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Paul Monies / Oklahoma Watch

A reported cash crisis at the Oklahoma State Department of Health that led to job cuts and an emergency injection of $30 million was more of a mirage than the real thing, a months-long grand jury investigation and audit found in separate reports released Thursday.

The state’s multicounty grand jury didn’t hand up any criminal indictments, but it did fault former top officials at the health department for creating a “slush fund” to pay for pet projects and years of financial mismanagement.

With Health Department News, Waves Of Disbelief Roll Across State

May 18, 2018
Oklahoma Watch

Justin Forney worked for the state Department of Health for 12 years as a public information officer, stationed in several county health departments, including Logan County.

Then, in the wake of a financial crisis that shook the department, Forney lost his job in March – the result of cuts of nearly 200 health department positions.

Forney is still unemployed. And on Thursday, as the news rolled out statewide that a grand jury had found the agency’s reported cash shortfall never happened, he felt a sense of shock.

Oklahoma State Senate

As a convicted felon on a suspended sentence, former state Rep. Gus Blackwell can’t vote. But he can still lobby his former colleagues in the Legislature.

Blackwell, who left office in 2014 and became a registered lobbyist, was convicted in 2017 of “double-dipping” on his per diem and travel claims when he was a legislator. He remained a lobbyist and still can be seen in the Capitol corridors pressing the interests of his client.

Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Claire Donnelly / KGOU

A small group of unelected citizens, all appointed by Republican state leaders, will soon be exercising significant powers to decide how the state’s top agencies spend their funding and which services they should provide.

Legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin added $2 million to the state budget this year to pay for state agency audits to be conducted by a private firm and overseen by a commission of Oklahoma business leaders.

Breaking Down The Impact Of The 2018 Legislative Session

May 8, 2018
Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

The curtain fell Thursday night on the 2018 session of the Oklahoma Legislature, leaving indelible memories of chanting crowds and heated rhetoric.

This spring’s session – as well as the concurrent special session that carried over from last year – was dominated by the teacher walkout and the intense debate over tax increases to pay for teacher raises and to boost public education funding.

But lawmakers’ actions went well beyond those critical issues.

Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Legislature adjourned onThursday night, ending its yearly session three weeks before the constitutional deadline on May 25.  

After two special sessions left over from last year’s budget woes, a teacher protest that lasted almost two weeks and more than a year of struggling to find funds for state services, lawmakers passed a $7.6 billion dollar state budget in April, the largest in state history.  Here’s a few more of state lawmakers’ accomplishments this year.

 

Teacher Pay Raise:

Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Legislature gave final approval on four criminal justice reform bills and sent them to the governor Tuesday. Here’s a breakdown of the measures and what they’re designed to do:

Mike Stewart / AP Images

Killing another person can have legal consequences even when the shooter says it was self-defense.

The state Legislature is moving to guard Oklahomans in places of worship from prosecution if they use deadly force to defend themselves during religious services.

The Senate on Thursday followed the House in passing House Bill 2632, which extends protections provided under the state’s "stand your ground law to places of worship.

Trevor Brown / Oklahoma Watch

For the fifth time since Oklahoma teachers left their classrooms, House Republicans refused to hear a bill that would end a lucrative tax break for high earners and potentially bring an end to the one-week-old teacher walkout.

Eliminating the capital gains tax deduction – something that largely benefits the wealthy – would free up $100 million or more a year that could be used for education and to shore up the state budget. A state-commissioned consulting group last year recommended the tax break be repealed.

Trevor Brown / Oklahoma Watch

A controversial proposal to end a tax break that benefits fewer than 18,000 Oklahomans – the vast majority of whom make upwards of $200,000 – is at the center of the debate over how lawmakers can find more money for education and potentially end the teacher walkout.

Teachers, education advocates and House Democrats have launched a renewed push since the teacher work stoppage began on Monday for the Legislature to pass a bill that would eliminate the state’s capital gains deduction.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Boosting teacher pay by an average of $6,000—which the Legislature approved last week—wasn’t enough to put the brakes on a massive shut-down of schools to rally at the state Capitol. An estimated 30,000 people attended Monday’s rally, and many school districts are closed again Tuesday so the walkout can continue.

Jeff Raymond / Oklahoma Watch

Lawmakers are right back where they started after a much-anticipated vote to pass one of the largest tax increases in state history fell short in the state House.

Despite business luminaries and hundreds of educators filling the Capitol in support of the Step Up Oklahoma Plan, the revenue-raising proposal only received 63 votes, which was 13 votes shy of passing the constitutionally required three-fourths threshold for revenue-raising bills.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin delivered her final State of the State address at the Oklahoma Capitol on Feb. 6, 2018.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

FULL TRANSCRIPT: 

Gov. Mary Fallin: Thank you very much. Lieutenant Gov. Lamb, statewide elected officials, Speaker [Charles] McCall, President Pro Tem Mike Schulz, members of the court, honorable senators and representatives, cabinet members, statewide elected officials, and our tribal leaders that have joined us here today, and most of all, the great citizens of Oklahoma – welcome. It’s good-- to have you all here.

Oklahoma Watch

Documents released Friday by the state Department of Health include a summary of alleged deceptions within the agency that include fraudulent budget reports to state finance officials and omissions in reporting the agency’s financial position to the Legislature and the State Board of Health.

Oklahoma Watch

The cash crisis at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which was years in the making, raises questions about which agencies and state officials could have caught the agency’s reported financial mismanagement.

At first glance, state government appears to have the powers and expertise to detect  financial irregularities occurring at the health department from 2011 to 2017.