Below are just some of the primary issues I believe are incredibly important for Oklahoma that need to be addressed at the state level. We've made a lot of improvements since I joined the legislature in 2016, but there are a lot of things that remain. I've outlined many of them below, along with outstanding concerns I strongly feel still need to be addressed with committed, experienced leadership and a passion for working collaboratively with fellow legislators and agencies, as well as you, constituents, and community partners. Let me know if you think there is something I've missed that needs addressing.
Oklahoma schools have experienced some of the deepest budget cuts in the country over the past decade, as state revenues experienced major shortfalls during the Great Recession and again in 2016. These disturbing trends led to the largest teacher and parent walkout in state history. We were able to finally get a significant pay increase for teachers but there are still challenges that must be addressed. Here are other things we need to work on:
- Good public education is CRITICAL for workforce - we can't keep jobs here if we don't have quality workforce. We need to ensure our public education system is closely tied to either higher education, CareerTech or Apprenticeship/Trade/Craftsman paths. We need employable young people coming out of our education system.
- Funding - are we going to have to make cuts again in 2021? With COVID-19, our economy has taken a big hit. We will need to work creatively and collaboratively to keep education cuts to a minimum when considering the 2020-2021 FY.
- Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and poverty, and their significant effect on children's ability to learn in a classroom. We need to develop resources and a plan to start factoring ACES into how we address our children's ability to learn.
- Class sizes - how are we going to get them manageable? We must have a reasonable student to teacher ratio and a student to counselor ratio and that not only requires the funding to add staff, but also the physical space for them, which isn't as easy as it sounds considering Tulsa's existing infrastructure. This will need to be factored into the resource plan that drives the allocated budget.
- Teacher retention/recruitment - have we stopped the exodus? We may have for now but we will need to be extra vigilant to retain our talent.
- Alternative sources of revenue for public education need to be found. We need to look at the efficacy of allowing local districts to raise money for their districts on their own, above the state equalization formula.
- Charter schools, private schools, alternative schools all play a role in the broader education system but we need a better understanding of how they are funded, how their standards compare to that of public schools and what the requirements and problems are with transparency in their use of public money.
Criminal Justice Reform:
We've made a lot of strides with the passage of State Questions 780 and 781 in 2016, which reclassified some drug possession and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. And, in 2019 we took that even further and made SQ 780 retroactive, which established expedited commutations for people serving felony prison sentences for offenses that are now misdemeanors. It also simplified a path to expungement for people with old drug possession and low-level property convictions.
But there's still a lot to do. The below are but a few examples of important items that must be addressed:
- I strongly favor State Question 805 in November! See more information here
- Bail Reform legislation must be passed! Bail and holding people pre-trial for months because they are too poor to make bail, while those with money go free, makes no sense, costs us millions of dollars and does nothing for public safety. Here is an op-ed I wrote about the issue when we were trying to get Bail Reform passed in 2019. Unfortunately it was defeated at the last minute but it needs to be pushed again.
- Reforming mandatory minimum sentence requirements for non-violent, low-level offenders needs to be further reformed.
- We need to properly fund our district attorneys, law enforcement and court systems to stop reliance on excessive fines & fees which often times leads poor people into incarceration because they can't pay, which then costs us millions to house them.
- How we prepare those incarcerated for a productive life "outside the walls" while they are inside needs to be addressed. What we are doing today is woefully inadequate.
- The negative effect of incarceration on children is huge and must be factored into our incarceration structure to stop the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
- We need to do a better job in diverting mental health and substance abuse involved individuals from prison to less expensive and more effective alternatives such as drug court and mental health court.
Small Business Growth:
In Oklahoma, we know how important our small businesses and entrepreneurs are. About 99% of our businesses in the state are classified as small businesses (less than 500 employees as defined by the Federal government), and these entrepreneurs employ over half of Oklahoma’s workforce -- architects, engineers, welders, local culinary professionals and restaurateurs, manufacturers, retailers, tech start-ups, etc. We must ensure the viability of these jobs by better supporting existing and emerging entrepreneurs.
- We need more and better state programs that help small business entrepreneurs and start-ups
- The role incubators, accelerators and other entrepreneurial support
- The use of Quick Action Closing Fund for loans available to small Oklahoma manufacturers during COVID crisis was great but I believe there are more things we can do like this that spur job growth.
- The role rural broadband accessibility must play in growing Oklahoma's statewide entrepreneurial community, which better enables rural economic development which relieves the burden of state funding that is on metro areas.
Healthcare Quality & Access:
We are definitely NOT a "Top 10" state when it comes to the health of our citizens or the quality of health care they have access to, particularly if you aren't fortunate enough to have paid health insurance through an employer. Oklahoma's healthcare system reflects the challenges of a rural, high-poverty state and we rank among the unhealthiest states in the nation. This is something we MUST address in 2020/2021. Here are some of the items that I believe we have to address:
- Medicaid Expansion - It happened through SQ802 but now is the question of how to best pay for it.
- There are ways we can pay for expansion without raising taxes - if the legislature will do it.
- We still need to look at our state's child uninsured rate -- it's is too high.
- Rural healthcare is important to Tulsa because the metro areas end up taking up the slack when rural health institutions are allowed to fold.
- Developmental Disability - "The Waiting List" is still too long and this has got to be addressed finally - but we have to look at how to fund it.
Mental Health & Substance Abuse:
Oklahoma spends among the least in the nation on its mental health system, despite having some of the highest rates of mental illness and substance abuse in the United States. It affects so many areas of state government. For example, our prisons have become today's mental hospitals, a result of Oklahoma's failure to invest in public systems that serve Oklahoma's most vulnerable residents -- at risk children, the developmentally disabled and those with mental illness. More than 16,500 of the offenders in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' populations - 57 - percent - have a history of mental illness or current symptoms. Part of the problem has to do with the stigma that comes with seeking mental health treatment and part of it also has to do with our population/#'s of mental health professionals ratio - we need more providers and there are ways we can achieve this. See more on my recommendations and concerns about mental health in Oklahoma here.