Twenty-seventeen is wrapping up, but the growing group of reporters at StateImpact are following many important government policy issues that will carry on into the new year.
Senior Reporter and Managing Editor Joe Wertz brought the StateImpact team into the studio for a preview of their coverage in the year to come. Here are some excerpts from the conversation edited for clarity:
Joe Wertz: Give me the big picture for the new year.
Jackie Fortier: I think the really big thing is how health agencies will be funded and how the Legislature chooses to do that in the future. What they choose not to fund could be eliminated completely.
Joe Wertz: And we’ve already seen some threats of doing that?
Fortier: Actually we’ve seen it happen at the at the health department specifically. People were laid off, and there’s the promise of more layoffs coming in March. The state health department itself doesn’t provide any services. These are all at county health department levels. So, if you get rid of three registered nurses, for example, at one county health department, that could mean that there are a lot less people to give immunizations to kids.
Wertz: Many of these programs go to support Oklahomans that are among the most vulnerable people in our society, right?
Fortier: Yeah I spoke with Lori Taylor, she has cerebral palsy. She’s confined to a wheelchair and she’s dependent on a Medicaid waiver in the state of Oklahoma. And that waiver may be eliminated in the future. And if that happens, she just really isn’t sure if she’s going to do.
Wertz: $30 million at the State Department of Health. Tell me about why we keep hearing that number?
Fortier: You keep hearing that number because that’s roughly the amount that was misappropriated by administrators, it seems to be, at the state health department. We’re still finding out new information. And there are three different investigations going on that you alluded to. But what it really amounts to is that money was kind of moved around and it was money that they didn’t have.
Wertz: And so right now the House is investigating?
Fortier: We’ve had two meetings of the House investigative committee. We heard from state health department interim commissioner Preston Doerflinger, mainly as part of his dual role as the head of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. And what they’re really learning is that they don’t have that level of detail at OMES that that lawmakers thought that they had. So that was kind of how this was able to fly under the radar.
Wertz: Going into 2018 what do you think is the single biggest issue facing teachers, parents, educators in Oklahoma?
Emily Wendler: School funding and that can be split into two things: Teacher pay and school budgets. It’s been talked about for years by lawmakers and the state superintendent, but even the governor is really ramping up her rhetoric — on teacher pay, especially. She recently crashed a teacher recruitment fair that was being put on in an Oklahoma hotel by a bunch of Dallas schools.
Wertz: Where are they going to get that money from?
Wendler: That is a really good question. Something many Oklahomans are in favor of is increasing the gross production tax on oil and gas companies.
One other issue outside of the Legislature, but something that I think’s going to be a big deal in Oklahoma is is DACA — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
This is an immigration policy put in place by former President Barack Obama. Basically, this policy allowed young people who were brought into this country illegally by their parents to remain in the United States. However, the Trump administration announced in September that they plan to repeal the DACA program in 2018 meaning hundreds of thousands of young immigrants could be deported.
In Oklahoma, 17 percent of the student population is Hispanic. Not all of these children are here under the DACA program — but many of them are. When this announcement came out in September, I went to a rally at a local school in Oklahoma City and spoke with Oklahoma City Public School Board member Gloria Torres, and she is very worried about what could happen to some of these students.
Environment and Energy
Wertz: Those asking to increase taxes on oil and gas production have really turned up the volume at the state capitol. Not surprisingly, many oil and gas companies and industry groups are pushing against these proposed increases.
The former head of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, Mickey Thompson, recently filed paperwork for State Question 795, which would ask voters to approve oil and gas tax hikes to help fund education.
And as the state scrambles for more ways to squeeze revenue out of industry I’m also keeping an eye on the wind industry in Oklahoma. The state has chipped away at incentives for wind farms. And many lawmakers — and some fossil fuel titans — want new production taxes levied on wind-produced electricity.
There are also ongoing water and pollution issues StateImpact will monitor, as well as oil and gas-linked earthquakes. The frequency of earthquakes dropped dramatically in 2017: 300 magnitude-3.0 or greater quakes compared to 624 in 2016 and 903 in 2015.
Researchers efforts by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to limit activity at wells in quake-prone areas is likely reducing the earthquake activity, but lower levels of wastewater injection and low oil prices are also likely playing a role.
Nomin Ujiyediin contributed to this story.