http://www.cherokeephoenix.orgOklahoma Watch is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. COURTESY
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. COURTESY

Largest state budget falls short of restoring years of cuts

BY TREVOR BROWN
Oklahoma Watch
05/08/2018 04:30 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY – Lawmakers have passed the largest state budget in Oklahoma history. But that doesn’t mean state agencies have recovered from years of cost-cutting.

The House of Representatives voted 63-31 April 27 to approve the $7.5 billion appropriations bill that will be $724 million – or 10.9 percent – more than the state’s current fiscal year budget.

The bulk of the new funds will be used to boost salaries for teachers, school support staff and state employees. And millions of additional dollars will go into the school funding formula and targeted initiatives for criminal justice, social services and other programs.

GOP legislative leaders celebrated the passage of the measure that now will go to Gov. Mary Fallin for her consideration. They acknowledged it wasn’t perfect but hailed it as an achievement – the first time in years that the state budget wasn’t cut.

But an Oklahoma Watch analysis shows the budget will ultimately do little to reverse years of reductions to education, health care, public safety and other state agencies.

About two-thirds of the 63 agencies getting a funding boost this year are receiving extra money strictly to fund employee pay raises as a result of legislation that passed this year.

More than half of the state’s larger departments will still receive less this year than they did in 2009 – the last year before revenues began to drop as a result of a nationwide recession followed by a downturn in the oil industry. Lawmakers largely responded by cutting budget and using one-time savings.

The difference between the state agencies’ 2009 and 2019 budgets is even more striking when the numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Just to keep up with the inflation rate, the Legislature would have needed to pass an $8.1 billion budget – nearly half a billion dollars more than what was approved for the 2019 budget.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kim David, R-Wagoner, called the 2019 budget a “fantastic beginning” that is “just the first step” toward pouring more money into education, health and other key services.

Others cautioned against applauding the 2019 budget, saying the proposal falls far short of undoing the damage from years of reduced or stagnant budgets.

“After a decade of failed tax cuts led to multiple revenue failures and devastating budget cuts, there is still much work to be done to repair the damage,” said Minority Leader Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman. “Instead of celebrating that the proposed budget avoids agency cuts, we should take the time to negotiate revenue measures that will allow us to really invest in education, health care, core services and infrastructure.”

Who’s Getting What

Public schools are among the biggest winners in this year’s budget, with the Department of Education receiving an increase of $480 million, or nearly 20 percent, over the current $2.4 billion budget, which was cut halfway through the fiscal year.

Common-education increases include $365 million for the teacher raise package, $52 million for support staff raises, $33 million for textbooks and $17 million to be added to the funding formula.
Budget increases for other state agencies include:

• $24.6 million for the Department of Human Services for foster care, elder care and developmental disability services, including beginning to address the years-long waiting list for such services.

• $11 million for criminal justice reforms.

• $2 million to the Legislative Service Bureau for agency performance audits.

• $4.8 million for the Department of Corrections to implement an electronic offender-management system.

• $4 million to the Office of Emergency Management for disaster relief.

• $400,000 to the Department of Agriculture for rural firefighters.

Much of the rest of the new money goes toward state employee pay raises totaling $54 million that the Legislature approved. That money, spread out among agencies’ budgets, accounts for all or most of the funding increases most agencies will see.

That leaves little or no money to restore the years of budget cuts lawmakers have approved due to the numerous budget shortfalls or mid-year revenue failures seen over the past decade.

The State Regents for Higher Education, for example, received a $7.8 million increase compared to their current funding. This represents only a 1 percent increase over the past year and barely makes a dent in more than quarter-billion dollars cut over the decade.

Chancellor Glen D. Johnson said the regents are thankful to Fallin and the Legislature for the increase, as well as an extra $7.5 million that will go toward concurrent enrollment. But he said in a statement Thursday that he will continue to stress the importance of higher education funding.
“Data clearly show that states with a high percentage of college degree holders have higher per capita incomes and stronger economies,” he said. “We will continue to make the case that there is no better investment to ensure a brighter future for Oklahoma than the investment our policy leaders can make in higher education.”

Other agencies that have seen a drop in state funding since 2009 include:

• Department of Transportation (decrease of $41.8 million, or 20.1 percent).

• Office of Juvenile Affairs (decrease of $19.5 million, or 17.3 percent)

• Department of Health (decrease of $20 million, or 26.9 percent)

• Department of Veterans Affairs (decrease of $7.9 million, or 19.7 percent)

• Department of Environmental Quality (decrease of $3.2 million, or 33.2 percent)

• District Attorneys Council (decrease of $6.7 million, or 15.8 percent)

Joe Dorman, a former Democratic state lawmaker, 2014 gubernatorial candidate and current head of the nonprofit Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said it is a relief that many of the agencies his group works with won’t be cut again. But in light of the decades of budget cuts, this budget shouldn’t be celebrated, he said.

“I’m happy we’re seeing a little boost, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “After seeing multiple years of financial crises, it is going to be some time before we get a lot of these agencies to be fully funded so they can perform their mission.”

Oklahoma’s growing population is also putting pressure on state coffers.

Census Bureau estimates show Oklahoma has gained about 213,000 people over the past decade. This often translates into more duties for many of the state’s safety-net programs.

“Child welfare services is a perfect example,” Dorman said. “It’s great that our state employees are getting a boost in their salary, but we also need money to hire more employees as their caseloads go up.”

Money Only Goes So Far

When adjusted for inflation, only four of the state’s larger agencies will be getting a higher appropriation than they did in 2009.

Funding needs persist even for these departments.

The Education Department’s proposed budget of $2.9 billion is $40 million over 2009’s inflation-adjusted amount.

But as the two-week teacher walkout showed, many educators don’t think that is enough. This is partly because since 2009, student enrollment statewide has increased by about 40,000.

Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services, Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have also seen their budgets increase during this period even when adjusted for inflation.

But these three agencies have been hit with a mixture of increased demand, federal funding constraints and mandated costs, such as the Health Care Authority’s having to assume a greater portion of the cost to train doctors.

The agencies also have experienced cuts in recent years.

The new budget for the mental health department still remains below its peak funding level despite getting a nearly $12 million funding bump this year.

“This doesn’t even get us back to your 2016 funding levels,” said Wendi Fralick, chief administrative officer with the Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “And this is not enough because we weren’t even meeting our needs with that funding.”

Fralick acknowledged that avoiding another round of budget cuts was good news because she doesn’t think the system could “manage” with fewer funds. But, she said, she hopes lawmakers won’t be content to simply avoid additional cuts in future budgets.

“I don’t want this to be just seen as a Band-Aid to keep advocates pacified,” she said. “We want them to come back with more funding.”

News

BY TRAVIS SNELL
Assistant Editor – @cp_tsnell
05/24/2018 04:00 PM
RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. – A video by a 20-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen has gone viral after a security guard took his tribal identification card on May 6 at Marymount California University. Nicolas Rojas, an El Camino Community College student, said he went to MCU to study with a friend who attends the university when a security guard checking IDs took his CN photo ID card and became “hostile.” “He then told me I had to leave, yelled at me and threatened to have me arrested. He became very hostile with me, started harassing me and put his hands inside my car, during which I started to record him,” Rojas said. “He told me I had to leave, but he had taken my ID with him and refused to give it back until I left and parked at a different school nearby. The whole interrogation took over a half an hour and I had a project due that Monday. I just wanted to study with my friend, but instead was threatened to be arrested several times without reasoning.” The ID card the security guard took is a CN photo ID card that contains a tribal citizen’s photo and citizenship information one side and Cherokee blood quantum on the other. According to CN Communications, the cards are federally recognized. And TSA.gov states the cards are Transportation Security Administration-approved for domestic travel. Rojas said he’s used his CN ID card to apply for jobs, board domestic flights and at banks to withdraw money. He added that the security guard spoke unprofessionally to him and refused to give back the ID. “I want this…to bring awareness about the issues indigenous people of North America face and the constant humiliation we have to endure by just existing,” Rojas said. “Campuses should be places of sanctuary for all attempting to further themselves through education. I don’t understand why he held onto my ID considering that he already at that point had told me that I would not be allowed to enter the campus. He took my ID with him as he was threatening to have me arrested.” Rojas said he eventually got his ID back from the security guard after his friend, who is a resident advisor at MCU, showed and asked the guard for the ID back. “I find it pitiful that I have to have a communicator within a place of power just to get my ID back,” he said. Rojas said he contacted university officials about the incident who told him they needed to fully investigate the incident from both perspectives. He said officials said if they found the guard liable then they would retrain him. “Ideally I would want campus-wide diversity talks, and all guards to have a day of retraining. I personally feel that many institutions are not a welcoming places for minorities, and this demonstrates the hostility many of us face just trying to even enter a campus,” Rojas said. According to the AJ+ video of the incident, MCU President Brian Marcotte said he watched the video and was “confident there was no discrimination” and that “it didn’t seem threatening.” According to the video, the school said it would train security on different IDs. To view the video, visit <a href="https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/1197973477010824/" target="_blank">https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/1197973477010824/</a>.
BY WILL CHAVEZ
Assistant Editor – @cp_wchavez
05/24/2018 10:00 AM
WASHINGTON – U.S. Health and Human Services officials want states to settle the question of whether citizens of Native American tribes should get jobs to keep their health care after the Donald Trump administration said in April that tribes are a race rather than separate governments. The administration contends that by classifying Natives as a race rather than organized tribal governments, they would not be exempt from Medicaid work rules. This new challenge to tribal sovereignty has sparked by an unusual split between the HHS’ politically appointed administrators and legal counsel, according to an article by Politico.com. This issue has also raised concerns in Congress and alarmed tribes that say it reverses centuries of protections enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court. “This decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is troubling and undermines longstanding policy and law that recognize tribes as sovereign governments, not racial classifications,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “This understanding is the very basis of the laws that apply uniquely to tribes and that have been upheld by the courts time and time again. HHS is demonstrating a breathtaking lack of understanding of this fundamental and bedrock concept in Indian law. I intend to object directly to agency officials at the next HHS tribal advisory committee meeting in May. HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the agency’s former general counsel, has told tribal leaders that state Medicaid administrators will be able to work with tribal governments on designing any employment requirements. Tribes had requested to be exempted from new Medicaid work rules being introduced in several states, citing sovereign status. But the Trump administration rejected the request, saying in January it amounted to an illegal racial preference. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed said his tribe’s citizenship differentiates tribal people and tribal governments from other racial minorities. “As principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I am a leader and a citizen of a sovereign tribal nation,” he said. “The Eastern Band – like other Indian tribes – sets its own laws that define the standards for being an Eastern Band Cherokee. This citizenship – we also say membership or enrollment in a tribal sovereign – separates tribal people and tribal governments from others who may be racial minorities.” Sneed added that the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed this status in 1974 in Morton v. Mancari, a case about the constitutionality under the Fifth Amendment of hiring preferences given to Indians within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Supreme Court held that the hiring preferences established by the U.S. Congress “were not violative” of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. “Indians” under federal law are citizens of Indian tribes, not persons of a racial minority as recognized in the U.S. Constitution,” Sneed said. CN citizen Mary Smith, who was acting head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration, said the United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans. “It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world,” she said. “They’ve paid through land and massacres, and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?” Native Americans’ unemployment rate of 12 percent in 2016 was nearly three times the U.S. average, partly because jobs are scarce on reservations. Low federal spending on the IHS has also left tribes dependent on Medicaid to fill coverage gaps. “Work requirements will be devastating,” Smith said. “I don’t know how you would implement it. There are not jobs to be had on the reservation.” Republican Congressman Tom Cole, who is a Chickasaw Nation citizen and the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that holds the purse strings for HHS and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, has warned the HHS to reverse course. “I am concerned that both HHS and CMS are unwittingly about to kick off what may be decades of expensive and needless litigation with tribes and other parties,” Cole wrote as part of a legal memo prepared by the Chickasaw Nation. “There’s no way I’m ever going to support something that describes tribes as racial groups and not sovereign governments," Cole said to Politico. “If Republicans (with tribal expertise) don’t push back hard…I think HHS will stumble into a big fight that they don’t need.”
BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
05/21/2018 02:00 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. Supreme Court will hear Oklahoma’s plea to reinstate the murder conviction and death sentence of an American Indian. The justices on May 21 said they would review an appellate ruling that overturned the conviction and sentence of Patrick Dwayne Murphy. He claimed he should have been tried in federal, not state, court because he is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the crime occurred in Indian territory. The federal appeals court in Denver determined that the victim’s body was found within the tribe’s historical boundaries that take in several Oklahoma counties, and include much of the city of Tulsa. The court said the MCN reservation existed before Oklahoma achieved statehood and was never formally deprived of its official status, or disestablished, by Congress. The Trump administration, in a rare uninvited Supreme Court filing, said in support of Oklahoma’s appeal that the issue has “wide-ranging and serious implications for law enforcement.” In Tulsa, with a population of 950,000 people, and eight counties in eastern Oklahoma, most crimes by or against Indians would have to be prosecuted in federal courts if the appellate ruling is upheld, the administration said. The vast majority of crimes are handled by local and state authorities. In 2017, federal prosecutors in the region brought just three indictments for serious crimes because they involved Indian Country, the administration said. That number could increase to more than 500 indictments a year, the administration estimated. A jury in McIntosh County, about 80 miles southeast of Tulsa, found Murphy guilty of the 1999 murder of George Jacobs and a judge sentenced him to death. Prosecutors said he had confessed to killing Jacobs when he was arrested. Lawyers for Murphy had urged the justices to leave the appellate ruling undisturbed. They argued that the appeals court correctly applied Supreme Court precedents dealing with the disestablishment of Indian reservations. They also said the claims of mass disruption of the criminal justice system were overstated. The case, Royal v. Murphy, 17-1107, will be argued in the fall. Justice Neil Gorsuch is not taking part in the court’s review because he dealt with the case while a member of the appeals court.
BY STAFF REPORTS
05/21/2018 08:15 AM
STILWELL – The 71st annual Stilwell Strawberry Festival was held May 11-12, and a strong Cherokee presence could be seen in one of the longest running festivals in Oklahoma. Attractions included a parade, carnival, 5K and fun run, car show, vendor booths, live music, food and strawberries. One of the two Cherokee strawberry growers, Dylan Collyge, attended the festival even though he was unable to sell his berries or enter them in the competition this year. “My berries got hit by a late frost in April and set me back about a month,” he said. Other strawberry farmers did well with their berries and sold them from booths or from their vehicles. Visitors could be seen carrying purchased flats of strawberries around town. The Cherokee Phoenix was at the festival and produced the following video of highlights.
BY TRAVIS SNELL
Assistant Editor – @cp_tsnell
05/18/2018 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation citizens living outside the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction are eligible for free one-year subscriptions of the Cherokee Phoenix thanks to a $10,000 disbursement from the principal chief’s office on behalf of At-Large Tribal Councilors Mary Baker Shaw and Wanda Hatfield. The Cherokee Phoenix recently received the funds and is taking names on a first-come, first-served basis until the money is depleted. “These funds that have been provided to the Cherokee Phoenix by the joint efforts of our tribal administration and our At-Large (Tribal) Councilors Mary Baker Shaw and Wanda Hatfield will go a long way in providing subscriptions to at-large citizens,” Executive Editor Brandon Scott said. “It has always been our goal here at the Phoenix to make sure that every citizen that wants a copy of the Cherokee Phoenix is able to get one. That is the sole reason we exist. Our success depends on our subscribers. Our ability to remain independent relies solely on the funds we receive from subscriptions, so these funds are not only assisting at-large citizens they are also assisting us in remaining independent. I’d personally like to thank Councilors Baker and Shaw as well as the administration for making this donation possible.” Scott added that there are no restrictions on receiving a free subscription other than living outside the CN jurisdiction and being a CN citizen. Using the fund, at-large CN citizens can apply to receive a free one-year subscription by visiting, calling or writing the Cherokee Phoenix office and requesting a subscription. The Cherokee Phoenix office is located in the Annex Building on the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex. The postal address is Cherokee Phoenix, P.O. Box 948, Tahlequah, OK 74465. To call about the fund, call 918-207-4975 or email <a href="mailto: justin-smith@cherokee.org">justin-smith@cherokee.org</a>. The Cherokee Phoenix also has a free website, <a href="http://www.cherokeephoenix.org" target="_blank">www.cherokeephoenix.org</a>, that posts news seven days a week about the Cherokee government, people, history and events of interest. The monthly newspaper is also posted in PDF format to the website at the beginning of each month. Cherokee Nation Businesses in November donated $10,000 to the Cherokee Phoenix’s Elder/Veteran Fund, which provides free subscriptions of its monthly newspaper to elders and/or military veterans who are CN citizens. No income guidelines have been specified for the Cherokee Phoenix Elder/Veteran Fund, and free subscriptions will be given as long as funds last. Tax-deductible donations for the fund can also be sent to the Cherokee Phoenix by check or money order specifying the donation for the Cherokee Phoenix Elder/Veteran Fund. Cash is also accepted at the Cherokee Phoenix offices and local events where Cherokee Phoenix staff members are accepting Elder/Veteran Fund donations. Those who donate can also have entries submitted for them into the Cherokee Phoenix’s quarterly artist giveaway. For every $10 donated or spent on Cherokee Phoenix merchandise, a person gets one entry into the quarterly drawing. The next drawing is July 2 when it gives away a two-piece, 12-foot fishing rod donated by Larry Fulton of Larry’s Bait and Tackle in Fort Gibson.
BY STAFF REPORTS
05/16/2018 04:00 PM
VINITA – Eleven Cherokee families received keys to their new homes on May 11 after participating in the Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation’s New Home Construction Program. The 1,350-square-foot brick homes on Miller Street each feature a garage, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. According to Cherokee Nation Communications, $1.1 million was invested into the homes and infrastructure and will provide an estimated $28,000 in impact aid to local schools. CN citizen Candle Melton and her family received one of the new homes. The family of three had lived with her mother, and she said the home is a blessing. “We are so excited to have a brand new house to call our own. This would not have been possible without Cherokee Nation and the New Home Construction Program,” Melton said. “I am definitely proud to be Cherokee and cannot thank Cherokee Nation enough for their investments in our communities and for this wonderful opportunity to become the homeowners of a brand new home.” Principal Chief Bill John Baker implemented the program in 2012. The Vinita home recipients were selected from the HACN’s waiting list of applicants who do not own land. “Helping Cherokees improve their lives by establishing homeownership is creating stronger communities and healthier families in northeast Oklahoma,” Baker said. “We took these acres in Vinita and converted them into a desirable neighborhood of almost a dozen houses. Building safe and secure homes that are affordable for our citizens has established Cherokee Nation’s New Home Construction Program as the unparalleled model of excellence for Indian Country.” Chief of Staff and Vinita native Chuck Hoskin said the homes were the latest in decades of improvements to the area by CN. “In more than 25 years of serving the Cherokee people, I’ve witnessed much progress for this community. These new homes will have a lasting, positive impact,” Hoskin said. The HACN recently received a grant from Bank2 for the home program, which allows the HACN to keep the home recipients’ monthly payment at $350. Schools in the area also benefit from the homes because they receive $2,800 in federal impact aid for each enrolled student who resides in the homes. “The new Miller Street Housing Addition is a major boon for the town of Vinita,” Tribal Councilor Victoria Vazquez said. “Not only does it help citizens achieve homeownership, it’s also going to bring much-needed revenue to the school system through impact aid dollars.” Along with the homes, the CN also invested more than $100,000 in infrastructure development on Miller Street and within the housing addition. In addition to the 660 homes built through the program, the HACN has nearly 100 more homes under construction in the tribe’s jurisdiction. For more information, visit <a href="http://www.hacn.org" target="_blank">www.hacn.org</a>.