In The Know is a daily synopsis of Oklahoma policy-related news and blogs. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. You can sign up here to receive In The Know by e-mail or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or RSS. The podcast theme music is by Zebre.
Today you should know State Superintendent Janet Barresi said the Legislature is unlikely to approve a supplemental appropriation to fully fund teacher health benefits, and she called for redirecting money from the school activities fund. Redistributing the funds means less will be available for bonuses for National Board Certified Teachers; Advanced Placement teacher training; test fee assistance for students; third-grade reading readiness; and other programs. In the Huffington Post, John Thompson examined who are the third graders that did not pass a statewide reading test.
Barresi calls for school activities funds to be used for school employee health insurance
State Superintendent Janet Barresi has directed the state Education Department to use $6.54 million budgeted for a variety of school activities to cover a deficit in health insurance premiums for school employees. In February, Barresi requested the money to fully fund the state-mandated health insurance for full-time staff and support personnel, commonly referred to as the flexible benefit allowance. So far, the Legislature hasn’t obliged. Districts were notified of the situation on Wednesday, but the action would require final approval by the state Board of Education at its May 22 meeting.
Who Are Our Third Graders Who Are Being Held Back?
Who are the nearly 8,000 Oklahoma 3rd graders who failed Oklahoma’s high-stakes reading test? Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Inman notes that 16 percent of the state’s elementary students failed the test required for promotion to the 4th grade. In the high-dollar Oklahoma City suburbs, where students go home to $500,000 houses, all but 5 percent may have passed. In his district and in Oklahoma City, where children go home to units where the rent is $500, the failure rate was nearly 30 percent. Nearly 33 percent of Tulsa students failed the test. In suburban Jenks, less than 9 percent failed.
Much of Oklahoma’s wealth is due to an abundance of oil and gas under the ground. The companies that drill for these precious minerals make investments and create jobs that help Oklahoma prosper. In return for the rights to a non-renewable resource, however, Oklahoma, like all states with mineral wealth, assesses a severance tax. For decades, the severance tax has been 7 percent. When new technologies emerged back in the 1990s that showed potential for tapping previously unreachable oil and gas, the state temporarily lowered the rate on horizontal wells to just 1 percent for the first 48 months of production to encourage experimentation.
New plan emerging to fix crumbling Oklahoma Capitol
Plans to fix the crumbling state Capitol appear to be advancing in the Legislature. The House previously rejected a Senate bill for a $160 million bond measure to fix plumbing, electrical systems and parts of the building’s facade, but House leaders are now discussing a similar proposal. A new plan being discussed by House leaders envisions a $120 million bond measure. The bonds would be retired in 10 years to save on interest. A repair and refurbishment project of this size would be one of the largest, if not the largest project, for the Capitol, which was opened in 1917.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signs law strengthening Open Meeting Act
Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law on Wednesday a bill that allows residents to recover attorney fees if they successfully sue over violations of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act. “This really is a landmark piece of legislation where citizens are empowered to hold public bodies accountable and require them to follow the Open Meeting Act,” said Mark Thomas, spokesman for the Oklahoma Press Association. The act requires public bodies to make their meetings public and provide advance public notice of when and where they will meet. Residents legally can challenge public bodies that don’t follow the act, but they have been required to incur all legal expenses to do so, even if they prevail in the litigation.
The State Election Board launched a new Online Voter Tool that will allow Oklahomans to look up their voter registration, polling location, sample ballots and check the status of their absentee ballots all in one location. The Online Voter Tool is available at http://elections.ok.gov. According to officials, while the Oklahoma State Election Board’s website has featured a polling place locator in the past, the enhanced tool also allows voters to view sample ballots for upcoming elections, track their absentee ballots and confirm their voter registration all in the same place.
Okla. House passes military base sales tax measure
The Oklahoma House has narrowly passed legislation that authorizes sales taxes to be collected from civilians who purchase products from private-sector vendors on military bases. The House approved the measure Wednesday by a vote of 51-42 – the minimum number required to pass legislation in the 101-member House. The Senate last month voted 39-0 for the measure that now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin to be signed into law. Currently, purchases from private vendors on military bases are exempt from sales taxes. The bill’s author, Rep. Mike Jackson of Enid, says the bill requires a change in local sales tax ordinances, plus the approval of the U.S. military, before taxes are collected.
Domestic Violence Tool To Be Implemented By Police Statewide
Soon, police departments around the state will be required to have an extra tool to help those in domestic violence situations. A tool officials said can help save lives. That tool is a simple piece of paper. It is a domestic violence lethality screen for first responders, a checklist with 11 questions that officers will be required to have in their car to give to victims of domestic violence. And it shows them where they can turn for help.
New Oklahoma law targets prescription drug overdose epidemic
The Oklahoma medical examiner will begin directly reporting the names of overdose victims to the state narcotics agency, which will then use the data to more closely track the state’s prescription drug problem. The new requirement, part of a bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Mary Fallin, could also be used to identify problem prescribers. A failure of state agencies to promptly share information about overdose victims and to trace the prescribers of drugs that result in overdose deaths was among several findings of an investigation earlier this year by The Oklahoman and Oklahoma Watch.
Oklahoma judges: Don’t let 174 drug courts go by the wayside
For lack of funding, Oklahoma stands to lose 174 drug court slots originally purchased with a federal grant. After three years, the state was expected to pick up the cost. But revenues are short and state leaders face tough decisions about what will and what won’t be funded. Drug courts cost about $5,000 per participant, per year. They keep people out of prison, reduce the number of people who reoffend and are probably the most cost-effective criminal justice program in the state.
Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate declining, state Board of Health hears
Oklahoma has seen fewer babies die in recent years before their first birthday, health leaders said Tuesday. Officials at Tuesday’s state Board of Health meeting discussed the progress made in reducing Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate, the rate in which Oklahoma’s babies die before their first birthday. In Oklahoma, the infant mortality rate has decreased by 13 percent in the last five years from 8.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007 to 7.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012.
Oklahoma City and Tulsa among 10 worst cities for asthma
Oklahoma City and Tulsa are among the worst cities in the country for asthma sufferers, according to a report released recently from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Tulsa was the eighth worst city, rising from last year’s rank of 15th. Oklahoma City was fourth worst. The worst city on the list was Richmond, Virginia, according to the foundation’s 11th annual report. Asthma affects nearly 25 million people in the United States, according to the foundation.
It’s ozone season in Tulsa. For 24 years, the community has been working together to protect our neighbors’ health and everyone’s economy by preventing air pollution on Ozone Alert Days. Tulsa is on the cusp of nonattainment — the technical term for officially violating federal clean-air standards. We recognize that there is a boy-who-cried-wolf aspect to the threat of federal clean air sanctions. The Tulsa area has struggled with the standards for ears, heard that it was on the verge of violation, and — thankfully — never felt the EPA whip. We have been lucky so far, but there is no guarantee that such luck will hold. Consistently violating the federal standards is gambling with the local economy.
Environmental Groups Ask EPA to Regulate Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Wells
An alliance of national and state environmental groups on Tuesday asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set air pollution limits on oil and gas wells and production equipment. The petition — prepared by Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council and signed by more than 60 other groups — asks the EPA to issue rules limiting air pollution from oil and gas wells in cities, suburbs and other populated areas. Nine states are mentioned specifically in the petition, including Oklahoma, where the groups identified 23,646 oil and gas wells in populated areas.
AAA Oklahoma reports that the average price for a gallon of self-serve gasoline is falling in Oklahoma. The agency said Tuesday that the statewide average for regular gas is now just less than $3.40 per gallon — a drop of seven cents per gallon since about a month ago and down just more than three cents from last week. Prices in selected cities range from $3.30 per gallon in Bartlesville and Grove to $3.49 per gallon in Guymon. Drivers in Oklahoma City are paying just less than $3.39 per gallon while the average cost in Tulsa is $3.33. The national average price is $3.64 per gallon.
“Transience is so high that almost half of the students were new to the district this year, and some have already transferred out in the few weeks since the test was taken. Almost one-sixth of the 3rd grade class were homeless. Almost 5 percent were in court-ordered housing. Almost 5 percent have recently buried their mothers.”
-Education writer John Thompson, describing conditions at Crutcho public schools, which had the state’s highest failure rate on a third-grade reading test (Source: http://huff.to/1sRyT7R)
Number of the Day
Average annual cost for a drug court participant in Oklahoma, compared to $19,000 per year for prison inmates.
How Obamacare Rules Triggered $1.6 Billion in Insurance Rebates
One of the less discussed pieces of the Affordable Care Act is a measure to control insurance premiums by limiting how much companies can spend on stuff other than medical claims. Expenses for marketing, fees to brokers, administrative costs, profits, and the like can’t take up more than 20¢ of each premium dollar (or 15¢ for large-group plans). Any amount collected above that threshold must be returned to customers. This rule is known as the medical-loss ratio, and it has resulted in rebates of $1.6 billion to individuals and businesses over the last two years, according to a new tally of federal data from the Commonwealth Fund.