Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.

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Earlier this week, state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she was dropping the state’s writing test from the A-F grading equation for schools this year because the test and results were unreliable.

The test vendor wasn’t an issue, she said.

Verna Morales, left, and her daughter, Aliah Morales, sit in front of their old transitional apartment at Pearl’s Hope, a homeless shelter in Tulsa.  Aliah Morales has been homeless for three years and her mother has been homeless for six years. The two c
Nate Robson / Oklahoma Watch

A resilient economy and low unemployment have done little to stem the tide of students who are finding themselves homeless in Oklahoma.

Despite a five-year oil and gas boom and falling jobless rates, growing numbers of youths are finding themselves without a bedroom to call their own – a trend seen across the nation.

What Budget Drama’s End May Mean For Key State Services

May 23, 2015
State Reps. Elise Hall (far right) and Katie Henke (center) applaud as the state House adjourns sine die Friday afternoon.
M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

The 55th session of the Oklahoma Legislature adjourned for the year late Friday afternoon, quietly ending four months’ worth of fighting over money, morals and museums.

For most of the session, a shadow hung over everything: a $611 million budget hole. 

Lawmakers chose to adjourn the session a week early, just days after they wrapped up work on the state’s $7.2 billion budget.

The budget cut funding to career and technology education, higher education and transportation. At the same time, more funds were steered to mental health services, public safety and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Even with budget hikes, however, key agencies said they would likely have to cut spending.

In a move that surprised many, the Legislature approved a $25 million bond issue for the beleaguered American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City and a second $25 million bond issue for a museum of popular culture in Tulsa.

Lawmakers also debated issues such as same-sex marriage.

The shrinking pool of money available for appropriation quickly became the session’s central theme.

In February, after the Board of Equalization certified a funding estimate millions below the 2014 prediction, lawmakers went into damage-control mode. They warned agency heads little money would be available for next year.

“We’ve been telling them all session there would be cuts,” said Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, vice-chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

By May, agency directors were convinced.

Gov. Mary Fallin during her 2015 State of the State address Feb. 2
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

A little over two weeks before the constitutionally required deadline for Oklahoma lawmakers to wrap up the legislative session, Gov. Mary Fallin and leaders of the House and Senate announced a budget deal Tuesday afternoon.

The $7.1 billion budget is just over one percent less than the current fiscal year, and closes a $611 million shortfall by tapping the Rainy Day Fund, state agency revolving accounts, and the Unclaimed Property Fund.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman (R-Fairview) at Gov. Mary Fallin's State of the State address - February 3, 2014.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

State lawmakers unveiled a fiscal year 2016 budget Tuesday that would keep funding for common education flat but cut appropriations for colleges and universities by $24.1 million.

Oklahoma's common education system would receive $2.484 billion, the same amount it received in 2015. The state's CareerTech education system would see a 3.5 percent decrease in its budget, about $4.8 million.

A decade-old beating haunted Nikki Frazier while she served time in prison.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections

In her dorm at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, anxiety attacks used to waken Nikki Frazier in the middle of the night. For about an hour she would sit on her bed, shaking, sweaty and nauseous.

“It would feel like I was having a heart attack,” Frazier said. “It was just a big ball of weight in my chest, and it was so bad.”

Frazier could point to one source of her anxiety: In 2005, she got into a dispute with her then-husband, and he kicked her repeatedly in the face with steel-toed boots, for which he was later convicted. Six years later, a doctor cited the beating in diagnosing Frazier with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety and depression.

Serving a prison sentence for forging checks, Frazier suffered attacks for months until she was able to see a psychiatrist and get on a different medication. But she said she could never truly calm her anxiety until she was released in February. She gained control over her life and began receiving one-on-one counseling.

Frazier’s mental-health struggles reflect those of hundreds of women in Oklahoma prisons.

Oklahoma Women Suffer PTSD

Oklahoma Watch obtained detailed data on mental health diagnoses for men and women in prison from the state Department of Corrections and found dramatic differences in their conditions.

According to the data – a snapshot in late March – nearly 60 percent of female inmates show signs of mental illness, about twice the percentage of male inmates. A total of 3,104 women and 25,620 men were in the corrections system at the time.

Women also suffer disproportionately from depression – 64 percent versus 59 percent of men.

But the most striking difference occurs with trauma disorders. PTSD is the second most common mental illness among incarcerated women, with about one in five showing symptoms, or five times the rate for men.

State Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville
okhouse.gov

State lawmakers and Governor Mary Fallin's office continue to negotiate ways to address a $611.3 million budget gap, the chairman of the House Budget Committee said Friday.

State Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, said negotiators were close to finalizing a budget deal, but "several small issues" remained. "Right now work continues," Sears said. "There are a bunch of little moving targets."

Toni Pratt-Reid, the owner of three medical clinics, said she could be forced to close two of those clinics if the Oklahoma Health Care Authority reduces the rates it pays nurse practitioners.
M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

A top Oklahoma health official is warning that the budget crunch may force the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to cut payments to mid-level medical providers such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, which providers say could lead to the closing of rural clinics.

Facing a $611 million budget gap, state leaders say most agencies will see spending cuts, or at best, a flat budget. But even with a flat budget, Health Care Authority officials said, many low-income residents could see a reduction in health care access and services.

Budget documents released by the Authority indicate the agency is proposing more than $40 million in budget reductions for the 2016 fiscal year. Those cuts range from $2.9 million in administrative cuts to a $5.2 million, or 15 percent, reduction in reimbursement amounts paid to nurse practitioners, physician assistants, physical therapists and other mid-level providers.

Doctors could see reimbursement rate cuts of about 2 percent, lawmakers said.

The reductions would lower fee-for-service payments to 85 percent of the Authority’s physician fee schedule.

About 3,250 providers would be affected.

Serge Melki / Flickr

The House, Senate and the governor's office are said to be close to an agreement on the FY 2016 state budget, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said Monday.

State Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, said he hoped to have an agreement by Friday.

"We're not millions of dollars apart," Sears said. "The differences are small; a million here, a million there...There's still a lot more work to do."

Left-to-right: Oklahoma Watch executive editor David Fritze, attorney Michael Brooks-Jimenez, Oklahoma City school board member Gloria Torres, Oklahoma City coucilwoman Meg Salyer
Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Oklahoma Watch and the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication presented a public forum on April 16 about challenges in low-income neighborhoods in south Oklahoma City.

The Q&A forum with local leaders focused on the needs and concerns of south Oklahoma City communities and is tied to a mobile video news project, “Talk With Us: Poverty in Oklahoma City Neighborhoods.”

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