Weekly Wonk: OK’s higher ed cuts among nation’s Top 3 | TogetherOK presents policy talks | Rethinking ‘tough on crime’

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’s edition of The Weekly Wonk was published with contributions from Communications Intern Lilly Strom.

This Week from OK Policy

Oklahoma among worst states for higher education cuts, harming students who already face the greatest barriers: Even before COVID-19 brought new challenges to state education systems, a new report out this week shows that Oklahoma was one of 6 states that cut higher education funding by more than 30 percent between 2008 and 2019: Oklahoma cut higher education allocations by 35.3 percent, or $3,515, per student in 2019 when compared with a decade earlier. Oklahoma had the nation’s third largest percentage decrease in state higher education funding during that period, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report released Feb. 17. Oklahoma’s failure to invest in higher education during the last decade has contributed to rising college tuition prices, which the report shows has been particularly harmful to students of color and those with low incomes. [CBPP & OK Policy]

Together Oklahoma Talks Policy: Together Oklahoma, OK Policy’s grassroots advocacy program, on Feb. 18 held a talk on policy and legislative issues regarding Oklahoma justice reform and the current legislative session. A recording of the Safe Communities talk is available online, and a Feb. 11 conversation about Healthy Oklahomans and Health Care also is available. TOK will host a policy talk on Monday, Feb. 22, focused on Thriving Families, including budget and tax issues. [Registration]

(Capitol Update) Lawsuit challenges OHCA’s managed care proposal: For the past several months, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority has been in a race against the calendar to get contracts signed with private insurance companies to manage the state’s $2 billion Medicaid program before the Legislature was to go into session on Feb. 1. Last Thursday, medical organizations representing nearly all the doctors in Oklahoma filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court asking the court to take original jurisdiction and prohibit OHCA from implementing its Medicaid managed care plan. [Steve Lewis / Capitol Update]

Policy Matters: Rethinking Oklahoma’s ‘tough on crime’ approach to justice: “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!” If you want to make our communities safer, this “tough on crime” approach is the exact opposite of what will make our communities safer and more stable. Need proof? Just overlay Oklahoma’s top-3 status for incarceration rate with Oklahoma’s crime statistics. FBI statistics show Oklahoma has the nation’s seventh-highest property crime rate and the 15th-highest violent crime rate. Decades of our “tough on crime” approach filled our prisons and jails, but our crime rate continued in the nation’s upper tier. [Ahniwake Rose / Journal Record]

Weekly What’s That

Initiative Petition

Oklahoma citizens have the right to initiate statewide legislation via ballot measures, or State Questions, as either statutory or constitutional amendments.

After an initiative petition is drafted, it goes through a lengthy process which can include various legal challenges. To qualify for the ballot, a citizen-initiated statutory amendment requires signatures of registered voters equal to 8 percent of the votes cast at the last general election for the Office of Governor, while a constitutional amendment requires 15 percent. Citizens also have the power to repeal legislation via veto referendum. Once a petition has been determined to have a sufficient number of signatures and meets all other requirements, the Governor has the authority to call a special election to decide the petition or to place it on the ballot at the time of the next primary or general election.

Between 1989 and 2014, only 12 initiative petitions qualified for the ballot; of these, five passed and seven failed. Three initiative petitions were on the 2016 ballot. SQ 779, raising the sales tax to fund education, failed, while two criminal justice reform measures – SQ 780 and SQ 781 – passed. In 2018, two initiative petitions made it on the ballot: SQ 788, legalizing medical marijuana passed in June, while SQ 793, allowing for optometrists and opticians to practice in retail stores, was defeated in November. In June 2020, voters opted to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income adults by approving SQ 802.

An initiative petition (SQ 787) was launched in 2016 to lengthen the time period to gather signatures for initiative petitions from 90 days to one year, but it failed to gather enough signatures. Some legislators in recent sessions have introduced bills to make it harder to place initiative petitions on the ballot by raising the signature threshold.

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

Quote of the Week

“Citizens really lack (lobbyists’ access and influence) in a lot of ways, and the initiative petition process is one way that we can have that power.” 

-Sundra Flansburg, an organizer with the civic engagement group VOICE [The Frontier]

Editorial of the Week

Even meeting remotely, public bodies must be transparent

Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed a bill that would allow public bodies and nonprofits to meet remotely as the state continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1031, was fast-tracked by lawmakers and extends the virtual exemption to the Open Meetings Act until the end of the governor’s COVID-19 state of emergency or Feb. 15, 2022, whichever comes first.

Last year, state lawmakers granted Oklahoma public bodies permission to meet virtually in a bid to protect participants from COVID-19. The modifications to the state’s Open Meetings Act were greeted with considerable enthusiasm by many appointees, elected officials and members of the public who welcomed the chance to participate safely and remotely.

But, the temporary modifications expired Nov. 15. Lawmakers, who apparently only expected the pandemic to last a few months, wrote the law in such a way that nobody could modify it without a full legislative vote.

We agree with the legislation allowing remote meetings, with some reservations.

One, we would hope we could end the exemption as possible if we get COVID-19 numbers under control as more people receive vaccinations.

And, perhaps more importantly, we don’t want any public bodies to take advantage of the exemption to be less than forthcoming with the people about government business. Transparency is more than a buzzword, it is how government organizations must conduct the people’s business…

[Full editorial available at Enid News & Eagle]

Numbers of the Day

  • 7 – Number of citizen-led initiative petitions that have qualified for the Oklahoma statewide ballot during the past decade. Of those, voters only approved four. [Source: The Frontier]
  • 35.3% – Oklahoma cut higher education allocations by 35.3 percent per student between 2008 and 2019. This was the nation’s third largest percentage cut during that period. [Source: CBPP]
  • 3.7x – COVID-19 hospitalization ratio for American Indians or Alaska Natives compared to whites. The ratio is 3.2x for Latinx and 2.9x for Blacks. [Source: CDC]

What We’re Reading

  • The Redistricting Landscape, 2021–22 [Brennan Center for Justice]
  • States Can Choose Better Path for Higher Education Funding in COVID-19 Recession [CBPP
  • The ACA Marketplace Is Open Again for Insurance Sign-Ups. Here’s What You Need to Know [Kaiser Health News]


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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