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
HB 2259 will revolutionize processing and collecting of court financial obligations owed by defendants (Capitol Update): Despite repeated efforts over the past few years, not a lot was accomplished during this last session toward the repeal of various costs of the criminal legal system that are imposed on defendants in criminal cases. Costs imposed include various state judicial and executive branch and county fees including everything from the county law library fee to the automated fingerprint information system fee for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. [Steve Lewis / OK Policy]
Policy Matters: All Oklahomans deserve freedom to exist: All Oklahomans deserve to live authentic lives and have their humanity recognized. However, a number of Oklahoma legislators are pushing for new laws that would essentially erase a group of residents from public life. [Shiloh Kantz / The Journal Record]
Weekly What’s That
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 (currently 92,262 signatures based on the 2022 gubernatorial election), while a constitutional amendment requires 15 percent (currently 172,993 signatures). 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, while an initiative petition aimed at prohibiting a convicted person’s former felony convictions from being used to calculate future punishments (SQ 805) was defeated in November 2020. An initiative petition to allow recreational use marijuana, SQ 820, gathered sufficient signatures but failed to meet the deadline to appear on the November 2022 ballot; Gov. Stitt called a special election to decide SQ 820 for March 7, 2023.
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 to qualify for the ballot. Some legislators in recent sessions have introduced bills to make it harder to place initiative petitions on the ballot by raising the signature threshold or by requiring that the signature threshold be met in every Congressional district or county.
Quote of the Week
“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers. It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly.”
– Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond in a response statement to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s decision on Monday to approve the first religious charter school in the state. [Oklahoma Watch]
Editorial of the Week
Tulsa World Editorial: Oklahoma doesn’t need to fight the battle to challenge church, state separation
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board was wrong to approve giving public funds to the Catholic Church for a new religious school. It violates the state constitution, the state’s charter school law and national laws.
The application to create the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School using tax money is not about school choice. It is intended to be a test case to challenge the separation between church and state.
The applicants know this will attract a lengthy court battle; that’s the point. The 3-2 vote makes Oklahoma a pawn in a national movement that will cost millions in tax dollars for legal fees.
If this stands, it holds potential to force governments to pay for other religious services and programs; that includes all faiths and pseudo-faiths.
The day of vote, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law Senate Bill 516 that will eliminate the current state virtual charter board, replacing it with the Statewide Charter School Board.
Language defining charter schools did not change, stating they must be “nonsectarian in its programs, policies, employment practices and all other operations” and not “affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.”
Lawmakers should have used the opportunity to try to change the law through SB 516. In addition, the Oklahoma Constitution states that the Legislature must “establish and maintain a system of free public schools,” which it says must be “free from sectarian control.”
Oklahomans voted (58%) in November 2016 against amending the constitution to allow public money be spent for religious purposes; showing again this is not a cause originating in our state.
The Oklahoma City and Tulsa Catholic dioceses, which do not pay taxes, want tax income to teach Catholicism along with academic subjects.
While Catholic schools in Oklahoma have fared well as options for Catholic and non-Catholic students, they operate with private funds outside state requirements and laws of public schools.
Churches and other faith organizations wanting to start or expand religious programs, they are free to do so. Taxpayers are not — and ought not — be obligated to contribute.
Attorney General Gentner Drummond warned against approval, pointing out its unconstitutionality and calling it a slippery slope. The board members should have listened to break the cycle of Oklahoma’s history of passing unconstitutional laws.
A complication has emerged. A story from Tulsa World reporter Andrea Eger states that a letter issued before the Monday meeting from Drummond’s office indicates that newly appointed board member Brian Bobek was not eligible to vote. Bobek was among the three who voted in favor.
Supporters point to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that said Maine could not discriminate against religious private schools in its voucher program. It offered funds to private schools in rural areas without a public school option.
That is not the circumstance in Oklahoma, which has more than 500 public school districts across the state.
About 95% of Oklahoma students attend a public school. Making public schools stronger is the better use of the state’s time and resources, not fighting some ideological cause for an out-of-state interest. [Editorial / Tulsa World]
Numbers of the Day
- 1.3 million – More than 1.3 million Oklahomans were enrolled in Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), as of February 2023. [Medicaid.gov]
- 49% – Share of Oklahoma children living in low-income households where more than 30 percent of the monthly income was spent on rent, mortgage payments, taxes, insurance, and/or related expenses. [KIDS COUNT]
- 77,000 – Number of eligible children in Oklahoma who cannot access public housing or vouchers due to having a guardian with a criminal record. [Vera Institute of Justice]
- 38% – Percentage of LGBTQ adults over the age of 25 in Oklahoma who are raising children. [Movement Advancement Project]
- 274,000 – Estimated number of Oklahoma children under 17 who are left out of the full $2,000 Federal Child Tax Credit. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities]
What We’re Reading
The Unwinding of Medicaid Continuous Enrollment: Knowledge and Experiences of Enrollees: Most Medicaid enrollees were not aware that states are now permitted to resume disenrolling people from the Medicaid program. This brief gauges Medicaid enrollees’ knowledge of and preparedness for the Medicaid renewal process and possible disenrollment from the program, based on early findings from KFF’s new Survey of Health Insurance Consumers. [KFF]
- Subsidized Housing Improves Adulthood Outcomes for Teenage Recipients: Teenagers that spent more time living in public housing or in households receiving housing choice vouchers experience higher earnings and a lower risk of incarceration in adulthood relative to similar teenagers who spent more time in unsubsidized housing. [Housing Matters]
- Expanding Housing Access for People with Conviction Histories in Oklahoma: Housing is foundational for people to succeed post-incarceration. However, restrictive housing policies bar people with conviction histories from securing a home. To estimate the scope of this issue in Oklahoma, Vera analyzed criminal justice data and the admissions policies of public housing authorities and developments funded by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program. The fact sheet sheds light on the number of people affected by these policies and offers recommendations to increase access to safe and affordable housing for all individuals. [Vera Institute of Justice]
- LGBTQ+ Americans Under Attack: A Report and Reflection on the 2023 State Legislative Session: The LGBTQ+ community is under attack in state legislatures across the country. Starting in 2015, there has been a steady increase in anti-LGBTQ+ bills across state houses, from 115 bills introduced in 2015, to over 500 in 2023. In 2020, the primary focus of these bills shifted from LGBTQ+ people in general, to transgender and non-binary youth in particular. [Human Rights Campaign]
- Expanding the Federal Child Tax Credit in Upcoming Economic Legislation: When the temporary Child Tax Credit expansion under the American Rescue Plan expired at the end of 2021, the credit reverted to the flawed design left in place by the 2017 Trump tax law. As a result, an estimated 19 million children — or more than 1 in 4 children under age 17 — will get less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all this year because their families earn too little, while families with much higher incomes (up to $400,000 for married couples) will receive the full $2,000 credit for each child. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities]