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 Zébre.
Today you should know that the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that cases begun under the old workers compensation system must continue under that system, which means Oklahoma could be running two workers compensation systems for decades. The old system, now called the Court of Existing Claims, has about 100,000 active cases.
With six weeks left in the 2014 session, behind-the-scenes negotiations among the House, Senate and governor’s office are ramping up on how to plug a $188 million hole in the budget and fund programs for education, public safety and child welfare. Talks are centering around cuts to state agencies and drawing down agency reserves. OK Policy previously laid out seven options for Oklahoma to responsibly balance the budget without severe cuts to services, but so far lawmakers have not acted on any of them.
Oklahoma is about to get a report card on the progress of court-ordered improvement to the child welfare system, and state leaders expect the grade to be poor. Oklahoma Corrections Professionals director Sean Wallace wrote that the situation in Oklahoma’s overcrowded, understaffed prison is not getting any better. Oklahomans have been paying for a new online court records system with a $15 increase in all court filing fees since 2007, but so far it is only available in one county. A wrongfully convicted Tulsa man was released after 17 years in prison. Since a Tulsa police corruption scandal came to light, nearly 50 prisoners have been released or had sentences modified due to civil rights violations or problems with their cases.
The Number of the Day is the increase in leisure and hospitality sector jobs in Oklahoma since March 2013, more than one-third of all new jobs in Oklahoma over the past year. In today’s Policy Note, the Alaska Dispatch reports that since Alaska switched state employees from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension system, the state’s unfunded liabilities have nearly doubled. Oklahoma lawmakers are considering a similar switch, and OK Policy has previously explained how it could increase unfunded liabilities and the cost to taxpayers.
In The News
Oklahoma may need to use old workers comp system for years with long-term cases
Opponents of Oklahoma’s new workers compensation system have argued it will cause the state to have two workers compensation systems for decades. An Oklahoma Supreme Court decision handed down Thursday seems to support that argument. In its first decision on the operational aspects of the law that went into effect Feb. 1, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cases begun under the old system now called the Court of Existing Claims, or CEC must continue under that system. The law creating the new system, called the Oklahoma Workers Compensation Commission, sunsets the Court of Existing Claims in 2020. Many workers compensation lawyers said that will be impossible. The CEC has about 100,000 active cases, some of which are likely to remain open for decades.
Oklahoma budget talks center on cuts, revolving funds
With six weeks left in the 2014 session, behind-the-scenes negotiations among the House, Senate and governor’s office are ramping up on how to plug a $188 million hole in the budget and fund programs for education, public safety and child welfare. The chairmen of the Republican-controlled House and Senate budget committees have been meeting with Governor Mary Fallin’s Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger, along with the fiscal staffs for the three sides. They are divvying up a nearly $7 billion budget, and talks are centering around a combination of proposed cuts to some state agencies, along with how much revenue might be available to use from agency revolving accounts and cash reserves.
Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services is about to get a report card that could have serious consequences, and the way it’s looking, the grades won’t be good. Federal court oversight hangs in the balance, not to mention the well-being of thousands of children whose lives depend on the state’s foster care system. The state settled a class action lawsuit against DHS in 2012 with a unique agreement called the Pinnacle Plan. The agreement gave DHS five years to make specific improvements to the foster care system, or face a potentially harsher legal remedy. What’s about to be released is the first annual assessment of DHS’s progress in implementing the agreed upon changes. With regard to certain improvements, it’s already clear DHS is behind.
Sean Wallace: Situation in Oklahoma prisons not improving
In case you’ve lost track, the situation in Oklahoma prisons is not improving. Just in the last few months, a female case manager was brutally assaulted in her office, another was taken hostage with a knife to her throat, an inmate was murdered for the first time in the history of the James Crabtree Correctional Center, a national report was released showing the State’s all-female prison in McLoud has the highest rate of reported sexual assaults in the nation, two officers were critically injured in a traffic accident after their state vehicle broke down, and a nationwide survey was released finding Oklahoma’s officer-to-inmate ratio to be the worst in the nation, while officer pay is nearly worst.
Oklahoma’s new online court records system being used by one county
Oklahoma’s online court records system has 80 employees in its information technology department and nearly $30 million in the bank — and one county running on its new system. State courts officials say the Unified Case Management System is one year past its original due date, but they have repeatedly changed the estimated project deadline over the past few years. Oklahomans have been paying for the new system with a $15 increase in all court filing fees since 2007. The goal is to have a single, online, publicly accessible statewide court record system — residents will eventually be able to track any court case in Oklahoma and read its corresponding documents online.
Wrongfully convicted Tulsa man free after 17 years in prison
During Jeffrey Williams’ first 48 hours back in the Tulsa area, he’s learned how to withdraw money from an ATM, make calls on an iPhone and take a selfie with his daughter, Cari. Williams, who turns 54 on Thursday, has also gone shopping for a new wardrobe — a process he says will take some getting used to — and eaten his first Blue Rose Cafe cheeseburger in nearly 17 years, which he said tasted even better than the last time he ordered one in the 1990s at the restaurant’s old location on Peoria Avenue. Friday morning, U.S. District Judge James H. Payne issued an order dismissing the indictments and vacating the judgment and sentence against him, ruling that Tulsa police officers involved in the case — including several later convicted following a probe into department corruption from 2008-2011 — manufactured evidence in order to secure his conviction and conducted an unconstitutional search and seizure of Williams the day he was arrested. Nearly 50 prisoners, including Williams, have been released or had sentences modified due to civil rights violations or problems with their cases resulting from police corruption.
Oklahoma’s system of grading schools needs overhaul, researchers say
Researchers from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma who have analyzed and tested the reliability and validity of Oklahoma’s A-F school grading system say it needs an overhaul, but no one seems to be listening. The research team that has worked for a year and a half looking at the two methods the state has used for grading schools appeared Thursday at the OSU-Tulsa Faculty Research Excellence Lecture Series, a free, annual event. The intent of the grading system implemented by the State Department of Education was to have a clear and transparent means of communicating the effectiveness of public schools. But the researchers concluded there were numerous flaws in the state’s methods.
Janet Barresi: Reading, not retention, is the aim of third-grade law
Reading is one of the most important skills for a child to master. It can spell the difference between academic success or falling further behind. It can mean the difference between attending college or dropping out of high school. It can determine what job is available upon graduation. Not being able to read limits a person in myriad ways. Research shows that no matter what the area of struggle, if a child is given appropriate instruction intervention and enough time, he or she can learn to read. Why would we accept anything less for our kids?
Oklahoma City Public Schools chooses Seattle-area man for superintendent post
Robert R. Neu, a Seattle-area administrator with more than 20 years of experience in public education, has been selected to lead Oklahoma City Public Schools, The Oklahoman has learned. Neu, 50, is superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools in Federal Way, Wash., a 22,000-student district about 25 miles south of Seattle that is about half the size of Oklahoma City’s district. Neu did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment Friday. Neu describes himself on the Federal Way school district website as “a student-centered decision maker who firmly believes in educating the whole child, adding that “a comprehensive curriculum supported by extra-curricular programs is the foundation of American public education.”
New York City received a lot of attention recently with a bold promise made to some of its youngest residents: Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on a campaign to fund full-day public preschool for all New York City children through a modest increased income tax on residents making more than $500,000 a year. Although Mayor de Blasio’s tax proposal was not approved by the state legislature or supported by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, the legislature did approve statewide funding for pre-K that included a $300 million increase for New York City’s preschool program. This means that for the first time fully funded full-day quality preschool will be available for all four-year-olds in the city. New York City is moving forward for children — and it isn’t the only major city and school district making strides towards providing high-quality public preschool programs to as many children as possible. Several large districts that have been doing this for a while are already seeing strong results.
Oklahoma jobless rate drops to 4.9 percent as labor force declines
The state’s jobless rate continued its downward slant as it dropped to 4.9 percent in March, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. March’s number compares with 5.0 percent in February, making it the lowest rate Oklahoma has recorded since December 2008 when it hit 4.8 percent. The rate was 5.2 percent in March 2013. Oklahoma’s labor force - the number of people working and looking for work - dropped last month, while total employment, which includes farm jobs and self-employed people, barely changed.
Does raising the minimum wage really drive away jobs?
Mary Fallin made news last week when she signed a bill preventing municipalities in Oklahoma from raising the minimum wage. 7.3% of workers in Oklahoma earn the minimum wage, higher than the national rate of 4.3%. Fallin said the bill, proposed in response to efforts to raise the minimum wage in Oklahoma City, was necessary to protect jobs. As the AP reported: “Most minimum-wage workers are young, single people working part-time or entry-level jobs,” Fallin said. “Many are high school or college students living with their parents in middle-class families. “Mandating an increase in the minimum wage would require businesses to fire many of those part-time workers. It would create a hardship for small business owners, stifle job creation and increase costs for consumers,” she said. “And it would do all of these things without even addressing the goal of reducing poverty.” Let’s fact check this statement.
Stark naked power grab: Legislature targets Third Branch
Raise your right hand. That’s one, solitary hand in the air, the same number of subjects the Legislature can address in a piece of legislation. Throw in more topics, and under the single-subject rule of the state Constitution, the law, if challenged, might get thrown out. That’s exactly what the Oklahoma Supreme Court did last year with a case involving incremental state income tax cuts and creation of a fund to do Capitol repairs. It’s not the Supreme Court’s fault that lawmakers can’t count or that they repeatedly pass laws that lawmakers should know are constitutionally flawed. But the entire state judiciary is getting punished just the same.
Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green launches a new project: a public school Bible curriculum
The Mustang, Okla., school board voted Monday (April 14) to adopt a Bible course developed by Steve Green, clearing the way for the Hobby Lobby president, whose suit against the Affordable Care Act is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, to enter another charged arena at the borderline of church and state. The board, whose district is practically in Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma City backyard, agreed to beta-test the first year of the Museum of the Bible Curriculum, an ambitious four-year public school elective on the narrative, history and impact of the Good Book.
80 percent of our wells are horizontal. It’s where the action is. I don’t think that government should incentivize anything that is going to happen without the incentive, and believe me, baby, horizontal drilling is going to happen without the incentive.
-Former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphries (Source: http://bit.ly/1r8b6zq), speaking about Oklahoma’s tax break for horizontal drilling that is costing $252 million this year
Number of the Day
Increase in leisure and hospitality sector jobs in Oklahoma since March 2013, more than one-third of all new jobs in Oklahoma over the past year.
Here’s who got Alaska into this public employee retirement mess
Legislators struggling to find ways to pay off the $12 billion in unfunded pension liability threatening to overwhelm state budgets for years to come are trying to finger who is responsible and where the blame lies. Huge stock market declines, devastating actuarial errors, and funding decisions of more than a decade ago all played a role. But those in current state leadership posts watched in recent years while unfunded liability grew to is current size, failing to take action even after awareness of the shortfall grew.