Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – At the state Capitol of the Sooner State, considered by many “the reddest of the Red States,” when the Legislature is in session you can see in the halls a small bespectacled fellow touting an agenda which could be described as “blue” – although he might deem it more like purple.
The color allusions refer, of course to the divide in American policy discourse between liberals or progressives, on the one hand, and conservatives on the other.
The fellow is David Blatt of Tulsa, the man is in charge of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, AKA “OK Policy.” In 2012, writer Janet Pearson of The Tulsa World described Blatt’s group as “The little think tank that could.”
Blatt, executive director of the progressive public policy organization, describes OK Policy’s central missions this way: “to provide credible, data-driven and independent information on major state policy issues. We are guided by a pair of core commitments: to the fair and adequate funding of public services, and to the expansion of economic opportunity and financial security for all Oklahomans.
“Our motto is: Better Information, Better Policy. We hope that if we can provide better information to decision-makers and the public, the result will be better policy. Sometimes we think we succeed, sometimes we don't.”
While it seems logical to describe the group with the foregoing color coding -- as falling on the leftward end of the policy spectrum in the Sooner State -- Blatt and his colleagues are not entirely predictable.
Notably, in 2010, Ok Policy argued against the wisdom of State Question 744, a teacher-union sponsored initiative that would have – Blatt’s group contended – mandated around $1.7 billion in increased funding exclusively for common education. Their nuanced stand in that fight (ultimately the measure was overwhelmingly rejected by voters) purchased credibility for the left-leaning institute.
Other key staff for OK Policy include policy analyst Gene Perry and Assets Network project coordinator Kate Richey. Damario Solomon-Simmons is a recent hire as Legislative Liaison.
Shiloah Kantz holds down the form as office manager in Tulsa, with Kara Joy McKee as outreach specialist. After beginning as an intern, Carly Putnam is now the group’s policy analyst.
In an interview, asked what brought him into public policy work, Blatt (originally a Canadian) told The City Sentinel, “I moved to Oklahoma after completing a doctorate degree in political science when my wife took a teaching job at OSU. At the time, I was pretty sure I didn't want to pursue an academic career but had no idea what I else I might do.
“I sent a resume to the Legislature and it happened to end up on the desk of Tom Walls, another recovering academic who had just been hired to lead the Senate Fiscal Staff. He was looking to hire a fiscal policy analyst for health care agencies and seemed not to care that I knew little or nothing about Oklahoma, fiscal analysis or health care.
“After a great three year immersion in the legislative arena, I moved to Tulsa to become public policy director for Community Action Project, and ultimately we spun off the work into OK Policy.”
Looking back at the organization’s history, Blatt was asked to share two or three areas where OK Policy has had the greatest impact. He told The City Sentinel, “Our proudest moment came in the battle against the effort to phase out Oklahoma's income tax in 2012. Everyone thought that large tax cuts were a done deal, given the support coming from Governor Fallin, legislative leaders, the Wall Street Journal and others.
“We led the fight to preserve the income tax through a campaign where we did everything from putting out a slew of issue briefs, blog posts and fact sheets, to organizing a statewide coalition of advocates, to hosting a forum for the state's top economists who tore down the faulty analysis driving tax cut repeal.
“Ultimately, our work contributed to the defeat of every tax cut proposal that session and helped bring about a major shift in the debate, where proponents today are struggling to approve much more modest tax cut proposals.”
Blatt concluded, “We've tended to have more success fighting off bad policy ideas that actually advancing positive changes. But we have been leading proponents of curbing unnecessary tax breaks, especially those given for horizontal oil and gas production that are now contributing to our chronic budget shortfalls and failure to provide adequate funding for education and other core services. We feel there is a good chance of a breakthrough on that issue within the next two years.”
Blatt and his colleagues just completed the 2014 Summer Policy Institute, A four-day program for undergraduate and graduate students. Some 59 student participants were chosen for evidence of academic training, diverse experiences and, OK Policy says, for showing “a clear interest in the study and practice of public policy.”
Readers can contact Blatt and his colleagues at Oklahoma Policy Institute, 907 S. Detroit, Suite 1005, Tulsa, OK 74120, telephone 918-794-3944, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Internet address is http://okpolicy.org/ .
NOTE: This is adapted and updated from a report that first appeared in the March 13 edition of The City Sentinel.