By Patrick B. McGuigan
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) is a leading free market think tank, and the state’s most influential research organization.
The latest sign of the group’s impact came at the recent national meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Dallas.
Jonathan Small, OCPA’s vice president for policy, was designated the Private Sector Member of the Year for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
A certified public accountant known for his critical analyses of state government spending practices, Small came to OCPA after service in state government. He worked for Commissioner of Insurance Kim Holland, a Democrat, and for legislative staff at the Capitol.
At the ALEC meeting in Dallas, businessman Steve Seal and state Rep. Linda Upmeyer of Iowa presented Small with the national recognition. Seal is national chairman of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council; Rep. Upmeyer is ALEC’s national chairman for 2014.
Guiding OCPA the last several years has been President Michael C. Carnuccio, who came to OCPA after stints at Oklahomans for Responsible Government, the state House legislative staff, and Saxum Communications.
In a spring interview with CapitolBeatOK, Carnuccio, who also has experience in Higher Education teaching, said, “I have a somewhat diverse background in academia, public relations and politics. That experience of educating students, businesses and lawmakers taught me there is a drastic lack of fact-based intellectual capital behind political decisions.
“Voters are bombarded with rhetoric and lawmakers are making decisions on policy with stagnant economic forecasts and limited, if any, understanding of the impact beyond election cycles. As a father, I want more than anything to provide my children with opportunity equal or better than what I have been blessed with growing up in this great state.”
With those motivations, Carnuccio said, “I was hungry to be part of empowering Oklahomans through a research-based vision for our future.”
In our exchange, “Nuch” – as friends and even some critics call him – summarized the course of OCPA’s historic and current impact. He said, “When we opened our doors 20 years ago, very few opinion leaders were talking about giving parents more educational options. But through our various publications and public forums, OCPA continued to demonstrate how parental choice could help children thrive.
“Our survey data demonstrate conclusively that Oklahoma parents want more choices. And now they’re starting to get some. Today, Oklahoma has state scholarships for special-needs students. We have tax-credit scholarships for low-income kids. And we’ve now started the debate on Education Savings Accounts.
“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing how education policy is changing lives in this state. Seeing parents say through tears that these scholarships have been a ‘lifesaver’ and a ‘godsend.’ I urge people to go to ocpathink.org/videos and watch our ‘Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Stories.’”
Carnuccio continued, “It was inaction that was the top achievement this year in Oklahoma. Gov. Mary Fallin’s resistance to expand Oklahoma’s reliance on a Medicaid system that is already unreliable and ultimately unsustainable is good news for Oklahoma families.
“In partnership with the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), we led the effort to uncover Obamacare. At town halls across the state and country, we discussed the implications of the Affordable Care Act, and why the Medicaid expansion will fail those it’s intended to help. Oklahoma can take a compassionate approach to health care by pursuing state-based solutions to make the existing Medicaid program more effective for those who need quality healthcare the most.”
Senior Vice President Brandon Dutcher has been with the organization since its creation in 1993. He holds degrees in political science, journalism and public policy from the University of Oklahoma, and is the author of hundreds of essays for national and state publications.
A former editor of the Bartlesville Times, Dutcher’s plaudits include a first-place prize from the Society of Professional Journalists for a commentary in which he honored the generosity of then-Gov. Brad Henry.
OCPA has slowly expanded its staff over the last few years. The best-known recent addition to the team is probably Trent England, who joined the group this year as vice president for Strategic Initiatives. He is guiding constitutional studies, and is national coordinator for the Liberty Foundation of America. He came to Oklahoma from the Freedom Foundation, and worked for many years at the Heritage Foundation in the nation’s capital.
Rounding out top staff is Karma Robinson, vice president for development since 2011. Her staff includes Jennie Kleese and Rachel Hays.
Now communications director for OCPA, Dacia D. Harris directed creation and design of the CapitolBeatOK in 2009-10, when the online news operation was founded. She worked previously as an online editor at The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, and its website, NewsOK.com. Harris’ assistant is Kelly Ferguson.
Clint Colbert rounds out the full-time staff as office manager, guiding daily operations for the organization.
OCPA, founded in 1993, is the brainchild of Dr. David Brown, perhaps the state’s best-known conservative activist and a long-time chairman of the board at the Heritage Foundation. His colleagues on OCPA’s board of directors features a who’s who of Oklahoma business and conservative leaders, including former state Attorney General G.T. Blankenship, former U.S. Attorney Bill Price, philanthropist Josephine Freede, banker Patrick Rooney, oil and gas legend Lew Ward and independent energy titan Ralph Harvey.
Despite the vagaries and unpredictability of public policy development and leadership, ’Nuch said he, like most Oklahomans, is “not shy about what makes our state the best place to live.”
OCPA’s vision, he says, is “to provide a better way for all Oklahoma families to live in a state of opportunity.”
NOTE: In a separate story, McGuigan previously analyzed the role of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the Sooner State’s leading liberal or progressive policy think tank.