Executive Editor Mike Sherman talks about the new democracy beat at Oklahoma Watch. Reporter Paul Monies discusses what is known — and what remains secret — about how Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Legislature will disburse $1.87 billion in federal relief funds. Reporter Keaton Ross shares the latest on proposed changes to criminal justice laws, and how the state could finally invest the savings from previous reforms. Executive Director Ted Streuli hosts.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Gauging the Health of Democracy in Oklahoma
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.
In this segment, I am talking to Oklahoma Watch’s Executive Editor Mike Sherman. And Mike, we’ve created a new democracy beat at Oklahoma Watch. Can you tell us about that?
Mike Sherman: That grew out of the pandemic. It was an opportunity to step back and think about what they were doing. Training that we used to have to get on an airplane to get came right to our desktops. This training was delivered by some folks called Trusting News. They’re interested in just that — rebuilding trust in the news across political spectrums. Our reporter Trevor Brown and I participated in training called Engaged Elections. Our interest in covering democracy coincided and converged with what was going on. Misinformation about the election, claims that it was rigged or stolen, the loss of access for some voters and some legislation making in its way through various states — including our own — to change the access for voters. So we got interested.
Ted Streuli: Democracy is not a common beat for news outlets in Oklahoma and it’s an unusual beat in general in the news business, isn’t it?
Mike Sherman: It is because most of the time when we cover politics and elections, the focus is on the candidates and the horse race — who’s going to win and who is winning — and not as much on the process, the act of the voter. This legislation that is coming across the country that’s related to voter access — that’s related to election security as it’s called — has taken the focus of the coverage and expanded it to the voter. We’ve seen some media outlets expand to democracy, but not as many. And it’s kind of cool to be a little bit on the cutting edge of it and with what Trevor’s done.
Ted Streuli: Trevor has been doing some reporting on legislation that addresses voting and elections this year, right? That’s certainly under that democracy umbrella. What can you tell us about that?
Mike Sherman: The latest relates to state questions. This really appeals to the populist roots of Oklahoma because the state is one of about 25 or 26 states has referendums and initiatives baked into its system. It’s been a part of the state going back to 1907 and its founding. There’s a bill that’s made its way out of committee in the House and is now going to be considered by the Senate that would and make it harder for citizen-led initiatives to get on the ballot. They would have to meet certain signature quotas in all 77 counties. A legislator said that his constituents were surprised by what was on the ballot, so they want to make sure that there is a statewide effort to draw signatures from all 77 counties. At the same time, you can think of what the cost involved given that Oklahoma only allows 90 days from the point that a petition is approved by the Election Commission to gather all those signatures. So that’s Trevor’s latest story on www.oklahomawatch.org.
“If I were an Oklahoma voter, I would ask what problem this is trying to solve.”
Ted Streuli: Now one of the things that Oklahoma Watch covered was the growing number of uncontested races in the legislature in recent years. Why is that something to watch?
Mike Sherman: The numbers were kind of shocking. We called it “Uncontested Oklahoma” and 60% of the legislative races — House and Senate — were decided before a vote was cast in November. That’s more than 2016 and 2018 combined. It’s a sign of the decay of the election process and choices for voters across the state. The root of the problem is the demise of the Democratic party as a statewide force. Democrats put up candidates in only 55 of the 126 races for the Legislature. We talk about Oklahoma as a top-10 state. Well, it made top-10 in that category. It had the fifth most uncontested races in the country. That is an alarming number. We’re going to be covering the filing period that’s next week — candidates filing for office — to determine how deep that goes, the number of uncontested races. It’s only one measure of the lack of competitiveness of races. We want to look at what’s going on in the primaries. Is there competition? It’s not a healthy democracy when you don’t have you don’t have healthy elections.
Oklahoma Received $18 Billion Worth of Requests For Relief Money, But From Whom? For What?
Ted Streuli: In this segment of Long Story Short I’m with reporter Paul Monies, who has been following the money at the Legislature with the latest round of federal pandemic relief under the American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA. Paul, what’s the latest on the state’s plans for the money?
Paul Monies: The Legislature has a joint House and Senate committee that evaluates some projects. They’ve been taking applications for ideas and projects since last October. The portal where you could apply (closed) March 31, last Thursday. They said they had gotten almost $18 billion in requests for funding across about 1,400 projects.
Ted Streuli: You said $18 billion with a “B” is what’s come in so far. And how much money is available?
Paul Monies: They have about $1.87 billion, so it’s about one-tenth the total requested.
Ted Streuli: Who has been among the biggest requesters of the money?
Paul Monies: They’ve (set) some priorities, including mental health and Health and Human Services, infrastructure like broadband and water projects. It was surprising to me the largest single requester was state agencies. They (requested) about $3.7 billion in projects.
Ted Streuli: You mentioned infrastructure projects. Anything else that the legislature has focused on so far with allocating the money?
Paul Monies: They’ve put some money into workforce development, especially in the health professions. They are about to send some money to community colleges and smaller regional universities for nursing training, which we saw during the pandemic was exposed as lacking manpower.
Ted Streuli: Do we know how the money for nursing programs might be spent? Would that create new programs? Would there be scholarship money available? How are we going to encourage more nurses?
Paul Monies: Different programs have different focuses. Some would just want equipment. Some want upgrades facilities. Some want money to retain and attract nursing professors. The Legislatures decided to fund part of those projects right now as the first chunk of money out the door.
Ted Streuli: We said only about 10% of the money requested will actually get funded. What about the projects or the ideas that aren’t going to make the cut?
Paul Monies: We don’t know exactly who has requested yet. We do know that under federal law they can’t spend the money on tax cuts, although that is being litigated in several federal courts. They also can’t spend the money on prisons or jails. And they can’t spend the money on sports stadiums or convention centers, which the federal government decided wasn’t really a necessary use for this type of recovery money.
Ted Streuli: We’ve talked about the disbursement of these funds before here on Long Story Short. We don’t know how all that money is going to be spent because there’s been a lot of secrecy surrounding the process. Is that still an issue?
Paul Monies: We know general categories, types of businesses. Nonprofits are there, small businesses, obviously state agencies, municipal and county governments are in the mix as well. But we’ve asked for for applications from the state and we’ve been denied under the Open Records Act. They’ve cited some part of the Purchasing Act to deny a request for those applications. They’re calling it temporarily confidential. They say once the Legislature and the governor approve the funding, obviously, then it will be a public document that you can inspect. But they don’t want anyone to see everything that’s being asked for right now because they’re treating the whole thing as one giant bid for federal money.
Ted Streuli: Why is that problematic?
Paul Monies: We don’t know exactly who’s asking for money, and we don’t know where the needs are. With 10 times the amount of the money that’s available being requested, there are a lot of people who believe there’s a lot of needs to be funded in the state.
Ted Streuli: And ultimately the governor has the power to decide which proposals get funded, doesn’t he?
Paul Monies: This time around, as opposed to the first Cares Act in 2020, the governor has an ultimate authority. He’s also talking a lot with the Legislature in this process. The Legislature’s got a joint committee that looks at these projects, smaller working committees. They evaluate different projects in different areas, but at the end of the day, it is still up to the governor.
Ted Streuli: So is there a problem if the public doesn’t know what requests have been turned in? Is there anything stopping the governor from funding pet projects — brother-in-law deals — without any pressure from the public to fund things that the public is interested in paying for?
Paul Monies: That’s part of the danger in keeping this a secret process. Once the Legislature sends it to the governor, it may be too late to raise questions or fully vet who’s asking for the money. And then they’ll say “We’ve got to spend this money by the end of 2026.” And the window is gone for vetting applications, so then it might be too late.
Ted Streuli: You mentioned the state has called these requests “temporarily confidential.” Are they saying that they will release all of the requests when the decisions have been made or only the ones they’re going to fund?
Paul Monies: That’s an interesting phrasing they’ve used to deny our records requests. They say once the projects are approved for funding those applications will be open, but they haven’t made any determination on the rest that may not have gotten funded.
Ted Streuli: So potentially the public would never know, with $18 billion in funding requests, who needed money. We’d only know the 10% that actually got money.
Paul Monies: Yes, and that $18 billion. Put that in perspective: That’s more than twice what the state appropriates in its annual budget.
Justice Reform Helped Oklahoma Save $10 Million Annually. Can It Save More Money and Lives?
Ted Streuli: In this segment of Long Story Short I’m with Keaton Ross, who covers criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. He’s been following two justice reform measures progressing in the Legislature. Keaton, you previously reported on a proposal to create different felony classifications in Oklahoma. Has that gained any traction?
Keaton Ross: It has. We’ve seen Senate Bill 1646 by Sen. David Rader pass through the Senate, and it’s now onto the House. That was a product partly of a council created through the Legislature of prosecutors, lawmakers, public defenders — those kinds of criminal justice stakeholders — that made recommendations to reclassify felony offenses. This bill takes on several of those recommendations but also deviates in a few areas.
Ted Streuli: How could that be helpful?
Keaton Ross: The way it currently works in Oklahoma, which is not how it works in most states, is that the Legislature codifies each crime and sets a sentencing range individually. Over time, they’ve been adding to this list of crimes and maybe not going back and changing the sentencing ranges very often. So I’s disorganized and justice reform advocates say it’s led to Oklahoma prisoners serving longer than those in other states because the sentencing ranges are so broad.
Ted Streuli: Is that bill facing any opposition?
Keaton Ross: It passed 35-12 in the Senate. Those who oppose it, who spoke on the Senate floor, say it’s too soft on some crimes. That could be going from currently three to 10 years for larceny and automobile theft on the first offense to zero to seven years. So it’s not a drastic change, but there is a change there. And the main opposition was that it’s going to embolden criminals to commit more crimes and cause our crime rate to go up. I also talked to Oklahoma County Public Defender, Bob Ravitz, who is on the council that issued the initial recommendations. H’s said he couldn’t support it because (the bill has) gone too far from the council’s recommendations, particularly in one area: proposing to change the amount of time you have to serve in prison for violent crime from 85% to 75% of your sentence. That’s not taken up in this bill, and he said he can understand lawmakers being hesitant to take on something that makes it look like they’re being soft on violent crime. But if we’re going to move the needle on incarceration, he told me that’s something we need to do.
Ted Streuli: If this gets through, when would it take effect?
Keaton Ross: July 1, 2022, so a pretty quick turnaround.
Ted Streuli: You’re also following a bill that would help fund local diversion and substance abuse treatment programs. Where’s that?
Keaton Ross: That’s House Bill 3294 by State Rep. Justin Humphrey that passed the House without objection and is now in the Senate. This was something lawmakers were supposed to do several years ago after State Question 781 passed in 2016, essentially saying if we’re going to incarcerate fewer people, let’s put the savings towards funding local diversion and treatment programs. But that’s never happened.
Ted Streuli: So are they just now getting around to considering that legislation?
Keaton Ross: Lawmakers say it’s been a challenge coming up with a funding formula to figure out how are we going to quantify the savings of incarcerating fewer people. Our prison population decreased by about 25% over the past five years. So there’s been an obvious savings and a couple of government groups finally got together last year and came up with a funding formula.
Ted Streuli: How much money are we talking about how much could be sent out to local programs?
Keaton Ross: When they calculated it in fiscal year 2020, there was an estimated $10.6 million in savings. That could fluctuate, but they are looking at about $10 million a year going towards these local justice systems.
Ted Streuli: Do we know precisely how those funds would be distributed?
Keaton Ross: Not yet. Rep. Humphrey said he’s planning to work on legislation that could modify the bill to specify how exactly those funds would be distributed.
Ted Streuli: Generally speaking, when we talk about diversion programs we mean things like drug court, mental health court, right?
Keaton Ross: Yes. As with State Question 780 reclassifying several crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, there’s been a greater burden or workload on local justice systems; people coming through the system, charged with misdemeanors instead of charged with felonies and going to prison. So this money is supposed to help them deal with the increased amount of people that are coming their way.