(Edited for length and clarity)

Oklahoma Watch reporters discuss their recent and upcoming stories: Trevor Brown on proposed changes to the state question process, Paul Monies on keeping bids for $1.87 billion in federal funds a secret, Jennifer Palmer on a school voucher bill gaining momentum. Executive Director Ted Streuli hosts.

A Legislative Push To Curb State Questions

More than 300,000 signatures submitted to the Secretary of State’s office in support of medicaid expansion were the fuel for Oklahoma voter’s approval of a state question expanding health coverage to an estimated 200,000 Oklahomans. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Ted Streuli

Ted Streuli: Welcome to Long Story Short, sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. I’m Ted Streuli, the executive director at Oklahoma Watch. We’re a statewide nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative reporting. You are listening to our weekly podcast, which lets you hear directly from our journalists as they provide deeper insight into their recently published stories. And in this segment, I’m talking to Trevor Brown who covers democracy for Oklahoma Watch. Trevor recently reported on efforts to tighten up the legislation surrounding state questions.

Trevor, can you start us off by talking about why this is happening right now?

Trevor Brown: So in the past six years, voters have proved a number of state questions. Many of them have run counter to what leaders in the legislature and the governor have wanted. Things like medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and criminal justice have all passed in the last six years.

Ted Streuli: And what are some of the proposals that are out there now that could affect that going forward?

Trevor Brown

Trevor Brown: A lot of or a number of Republicans and Gov. (Kevin) Stitt have made comments that the state question process needs to reigned in a bit. So there are proposals out there that would require a majority of voters in two-thirds of Oklahoma counties to vote for some of the state questions in order for them to take effect. This would be a huge burden to get a lot of these things passed. There are a lot of counties— 77 in the state. So that could overrule what Oklahoma City or Tulsa does. There are other things that would mandate background checks for petition circulators and even block out-of-state funding for initiatives or referendum campaigns.

Ted Streuli: It sounds like some of these bills are really intended to make it harder to get a state question on the ballot, harder for Oklahoma residents to put state questions on the ballot, and then also make it harder for those to pass. Is that a fair summary of some of the bills you’re seeing?

Trevor Brown: That’s correct. There’s a number of them that would say you have to have 55% of votes to pass a constitutional amendment or you need two-thirds or three-fourths of all counties to pass a state question. Other ones would make the challenge period a little longer to give more time for people to file lawsuits before the state question actually even gets on the ballot.

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Ted Streuli: For some listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with the process, there are two ways right now to change the state constitution. Can you describe those?

Trevor Brown: One way is for the legislature to directly put a state question on the ballot. All they need to do is pass a joint resolution during the session, and that means the next election or primary election there will be a state question that the legislature designed. Oklahoma is also one of about 28 states that allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot. Now, this is done by getting between tens of thousands or even 100,000 or more signatures — depending on if you are doing a statutory or constitutional amendment — just to get on the ballot. And then you have to survive legal challenges and all sorts of other procedural maneuvers.

Ted Streuli: Gov. Stitt has had a few you things to say about the whole state question process recently, hasn’t he?

Trevor Brown: He actually mentioned this during his recent state of the state address. He specifically called out the medical marijuana state question. He said it was misleading and voters were sold a bill of goods. He went on to blame organizations outside for influencing the elections, saying this is the perfect example of why we need to make sure initiative positions represent Oklahomans, not out-of-state special interest groups. However, he has not preferred any specific plans or called for specific legislation.

Ted Streuli: You ran some campaign numbers after that? What did those show?

Trevor Brown: It definitely painted a more complicated picture than the governor and some other Republicans have suggested. There have been a number of state questions such as State Question 805 — that was the sentencing reforms in 2020 — where a lot of that funding for that came from out of state. But I found a lot of other state questions, including Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana, (where) the vast majority came from in-state sources.

Ted Streuli: Some community organizers have had some things to say about this effort to make it more difficult to get state questions on the ballot. What are you hearing from them?

Trevor Brown: I talked with Amber England. She ran the Medicaid expansion state question a few years back. She’s been very involved in these types of processes. She called this a scare tactic by lawmakers. and (said) this is one of the areas where they’re afraid of seating power to the voters. We saw this debate play out with the redistricting and a proposal to do a citizen-led redistricting panel. She made the argument that this is another area where lawmakers don’t want to cede the power. They want to be the ones that are creating the laws, not directly the people. There are definitely different philosophies on that, but the overarching complaint from some people is that they want more power for the people rather than the legislature.

Ted Streuli: You talked to one state legislator who thinks he has a compromise. Tell me about that.

Trevor Brown: I talked with State Rep. (Carl) Newton. He is putting forward a proposal that would require 55% of the vote to pass for constitutional amendments that are on a state question. He told me that he thinks some of the other (bills) might be a bridge too far, things like requiring two-thirds of the counties, but he thinks for a constitutional amendment, which is really hard to change, there should be a higher threshold.

Ted Streuli: You mentioned that the governor had not put forth any specific legislation himself. Is he supporting any of these bills specifically?

Trevor Brown: No. I talked with the governor’s office and they told me that the governor doesn’t traditionally comment about pending legislation. That’s not always true. The governor specifically said he back Sen. (Greg) Treat’s backpack funding bill during the session. But we really don’t know what the governor is feeling except that he wants it tightened. We don’t know what specifically he wants to be tightened, what rules changed. So it’s kind of a mystery box at this point.

Ted Streuli: What kind of feedback did you get on the story?

Trevor Brown: I included the story in my newsletter that we put out every week. Almost all (of the readers who responded) were very concerned about legislators taking away power from the people. Some people said we revolt if this happens. I don’t think it’s that’s gonna happen. But this certainly shows that the voters, at least a population of the voters, don’t like having their power or rights changed or taken away or limited.

Who Requested $1.87 Billion in Federal Aid? It’s a Secret

The Oklahoma State Capitol. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Ted Streuli: In this segment of Long Story Short I’m with Paul Monies, who covers state government for Oklahoma Watch. Paul wrote about some secrecy in the state’s use of federal COVID 19 relief funds. Paul, how much did the federal government give Oklahoma in the latest round of pandemic aid?

Paul Monies: In the latest round, which came from last year, the state got $1.87 billion to spend on various things.

Ted Streuli: Are there any limitations on that federal aid?

Paul Monies

Paul Monies: Generally there’s a lot of discretion that states have for those funds, but they’re supposed to address economic fallout from the pandemic as well as some of the health and medical needs. And then there’s a decent chunk that goes to infrastructure, like water and sewer upgrades and broadband needs.

Ted Streuli: Can you describe the process on how projects are picked by the legislature and the governor?

Paul Monies: This time around the legislature and the governor have kind of come together a little more than the first time. They had the CARES Act money in 2020 from COVID. This time around the legislature has established a joint committee between the Senate and the House. And they’ve got various working groups that work on different projects. And then the ultimate decision goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Ted Streuli: How long do they have to do that and spend money?

Paul Monies: They’ve got until the end of 2024 to allocate the money. And they’ve got until the end of 2026 to actually spend the federal relief money.

Ted Streuli: How many applications has the state received? How much is the total that’s been requested?

Paul Monies: The state opened up applications last fall, and they’ve gotten about 780 projects so far applied for and that total’s about $12 million right now.

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Ted Streuli: So why is the state refusing to disclose details of those applications? 

Paul Monies: The state is basically treating these all as one giant bid for money where all the applicants are competing against each other, including private and public entities. And they say that there needs to be confidentiality within that process that no one knows what everyone else is asking for. Of course, this is a huge pile of money. And there are some state agencies that have asked for money as well.

Ted Streuli: So does that secrecy extend to those state agencies that are asking for some of the COVID relief money?

Paul Monies: It does. And that’s kind of how we got into the story in the first place, We were asking just a follow up question on the state Department of Health and their application for some funding. I was told by the state Department of Health to talk to the people at the Management Enterprise Services. And they said we have this memo that makes that all secret. Sorry.

Ted Streuli: So is there some point where the curtain will be pulled back and the public will know about the projects?

Paul Monies: They say they call it temporarily confidential right now. And they say that basically the process says once the legislature has its process with approving the projects and the governor ultimately secures the funding for that project, with that approval that will then become a public document available for public inspection.

Ted Streuli: So that sounds fairly reasonable right there. There’s maybe some competitive bidding going on. They want to give everybody an equal shot. Why is it problematic that that’s all being kept secret so far?

Paul Monies: These are varied projects. We’re talking about anything from technology upgrades for state agencies to water and sewer needs around the state to broadband, which there’s a big push for it in the legislature. It can’t really be described as the same type of funding for each one as you would on a normal bidding situation, where the state may go out and buy a technology structure for finance or something like that. That’s one distinction object of thing that you would buy. This is all across the map across all these uses.

Ted Streuli: So one company bidding on a water project or putting in an application for a water project isn’t really competing against a telecommunication company that wants to build broadband infrastructure, right. There’s no harm in those two knowing what the other one is asking for.

Paul Monies: And that’s what we tried to explain the state and say, why is a secret? And they just keep coming back to this memo they issued.

Ted Streuli: So what kind of feedback did you get after that story ran?

Paul Monies: I’ve talked to some lawmakers who are kind of confused by this blanket secrecy order. Also the Tulsa World has picked up our story and wrote an editorial this week kind of criticizing some of these decisions that states made on this secrecy.

Ted Streuli: Is there a chance that with all that being done in darkness that that could lead to some nefarious deals?

Paul Monies: That’s definitely the danger in some of this keeping it under secret. And there was also a danger if they come to the process and they say we’ve figured us this out. And then no one else really had an idea if that’s what they were looking at. And so it’s too late at that point as is already down, you know and almost approved at that point. And there’s no scrutiny beforehand about this company that has issues or this is not a great project we want. So there’s all those kinda issues with that as well.

Ted Streuli: So nearly $2 billion of public money goes to public projects that at least so far the public can’t know about. Is that a fair summary?

Paul Monies: That’s right. We know a tiny bit. They’ve gone through a little bit of the process so far with some of these funds on the broadband side and some of the health and kind of medical recruitment side, but that’s a tiny, tiny part of it so far.

A School Voucher Bill Gains Momentum in the Senate

Students in masks are seen in classrooms at Cristo Rey, a private Catholic high school in Oklahoma City. (Whitney Bryen)

Ted Streuli: In this segment of Long Story Short we’re talking to Jennifer Palmer, who covers education for Oklahoma Watch. Jennifer’s been following a Senate proposal to create a school voucher program and working on a story that will publish soon. Jennifer, what have you found out so far?

Jennifer Palmer

Jennifer Palmer: About a month ago I wrote in my Education Watch newsletter that Senate Bill 1647 was the bill I’d be watching most closely this session. That bill, like you said, would create universal school vouchers, meaning any child in the state who did not attend public school could be eligible for several thousand dollars to spend on educational expenses like private school tuition or homeschool supplies. There are a couple of reasons I’m watching this bill. It’s a leadership bill. It’s a priority of Gov. Stitt and the potential cost of the program is very high. That’s one thing I’ve really been trying to figure out is what would it cost if implemented as they’ve proposed? And there haven’t been many details on that yet.

Ted Streuli: Where is the bill at the moment in the process?

Jennifer Palmer: It narrowly passed the Senate Education Committee and on Wednesday of this week is on the agenda for the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it passes there, which is likely, it will move on to the full Senate.

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Ted Streuli: What kind of chance does it have?

Jennifer Palmer: I think its chances are pretty good in the Senate, but in the House much less so. House Speaker Charles McCall has come out and said he won’t hear the bill. He said he has no interest in it. And he’s questioned the benefits for students in rural communities like Atoka where he’s from. Bbut he’s got a lot of pressure on him right now. There are some deep-pocketed groups that support spending public funds on private schools and the Club For Growth is one. It’s a DC-based group and they’ve spent $25,000 on TV ads criticizing his decision.

Ted Streuli: So could public schools end up losing funding if this bill were to pass?

Jennifer Palmer: Absolutely they could. The main thing is if we’re adding more students to the total number that we’re funding, but not adding extra funds on top of that it would dilute the total per-student amount that the state provides and that could impact every school, even if no students leave to take a voucher.

Ted Streuli: You mentioned a Club for Growth in Washington, D.C., that’s putting money behind this bill to support it. Who else is supporting the plan and what’s their rationale?

Jennifer Palmer: Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs is a right-leaning think tank. They’ve been one of the most vocal proponents. They say public schools need competition for dollars to improve. And they also say low-income families should be able to afford private school tuition, just like wealthier families. There are a couple of other national groups Excel in Ed, which is Jeb Bush’s organization in Florida has come out in support of it. And then, of course, Gov. Stitt, who mentioned this bill in his State of the State and has said it’s a priority.

Ted Streuli: Who’s on the other side of the fence? Who’s against it?

Jennifer Palmer: Unsurprisingly, some public school superintendents have come out in opposition. There are some advocacy groups too, like the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. And then one of the most prominent conservative homeschool groups has actually come out against it — Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment.

Ted Streuli: Are other states doing something similar at the moment?

Jennifer Palmer: There are several states, Utah, Georgia, Iowa, that are considering voucher proposals this year. There are a couple of states like Arizona that already have a similar program that’s not available to all students and they’ve been trying to expand it.

Ted Streuli: This is not a new idea, right? This has been around for decades and decades. What’s different about this bill?

Jennifer Palmer: A big thing that’s really different about this bill is there are no income limits. There are no requirements that the student has to have special needs or be from a failing school or a low-income school or anything like that. It would just be wide open to any student in the state. They don’t even have to have previously attended public school. Many of these programs start as kind of an escape route. You’ve been to a public school, you tried that and it’s not working. Then you can apply for the voucher, but this particular proposal doesn’t even have that. All students that are currently in private school or homeschool would be eligible right off the bat.

Ted Streuli: So really it’s “Here’s your money. Go spend it wherever you want public school, private school, whatever. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you go.”

Jennifer Palmer: I think they would set it up in a way there that there would be approved vendors where you could spend your money. And there would probably be, similar to like the Digital Wallet program that we had during the pandemic with the pandemic relief funds, there’s a platform where parents can go and spend their money. It’s not cutting them a check. It’s more like a digital account where they can see their balance and spend it on approved vendors.


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