[Weekly Wonk] Safely reducing incarceration rate | Indian Country’s COVID response | SQ 640 remains obstacle to prosperity

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

Reducing our incarceration population is a matter of public safety — and public health: Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 580,000 incarcerated people in the United States have tested positive for the virus, and more than 2,800 have died from it. From the start of the pandemic, state and local governments in Oklahoma recognized the threat posed by COVID-19 and took some steps designed to mitigate the risks by reducing the amount of people in prisons and jails. While these actions were crucial, many of these measures were insufficient or uncoordinated without a long-lasting impact on Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. [David Gateley and Andrew Bell / OK Policy

Tribal health systems need more resources to fight public health emergencies, but there are still long-standing barriers that need to be addressed: Indian Country has always suffered striking health disparities, chronic underfunding, and the delayed fulfillment of the federal government’s trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations. Taken in combination, this means Tribal Nations historically have lacked necessary resources to provide for many basic health services, let alone to tackle a global public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, Tribal Nations in Oklahoma were able to effectively utilize what resources were at their disposal to provide strong responses to safety measures and closures, even during the COVID-19 surges. Disparities should be addressed through better resources, data collection, and addressing long-standing discrimination and underinvestment. [Vivian Morris / OK Policy]

Policy Matters: SQ 640 remains obstacle to Oklahoma’s prosperity: When it comes to identifying the largest structural obstacles to improving the quality and effectiveness of Oklahoma’s public programs and services, State Question 640 stands at the head of the line. This measure allows Oklahoma lawmakers to raise revenue only with a 75% approval of both the House and Senate. [Ahniwake Rose / OK Policy

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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

“If I were an Oklahoma voter, I would ask what problem this is trying to solve. It’s not that there’s been too many questions since I counted and there has been only 10 (citizen-led initiatives) on the ballot in the 21st Century, and that’s not many at all.”

– Professor John G. Matsusaka, executive director of the non-partisan Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, speaking about legislation at the Oklahoma Capitol that could make it more difficult for state questions to pass or be voted on. [Oklahoma Watch]

Editorial of the Week

Top budget legislative leaders embrace true conservative approach

It’s reassuring to hear Oklahoma’s top legislative budget leaders say they plan to go slow on more tax cuts.

Last week, House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, spoke to the Tulsa Regional Chamber about their reservations on reducing more revenue.

Oklahoma last year lowered the corporate income tax from 6% to 4% and the individual income tax by a quarter point. It is expected to be a loss of about $340 million.

The expectation is that would be recouped with a more vibrant economy. But considering the rates went into effect Jan. 1, the state won’t have a clear view of that happening until next year.

Instead of waiting, lawmakers have been on a tax-cutting bender this session passing proposals that would slash more than half a billion dollars in revenue with no plan to make up the loss or reduce services.

Oklahoma has been down this road before to disastrous results.

The conservative approach would be to see if the economic uptick has staying power then be purposeful in the tax reductions.

Wallace and Thompson are embracing this fiscal responsibility and mentioned several reasons for their caution.

It includes complications on the grocery tax elimination, a possible economic slump and compliance with the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement. That agreement is a compact among 24 states to simplify state and local sales tax laws to facilitate collection of taxes from online sales.

They appear more agreeable with measures that are temporary, expand sales tax credits or a one-time rebate sent directly to residents.

Still, the pressure to cut taxes permanently this session is strong.

A flurry of bills passed out the House and Senate that would cut the corporate franchise tax, suspend grocery taxes, reduce personal income tax and give property tax relief to higher-income older residents.

In total, this would take about $557.2 million from revenue for fiscal year 2024. A proposal to phase out personal and business income taxes would take out about $400 million annually and a measure to temporarily expand sales tax rebates would eliminate $185 million a year.

Another proposal would mail out $321 million in tax rebates before the November general election.

The last time Oklahoma approved this type of deep cut was in the late-1990s boom. A decade later, the Legislature faced four revenue failures and a deficit of $1.5 billion.

Core agency services were devastated. Highway patrol officers were limited in miles they could drive. Prison reintegration programs cut. Common education sank to almost last in teacher pay and per-pupil expenditure.

Oklahoma is bouncing back with the help of one-time federal pandemic money and one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates.

We appreciate the deliberate and judicious way Wallace and Thompson view the tax-cut proposals, showing true conservative values.

[Tulsa World].

Numbers of the Day

  • 580,000 – Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 580,000 incarcerated people in the United States have tested positive for the virus and more than 2,800 have died. [COVID Prison Project]
  • $10 billion – An automatic expungement system is estimated to help reduce unemployment for justice-involved Oklahomans. This increase in employment could increase Oklahoma’s GDP by up to $10 billion annually [Clean Slate Initiative]
  • 1/3 – In the first 6 months of the pandemic, almost one-third of people booked into jail were held for less than 24 hours, many of which for minor offenses or no charges filed at all. [Criminal Justice Policy Review]
  • 100,000 – More than 100,000 Oklahomans would be eligible to seal criminal records and lead more productive lives if Oklahoma implemented an automatic expungement system. [Oklahoma Policy Institute]
  • 35% – Despite the commutations granted by Governor Stitt, the state approved fewer releases in the first year of the pandemic than it had in years prior – 74% of non-violent commutation requests were granted in 2019, compared to just 35% in 2020. [FWD.us]

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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