Weekly Wonk: Vape taxes aren’t answer for Medicaid expansion | Leaders shouldn’t hide from information | Making state budget serve everyone

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

  • Vape taxes aren’t the answer for Medicaid expansion: In the 2020 primary election, Oklahomans told the Legislature that we want a robust, stably-funded health care system. To make this goal of safeguarding Oklahomans’ health a reality, the Legislature has a number of options for funding Medicaid. Anti-vaping advocates have been exploring a tax on vaping products as a possible funding source. While there are arguments to pass a vape tax as a public health measure, it would likely be an insufficient and unstable way to fund a public program as crucial to our health as Medicaid. [Josie Phillips / OK Policy]
  • Legislature set for ‘organizational day’ on Jan. 5 (Capitol Update): Tomorrow (Jan. 5) will be the “organizational day” for the Legislature. Article V, Section 26 of the Oklahoma Constitution provides that the Legislature shall meet in regular session on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January of each odd numbered year for the purposes only of performing the duties as required by Section 5 of Article VI of the Constitution and organizing itself. [Steve Lewis / Capitol Update]
  • OK Policy looks back on 2020’s biggest stories: As 2020 wound to a close, our OK Policy staff reviewed the previous 12 months. As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over nearly every aspect of our work and our lives. When the virus’ threat began to emerge in the spring, the OK Policy team shifted our work to analyze state and federal policies in every sector of our work. We developed this list based on website traffic, which indicated that Oklahomans were hungry for non-partisan information about the pandemic and its impact on their daily lives. Additionally, Oklahomans sought out OK Policy for non-partisan information and analysis in order to help them make informed decisions during this year’s election cycle. [Dave Hamby / OK Policy]
  • Oklahoma Voices: Del City woman unable to work, pay for medications after stroke: Clara Franklin went from being a healthy, independent caregiver to relying on assistance programs to make ends meet after having a stroke. She will be one of the many Oklahomans who will qualify for Medicaid once expansion is implemented. [Miguel Rios / OK Policy]
  • We’re hiring a CBPP Tribal Policy Fellow at OK Policy: The Oklahoma Policy Institute is seeking applicants for a Tribal Policy Fellow through our partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy and its State Policy Fellowship Program. The Tribal Policy Fellow will focus specifically on tribal state policy, promoting sound fiscal and budget policy recommendations that support Oklahoma’s tribal nations and increase participation of American Indians in the Oklahoma budget process. Learn more and apply online.
  • Policy Matters: Ignoring information doesn’t make problem disappear: Information is a vital part of decision-making, but key Oklahoma leaders are choosing to hide from receiving vital information regarding COVID-19 data and recommendations. News broke in late December that Oklahoma opted to discontinue receiving the weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force reports that contain commentary, notes and recommendations individualized for each state. I wish I could say this recent effort to squelch information about Oklahoma’s virus response was an isolated event. It is not. [Ahniwake Rose / OK Policy]

Weekly What’s That

Board of Equalization

The State Board of Equalization was established in 1907 by the Oklahoma Constitution. The seven-member Board is composed of six statewide elected officials – the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, Superintendent of Instruction, and State Auditor – plus the Secretary of Agriculture.

A primary responsibility of the Board is to provide an official estimate of how much revenue will be available for the Oklahoma Legislature to spend for the coming year.  Three times a year, in December, February and June, the Board meets to certify revenue estimates for the upcoming budget year. Estimates are prepared by the Oklahoma Tax Commission and other agencies.

The Board is also responsible for assessing taxable property values for entities such as public service companies, railroads, and airlines. Each Oklahoma county has its own Board of Equalization that settles disagreements between county assessors and property owners about the taxable value of property.

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

Quote of the Week

“Most of us believe that in 10 days to 14 days we’re going to see a substantial surge in the number of cases in Oklahoma that get reported. 10%-12% of those people are going to end up in a hospital, so we’re going to be really challenged in the next few weeks.”

-Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer [Tulsa World]

Editorial of the Week

Good state revenue news should lead lawmakers to make sustainable, equitable choices to produce structural economic growth

The state Legislature will have $8.46 billion to appropriate next year, an 8% increase over the amount in the current year budget.

In any other year, 8% growth would be outstanding, an opportunity to do big things at the state Capitol. This year, it’s still outstanding news, but not without some obvious reservations.

The budget projection includes more than $1 billion from one-time sources, including projected unspent balances from prior years and money that was meant for road building and the teachers’ retirement fund. Spending that money might or might not be a good idea, but spending it on programs that will require continuing funding in the future is very dicey, unless you have a sustainable plan to replace it.

The Legislature also faces the issue of funding voter-mandated Medicaid expansion, which takes effect July 1. Medicaid expansion was absolutely the right choice for the state for many reasons, and the economic growth and state budget savings it will produce will eventually more than pay for its costs. All the same, initial funding has to be accounted for either through provider fees, growth revenue or other sources.

There are good options for quickly making Oklahoma’s economy more robust, which would increase tax revenue, as Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Paul Shinn pointed out when the budget numbers first came out.

Increasing the minimum wage to match four surrounding states (and 29 nationwide) and bringing back the Earned Income Tax Credit are two good ideas that would help the state’s poorest workers, encourage general prosperity in the state and make future state budgets more sustainable. The solution to Oklahoma’s long-term budget picture is to emphasize continued economic growth in an intelligent, equitable fashion.

Growing state revenue — even if it is based on a bit of a bubble — is a lot better than shrinking revenue, a devastating scenario that we’ve faced several times in recent years with disastrous impact on all areas of state government, especially public schools.

Even if the revenue growth doesn’t reflect sustainable, structural improvement in the state’s economy, it happened on the watch of Gov. Kevin Stitt, so we shouldn’t be shy about giving him as much credit as is due. Stitt has been aggressive in pushing the reopening of the state economy, and that probably has helped the improved budget situation a bit in the short term.

At the same time, Stitt has refused to do other things — including a statewide mask mandate — that would allow for a faster recovery and faster return to open society on a permanent basis. Most tragically, it also would have avoided unnecessary sickness and death.

What all this boils down to is this: Oklahoma’s budget prospects could have been worse, and have been in the recent past, but they’re far from rosy, and the current course of state policy isn’t well-designed to make the good times continue.

[Tulsa World]

Numbers of the Day

  • 170 – The record number of COVID-related deaths recorded in Oklahoma during the past seven days
  • 174,900 – Number of COVID-19 vaccine doses received in Oklahoma as of Jan. 5. All doses have been allocated for health care workers, long-term care residents, first responders, and Oklahomans age 65 years and older, while the state awaits new information from the federal government about upcoming distributions.
  • 583,042 – Number of Oklahoma participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, which supplements monthly food budgets for eligible households and raises nutritional levels of low-income households.
  • 62 – The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Wednesday reported 62 Oklahomans died from COVID-19, which was a single-day record.
  • 1.36% – Percentage decrease in Oklahoma’s overall public school enrollment as of the Oct. 1 student count. This is the first downturn in public school enrollment in 19 years, which officials say was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

See previous Numbers of the Day and sources here.

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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