involvement even though their specific conviction is not on the list of disqualifying crimes. Given the unemployment rate for the justice-involved is nearly five times higher than the general population, this bill could help lower this disparity by making more jobs available for this population.
No new hoops to jump through for the food insecure
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will continue to serve low-income families that struggle to put food on the table, as all four bills that would have imposed new restrictions on SNAP participation failed to receive consideration this session. These bills would have required individuals to participate in unproven and expensive new “workfare” programs for adult SNAP participants without young children — an unnecessary requirement as most adults who receive SNAP and can work already do. The other failed proposal would have required parents to cooperate with child support enforcement to continue in the program. This can place these parents and their children in a potentially dangerous situation if enforcement leads to emotional or physical abuse from the child’s non-custodial parent. No one should be required to work without pay or chose between their safety and access to food for their children — the Legislature did the right thing by setting these proposals aside.
We’re trading payday loans for longer-term, installment loans
Oklahomans without access to traditional credit will see changes soon. The passage of SB 720 means Oklahoma will be trading short-term payday loans for longer-term installment loans next summer. These new installment loans will have longer-terms (they can be taken out for up to 12 months and will not need to be repaid in a single payment like payday loans) but they are still a very high-cost product, with an annual interest rate of 204 percent. If the goal of this change is to create a responsible and accessible product for working Oklahomans who struggle to make ends meet sometimes, then it falls well short of the mark.
Not much help for working families
Raising the minimum wage, ensuring paid sick and family leave for all workers, and restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) were all on the table this session, and they’re still there waiting to (hopefully) be taken up next year. Working families will continue to struggle to make ends meet for at least another year, and hopes of getting ahead will have to be put on hold.
The Legislature’s decision not to restore the EITC this session will have a very real economic impact on over 200,000 working families in the state. The average EITC recipient has lost $121 per year since 2016 when the Legislature made the credit non-refundable. That’s a significant loss for a family struggling to get by, and it’s regrettable that the Legislature continues to overlook the importance of this credit. Beyond helping families pay for basic needs, the EITC also encourages work and improves child well-being for low-income families.
The Legislature also ignored other opportunities to boost working families, including options to make sure workers are fairly compensated for their labor. The minimum wage in Oklahoma has been $7.25 for a decade, and that’s simply too low to live on. The Legislature has been reluctant to take up legislation to fix this, and it was disappointing to see that trend continue this session. Two bills were introduced that would have raised the minimum wage statewide, along with five others that would have allowed local governments to raise their minimum wages. All seven died early in the session along with three other bills that would have ensured all Oklahoma workers would be able to take a paid time away from work to care for themselves or their loved ones. The failure to consider these bills means that many hard-working Oklahomans will still not be paid a living wage, and will face financial hardship if they become sick. We can, and must, do better next session.