OKLAHOMA CITY – Eight decades of employment success for blind business owners could end if House Bill 2230 is approved. The proposed legislation jeopardizes a successful federal-state employment program that has given blind business owners a chance to operate their own food service-related businesses on government property since 1937.
In Oklahoma, the Business Enterprise Program is managed by the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services’ Visual Services division. The program is funded by four-to-one federal match for every state dollar and a portion of income returned by BEP owner/operators.
Tulsa county sheriffs have tried several times to take over jail commissary operations from successful blind business owners. They failed because state and federal law protects this program, which creates taxpayers and gets people who are blind off disability benefits and social services.
House Bill 2230, proposed by Tulsa state Representative Glen Mulready (R-District 68), would give Tulsa Sheriff Vic Regalado an exemption to current state law, enabling him to take over the business Michael Spencer and his wife Janet have worked 17 years to build.
Spencer, who played on two national championship teams, is a fighter who came to DRS Visual Services when glaucoma interrupted his previous career. He and 20 employees – four with disabilities – now sell everything from frozen burritos to socks, to 1,602 inmates.
He already pays Tulsa County 18% of his gross income under terms in the previous contract, which has not yet been renewed. Meanwhile, the county is more than $90,000 behind in reimbursing Spencer from funds in inmate accounts for goods purchased and services rendered.
Sheriff Regalado says Spencer does a good job. The inmates are happy too. The problem, Regalado says, is that he needs to reduce his own budget shortfall by taking profits generated by Spencer’s business.
A Tulsa World story filed on February 2 reported the Tulsa County jail is likely to need an additional $2 million from other current operations to make it through the current budget year, in addition to a $2.4 million contingency fund the jail expects to deplete, and a total of nearly $7.5 million transferred to jail accounts in the two previous budget years.