Weekly Wonk: Flipping the script on state’s upside down tax system | State will move backwards if we continue ignoring unmet needs | More

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

Statement: Elimination of grocery sales tax is far too little support for low- and middle-income families: While elimination of the state portion of the grocery sales tax provides a measure of financial relief to some Oklahomans, it’s far too little support for our low – and middle-income families and seniors who need it most. [Shiloh Kantz / OK Policy]

Policy Matters: Flipping the script on state’s upside-down tax system: Oklahoma’s tax system is upside down, meaning families who earn the least pay a far larger share of their income toward public programs than do their well-off neighbors. This is why lawmakers should prioritize tax relief focused on low- and middle-income families and seniors. [Shiloh Kantz / Journal Record]

Ignoring Oklahoma’s unmet needs today will move us further backwards tomorrow (Capitol Update): The governor and some legislators have been itching to pass a tax cut for a while now. They finally were able to scratch the itch last Tuesday when the Senate passed House Bill 1955 eliminating the state sales tax on groceries by a vote of 42-2.  Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, acknowledged that yes, the loss of revenue “eats up the vast majority of new recurring revenue going forward.” [Steve Lewis / OK Policy]

Weekly What’s That

Committee Substitute

A committee substitute is a revised version of legislation proposed for consideration and adoption by a committee. The committee substitute replaces, in whole, the original bill that was referred to a committee, including conference committees.

It is quite common for the language of a committee substitute to be entirely different from previous versions of a bill, especially in the House of Representatives when a bill is introduced as a shell bill. The House and Senate each have rules specifying when and how a committee substitute may be introduced.

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

Quote of the Week

“I believe it looks better on a bumper sticker than it does in the same budget.”

– Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of two state senators who voted against cutting the state’s grocery sales tax, said he fears long-term consequences of the cut should the state face an economic downturn. [Oklahoma Watch]

Editorial of the Week

Editorial, Enid News & Eagle: Initiative petition process doesn’t need ‘fixed’

The Oklahoma Legislature is again looking at ways to make it more difficult for voter-led petition drives to get on the state ballot, or to increase the threshold of votes needed for approval.

Such changes need to be killed.

Oklahoma currently has a good and reasonable process regarding initiative petitions. It is not easy for such questions to get on the ballot. In the last decade, nearly 40 citizen-led initiative petitions have been filed. But, only seven of those qualified for a ballot, and voters approved some and rejected some. The system seems to be working appropriately.

Oklahoma’s ballot initiative process is enshrined in the state Constitution. The Legislature does not have the independent authority to change most aspects of the initiative petition process. It can, if desired, vote to put a constitutional amendment to a statewide vote of the people.

That system continues to be reasonable — accessible, but not irresponsibly easy.

Oklahoma has deep populist roots and a good system of direct democracy through the initiative petition process. The initiative process provided by the Oklahoma Constitution is based in principles of agrarian populism. Since statehood, Oklahomans have had a general distrust of government trying to exercise too much authority over the individual. The initiative process allows a path, if enough people agree, for Oklahoma residents to put a question on the state ballot.

So, when does that happen? Usually a petition happens when the Legislature refuses to do its job, or it acts in a way that angers a substantial number of people.

Legislators need to stop trying to thwart the initiative petition process. We don’t need to add additional burdens to this direct democracy procedure that has been Oklahoma’s legacy.

If legislators want fewer citizen-led petitions, they need to work harder on the serious needs we face instead of kicking the can down the road.

[Editorial / Enid News & Eagle]

Numbers of the Day

  • 1,019 – Number of teaching vacancies in Oklahoma schools during the 2022-23 academic year, which the highest number reported since the Oklahoma State School Boards Association began conducting its annual survey nine years prior. [Oklahoma Watch]
  • 5.5% – Middle income Oklahomans (between $38,400 to $67,500) on average pay 5.5% of their family income towards sales and use taxes. This means they pay between $2,100 and $3,700 per year in sales taxes, of which about $440 is for grocery sales taxes (both state and local). Sales taxes are highly regressive and place larger financial costs on everyday Oklahomans than the wealthy, which is why the state’s Sales Tax Relief Credit is so vital to delivering targeted relief to low- and middle-income families. [Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy]
  • $16.52 – Oklahoma’s Sales Tax Relief Credit ($40 per person) has lost about 60% of its buying power since the last time it was adjusted three decades ago. Set at $40 in 1990, the credit has a buying power of only $16.52 in 2024 dollars due to inflation. [OK Policy]
  • $10,500 – The average bail amount for all Oklahoma jails in 2022. The average bail costs have been steadily increasing since 2019 for urban, rural, and midsize jails. [MODERN Criminal Justice Task Force]

What We’re Reading

  • Race and LGBTQ Issues in K-12 Schools: What teachers, teens and the U.S. public say about current curriculum debates: Amid national debates about what schools are teaching, we asked public K-12 teachers, teens and the American public how they see topics related to race, sexual orientation and gender identity playing out in the classroom. A sizeable share of teachers (41%) say these debates have had a negative impact on their ability to do their job. Just 4% say these debates have had a positive impact, while 53% say the impact has been neither positive nor negative or that these debates have had no impact. [Pew Research]
  • The ‘Low-Tax’ Lie: States Hyped for Low Taxes Usually Only Low-Tax for the Rich: It’s hard to go a week without seeing a politician or a news article hype up a state as the place that everyone is moving to – or should move to – because of low taxes. However, there’s a big problem with these proclamations: they aren’t true. [Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy]
  • States Can Use Medicaid to Help Address Health-Related Social Needs: Research shows that access to affordable housing and nutritious foods can have a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental health and ability to thrive. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued guidance and waiver approvals that broaden and clarify the ways in which states can use Medicaid funds to help pay for clinically appropriate, evidence-based services that address these health-related social needs (HRSN). These changes reflect a growing recognition of the impact HRSN have on health and of Medicaid’s ability to help address unmet needs, which contribute to poorer health among people who have low incomes or are part of historically marginalized communities. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities]
  • What a Tricky Economic Cycle Means for State Budgets: The economy continues to grow, which is obviously good news for state budgets, yet lawmakers know they’re in for a period of retrenchment under any scenario, due to the winding down of federal COVID-19 funding programs. For that reason, even a return to normal budgeting — in which they will inevitably face tough trade-offs to make the numbers work out — may feel like a sudden shift into austerity. [Governing]


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.