[Weekly Wonk] Criminal justice reform | Busting the bootstrap myth | Oklahoma needs strong Ethics Commission

What’s up this week at Oklahoma Policy Institute? The Weekly Wonk shares our most recent publications and other resources to help you stay informed about Oklahoma. Numbers of the Day and Policy Notes are from our daily news briefing, In The Know. Click here to subscribe to In The Know.

This Week from OK Policy

New task force created to recommend criminal justice reforms (Capitol Update): It is a hopeful sign that Governor Kevin Stitt has demonstrated his continued commitment to criminal justice reform by creating a new task force called MODERN (Modernizing Operations through Data and Evidence-based Restoration Now) to work until February 2, 2024. The task force is directed to “study, evaluate, and make recommendations regarding policies and programs and propose legislation” to improve the criminal justice system. [Steve Lewis / Capitol Update]

Busting the ‘bootstrap’ myth: Too many times, we’ve heard politicians and pundits say that people can get ahead in this world if they simply “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but it’s frankly just not true, especially for marginalized individuals and communities. The bootstrap myth is both disingenuous and dangerous. [Shiloh Kantz / Journal Record]

Upcoming Opportunities

Together Oklahoma will be hosting eight upcoming Listening Sessions, which will offer the opportunity for you to express your ideas and views on policy matters in a collaborative way and give our TOK staff members the chance to hear directly from you. OK Policy research and policy teams will present data from your region and the state and hear directly how it resonates with your personal experiences.

  • July 27: Altus
  • August 1: Tulsa
  • August 3: Ada
  • August 8: Oklahoma City
  • August 14: Lawton
  • August 15: Okmulgee
  • August 17: Ardmore
  • August 22: Norman

Each session will be held in person and is free to attend. Refreshments will be provided and pre-registration is required. For more information or to register, visit togetherok.org/events

Weekly What’s That

Ad Valorem Tax (Property Tax)

Property tax, also known as ad valorem tax, is an annual tax paid by property owners to local governments. Many local government entities are authorized to levy property taxes, including counties, school districts, cities (for restricted purposes), and special districts.

Property tax collections in Oklahoma totaled $3.3 billion in 2019 and are the single largest source of local government revenue, accounting for roughly one in three dollars of local revenue. Oklahoma’s per person property taxes are among the very lowest in the nation and less than half the national average.

Property taxes are based on a property’s value, its assessment ratio, and the millage levy.

  1. Property valuation is determined by county assessors. The assessed value cannot be increased by more than 3 percent in any year, unless the property is sold.
  2. The assessment ratio is a percentage of a property’s assessed value. Counties can set assessment ratios for different kinds of property at between 10 and 15 percent.
  3. Mills are then applied to assessed valuation, up to maximum levels set by the Oklahoma Constitution. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in taxable value. Various local governments are also allowed to issue bonds paid for with additional mills if approved by popular vote.

Oklahoma has various property tax exemptions that may reduce this amount further.

With passage of State Question 766 in 2012, Oklahoma exempted all intangible property from the property tax. Previously only “centrally-assessed” businesses (primarily large telecommunications, utility, and railroad companies) had been charged property taxes on intangible property.

Look up more key terms to understand Oklahoma politics and government here.

Quote of the Week

“Jails were built to house people to await trial. They weren’t housed to treat mental health conditions, and the staff in them are not trained to do that. So I think all of that creates the levels of violence and the levels of suicide ideation and suicide attempts that we see in jails today and also in prisons, but particularly in jails.” 

– Timothy Edgemon, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Auburn University, speaking about the factors that contribute to unsafe jail conditions and detainee deaths. [The Oklahoman]

Editorial of the Week

Editorial: Pay attention to the resignation letter from the Ethics Commission executive director

As campaign finance sophistication leads to untraceable donors and as politicians get better at hiding their questionable behavior, the Ethics Commission needs more resources to root out violations.

That isn’t happening, and it’s not new. Since its creation in 1990, the agency has struggled to get the kind of funding and staffing needed to do its job.

For all the failures of Oklahoma Legislatures, this is one of the biggest.

The problem is that the people the commission oversees are the ones with power over its appropriations. The Legislature even limited its ability to keep fees that are collected, putting a $150,000 cap on what it can spend from fees, with the rest going to the state’s General Revenue Fund.

Executive Director Ashley Kemp submitted her resignation last week out of frustration with lawmakers continuing to deprive the agency of its needs, according to a story from Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock. Kemp is right.

The agency asked the Legislature for a budget of slightly more than $1 million and received $687,950. Oklahoma has more than $6 billion in savings and enjoyed overflowing coffers this year.

The requested amount was paltry against the eye-popping funds raised for modern campaigns.

With the U.S. Supreme Court equating campaign donations with free speech, it’s easier to hide where donations originate. At least $20 million in dark money flowed into last year’s gubernatorial race, on top of what candidates raised. Even at the local level, the Tulsa school board races are topping $100,000, with tens of thousands contributed by unidentified donors.

Strict rules exist on communication between candidates and these groups, just as there are public finance reporting requirements and restrictions on the kinds of loans and donations campaigns can accept.

All of this falls to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission to sort out. The agency oversees and enforces rules governing state campaigns and rules of ethical conduct for state officers and employees.

The only people who benefit from the lack of this kind of oversight are those in — or who want to be in — elected office. The Ethics Commission has never enjoyed popularity in state appropriations.

In 2018, the agency filed suit against the state, arguing that lawmakers were required to appropriate enough funding for the agency to perform its duties. In a 5-4 vote, the Oklahoma Supreme Court sided with the Legislature, saying the agency must be treated the same as other agencies.

It’s becoming a stretch to accept that the Legislature is doing that when the Ethics Commission is shortchanged each year.

The Ethics Commission was created through an initiative petition by Oklahoma voters who were unhappy with attempts by the Legislature to create a campaign oversight agency. Lawmakers were not good at policing themselves and still aren’t.

The big business of campaigns frustrates voters trying to determine who influences candidates and elected officials. For many, it’s a turnoff to civic life, and that is a danger to democracy.

If a state budget reflects the priorities of its people, then ethics ranks pretty low. Lawmakers ought to do better by the Ethics Commission.

[Editorial / Tulsa World]

Numbers of the Day

  • 94,181 – Number of people in Oklahoma who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal program  for low-income elderly and disabled people. [U.S. Social Security Administration]
  • -4.2% – The change in the number of dentists per 100,000 residents in Oklahoma, one of 17 states to see a decrease from 2010 to 2020. The national average increased by 2.9%. [American Dental Association]
  • 6% – Number of Oklahomans who voted by mail in the 2022 General Election. Only nine states had a lower rate of particpation by mail, with the national average being 31.9%. [U.S. Election Administration] | [Full Report]

What We’re Reading


David Hamby has more than 25 years of experience as an award-winning communicator, including overseeing communication programs for Oklahoma higher education institutions and other organizations. Before joining OK Policy, he was director of public relations for Rogers State University where he managed the school’s external communication programs and served as a member of the president’s leadership team. He served in a similar communications role for five years at the University of Tulsa. He also has worked in communications roles at Oklahoma State University and the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas. He joined OK Policy in October 2019.

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