The House and Senate this week convened in joint session to honor the service of the Oklahoma National Guard and the 45th Infantry Division.
Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Michael C. Thompson praised the Guard for always being ready to answer the frequent calls to duty in Oklahoma, including assisting after tornadoes, fires, floods or other disasters. The Guard also serves overseas – in 10 countries since 2018 and currently in four.
Several members of the Guard spoke during Tuesday’s joint session, inspiring us with their stories of dedication and sacrifice. Gov. Stitt also praised members of the Guard for their willingness to serve and sacrifice time with their families and other careers and ultimately to be willing to lay down their lives in service to their state and nation. About 9,000 men and women currently make up the Oklahoma National Guard; 19 of those members lost their lives during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot say enough to express my appreciation for this ultimate sacrifice.
Also this week, we observed National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Last November, Oklahoma voters approved Marsy’s Law, which amended the Oklahoma Constitution to give crime victims the right to be notified throughout criminal justice proceedings. It also requires they receive information about services available to them and to be updated on an offender’s release from custody. Victims also have the right to be heard in plea or sentencing. House Bill 1102 would add many of the requirements of the state question into state statute to ensure the law is evenly administered across the state. In rural areas, district attorneys don’t have some of the same resources as urban areas; but in urban areas, courts are often stretched thin from the number of cases and affected victims. The bill will likely advance to conference committee so final language can be adopted.
Also this week, House Bill 2640, Francine’s Law, passed the Senate and can now be signed into law by the governor. The measure requires law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners to enter all missing and unidentified persons’ information into the national NamUs unidentified persons’ database, which provides free forensic services for families of missing persons to better help them find and identify their loved ones.
The legislation was named for Francine Frost who was abducted from a Tulsa grocery store in 1981. Her case was cold until 2014 when a grandson found information in the NamUs system that helped identify an unidentified person as his missing grandmother. Had this legislation been in place years earlier the family might have avoided an agonizing wait to learn the fate of their loved one.
On a fun side note, America Ninja Warrior was at the state Capitol this week filming for an upcoming episode. The group travels with about 150 regular employees and then employees about 100 local people plus local caterers in each city where they film. They rent local hotel rooms, eat in local restaurants and explore the cities they visit investing in the local economy. They average about 10 days in each city, so this is a nice boost. Maybe we can talk them into coming to our area in the future.
As always, I will keep you updated as the session progresses. Please feel free to reach out to me with your questions or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling my office (405) 557-7327.
Community members, leaders and partners have made progress to identify the unique needs in our community. A plan to meet those needs and serve young people involved in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system is currently being developed for youth and families in Stephens County and the immediate surrounding area. I am happy to see folks in the community joining in the effort and contributing to the development of this comprehensive plan. It allows us to come together and respond to the needs within our own community. Every member of our community has the opportunity to have a seat at the table to plan and respond to the challenges facing our young people and their families.
The Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) recently (March 12 and 13) held four community meetings in Stephens, Cotton and Jefferson counties to address the lack of juvenile prevention and diversion services since last year’s closing of Youth Services for Stephens County.
OJA allocates funds to designated youth service agencies to provide community-based services to youth and families. Jefferson, Stephens and Cotton counties are in need of these services. The meetings are a part of OJA’s Community Action with Targeted Solutions (CATS) project to develop a unique plan for serving youth involved or at-risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system in this area. It is important that all community stakeholders have a voice in naming needs, existing strengths and resources; and creating a plan to prevent delinquency and promote success for all youth in these tree southern counties.
I’ve been informed that great suggestions were heard from a variety of participants there and at other meetings held in Waurika and Walters.
Those attending the four meetings in these counties included judges, court staff, district attorneys, juvenile justice staff, elected officials, school representatives, young people, family members, and faith-based leaders. Discussions were held to identify the needs (risk factors) and existing resources. For every risk factor (substance abuse, poverty, inadequate supervision, negative peer groups), protective factors must be developed to insulate our youth and protect them. Protective factors such as caring adults, positive social activities, and community connectedness are vital to prevent delinquency and strengthening the overall community.
To ensure community needs are met, a comprehensive plan will be developed to target existing dollars to the areas of the community with the highest need.
Follow-up meetings are scheduled for:
These meetings are to help OJA formulate long-term, community-based service strategies. I strongly suggest residents plan to attend.
In the meantime, I urge you to have your voices heard by taking part in a survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/OKCATS.
Everyone in this area is welcome to participate. Answers will be anonymous and combined with all other answers. Results will be shared at the April 15 and 16 community meetings. Taking time to attend one of these meetings or just a few minutes to fill out this survey could go a long away to preventing juvenile delinquency and strengthening our community.
Two important House bills recently passed the Senate Appropriations committee. One will reimburse the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges (CIRB) fund, and the other expands the Pay for Success Act. If these gain the approval of the entire Senate they could be signed into law by the governor.
Last year the Legislature borrowed from the CIRB fund when we were dealing with budget shortfalls; it is time to pay back that money. Restoring CIRB funding is a big deal, particularly in rural Oklahoma where we have to drive longer distances than those in urban areas--often on roads needing greater repairs.
At one time, Oklahoma had 1,800 structurally deficient bridges, but lawmakers made transportation a funding priority and now that number is down to less than 200. Paying back the funds borrowed means our county transportation workers can continue bridge renovation while keeping other roads projects on track. When you see county transportation workers, thank them for their work.
The Pay for Success Act, meanwhile, would expand a program that allows private/public partnerships to help divert certain women from prison by treating them for substance abuse. We would rather them be treated, working and being reunited with their families, rather than in jail. Pay for Success is much less expensive than incarceration, and it is better for families and employers. The program has been immensely successful, changing the lives of the women involved as well as their families. This bill would broaden the act to be available to all state agencies, allowing them to contract with private entities to provide programs or services that achieve certifiable and beneficial results for state residents. The state would pay only if the desired results are achieved. The bill is a way to encourage innovation and benefit the state without risking state dollars on programs that may not work.
In other news this week, the state reached a $270 million settlement in its lawsuit against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma. Our state’s attorney general has promised nearly $200 million will go to the Oklahoma State University Center for Wellness and Recovery in Tulsa, which will create a national addiction center modeled after the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. About $17.5 million will go to counties and cities to help them deal with the opioid crisis. The state has other lawsuits pending against additional manufacturers, so there could be future settlements as well.
Serving as the House budget chairman over mental health and substance abuse, I welcome the Purdue Pharma settlement. Yet, I was disappointed by the lack of communication from the Attorney General's office to the Legislature about the terms of the settlement and essentially bypassing the Legislature's appropriation process. In my opinion (I do not speak for the Legislature on this matter), the settlement belongs to you and those affected by addiction. Don't get me wrong; I believe a national addiction research center is needed. However, I will be fighting to ensure future opioid settlements are negotiated to benefit the entire state, not merely the northeast corner of it.
As always, I will keep you updated as the session progresses. Please feel free to reach out to me with your questions or concerns email@example.com, or by calling my office (405) 557-7327.
Thursday was what is called the "third-reading deadline." It is a deadline for all bills to pass out of their legislative chamber of origin in order to stay alive this session. The House finished its work just before noon Thursday after working many late nights for the past few weeks. In total, we passed 360 bills and resolutions over to the state Senate. We passed 167 this week alone. This is from a total of 1,754 bills and resolutions filed at the beginning of the session. I was able to pass 12 bills before the deadline.
Things went much more smoothly on the floor of the House this year than in my previous two years as a state representative. There was truly a spirit of bipartisanship. Many freshman lawmakers were able to pass pieces of legislation. We cheered for each freshman as their first bills were passed. This is a tradition in the House. Of course, there were a few topics that drew some ire, heated questioning and debate, but there was so much less animosity than in the past legislative session. We are disagreeing better.
Next week the workload will be lighter than normal; it is Spring Break week for many school districts in the state. Lawmakers will take a few days to spend with their families and get refreshed before coming back to the Capitol to finish the remainder of the session.
The next step in the legislative process is for the House to receive Senate bills they passed and the Senate to receive House bills we just passed. These bills will be assigned to various committees and then be eligible to be heard on the floor. If the bills are passed as they are, they can be sent to the governor to be signed into law or vetoed. If amended, they return to their chamber of origin for approval of the amendments and final passage. If amendments are not approved, there’s one final step known as "conference committee." This is a joint committee of House and Senate members who meet to hash out final details before a bill dies or is enacted.
Several pieces of legislation have already made it through the legislative process and been signed by the governor this year. These include agency accountability measures that will allow us more direct authority over the spending of taxpayer dollars and programs that benefit our state citizens. This comes by giving the governor direct hiring authority of five agency directors and the governor and the Legislature more appointment power over these agency boards.
As always, I will keep you updated as the session progresses. Please feel free to reach out to me with your questions or concerns firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling my office (405) 557-7327.
I had the honor of being the presiding officer in the House of Representatives this week. Four members from the class of representatives elected in 2016 with me are taking a turn running the speaker’s chair and presiding over the day’s business. Wednesday was my turn.
My time as presiding officer seemed to fly. I’m sure as I get more practice, the pace will seem to slow. The House considered a half-dozen bills during my stint. In the beginning, my mind raced as I anticipated what to do and say next. After the first couple of bills, I hit my stride. The floor ran smoothly the entire time I was in the chair.
The presiding officer’s job is a serious one since he or she must keep decorum and order in the House. Representatives are not just allowed to ask questions or debate freely; there’s an order to proceedings. The presiding officer directs members’ attention to the bills being presented and makes sure during questioning that members stay on questions and not stray to debate. If questioning or debate become excessive or duplicative, the presiding officer must decide when to bring the member to order. This can often spark anger. It’s a balancing act of allowing enough questioning to satisfy the requirement of being fully transparent in running the people’s government but not bogging down the process to the point that no legislation gets passed.
Presiding officers also are sometimes called upon to rule on whether members are adhering to House rules. One must be careful to be fair and objective, but with any ruling there is a real risk of angering one side or the other.
We often must call for order in the House and ask members to take their seats or their conversations outside of the chamber. As you can imagine, with 101 representatives, other staff members and pages all in one space, as well as people filling the House gallery, it can become a noisy place.
I look forward to my next time in the speaker’s chair.
On a separate note, my House Bill 1902 passed the House Appropriations & Budget Committee this week. This measure would increase the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rate to improve the quality of care for our nursing home residents. It also would improve staffing ratios, increase staff training, and incentivize nursing homes to improve care using a pay-for-performance model that would improve rankings on quality of care. Our nursing homes are in great need of this additional funding. With better pay and better training, staff will be able to provide better care to the residents in these facilities. This measure now is eligible to be heard on the House floor.
I will keep you updated as the session progresses, and please feel free to reach out to me with your questions or concerns at email@example.com, or by calling my office (405) 557-7327.
We’ve had an incredibly busy start to this year’s legislative session. We just wrapped up week three and bills have been moving briskly.
One of those bills passing in the House this week was the $1,200 teacher pay raise. The measure now moves to the state Senate. This raise is part of the governor’s education initiative, so it is assured his signature once it reaches his desk. Combined with the $6,100 pay raise given to state public school teachers last year, this moves Oklahoma closer to having the highest teacher pay rate in our region.
Teachers are the No. 1 resource for children in our public school classrooms. By ensuring they have adequate pay, we can keep the best and brightest teachers in our schools and reduce the number of emergency certified teachers and long-term substitutes who currently serve our students. We also will be able to recruit more people to this noble profession.
Of course, teacher pay is only one part of the issue. Now, we can turn our focus to getting more money into our classrooms. House leadership has a slate of initiatives to address our classroom needs. These measures will begin to be heard in the coming weeks.
On another note, the state Board of Equalization met this week to certify revenue that can be used for the state appropriation for Fiscal Year 2020. The great news is we have a surplus. The Board certified just shy of $8.3 billion, which is $574.5 million, or 7.5 percent, above what was available for FY2019.
We have already dedicated a good portion of this surplus to education and to county roads and bridges. However, we must save a portion of this funding to protect us in years to come when the economy, again, experiences a downturn. We’ll be examining other agency budget requests to determine where the remaining surplus should be spent.
I know that rural health care, particularly our nursing homes, are in grave need of funding. I’ve drafted House Bill 1902 to deal with this issue. This measure would increase the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rate to improve the quality of care for our nursing home residents. It also would improve staffing ratios, increase staff training, and incentivize nursing homes to improve care using a pay-for-performance model that would improve rankings on quality of care.
This bill is scheduled to be considered by the House Appropriations & Budget Committee next week (week 4 of the session).
One other bit of good news to focus on is the passage of House Bill 2484, which would create the Office of Government Accountability in the state Legislative Service Bureau. This office would perform regular audits of agency spending of taxpayer dollars and examine programs to make sure they are the ones most needed by Oklahomans. This goes with our commitment to increase accountability of spending your tax dollars.
I will keep you updated as the session progresses and please feel free to reach out to me with your questions or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling my office (405) 557-7327.
SQ 793 Allows Optometrists and Opticians to Operate in Retail Stores
SQ 793 is an amendment to the Oklahoma constitution. This amendment is being brought to the ballot by signature petition, meaning enough signatures were received and verified for it to be placed on the ballot. It gives optometrists and opticians the right to practice and sell prescription optical products within retail stores (stores like Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Sams Club, etc.) and allows those optometrists to limit the scope of their practice within those retail stores. The state question allows the legislature to enact laws to prevent surgeries in the in-store eye clinics and allows the legislature to regulate the number of locations where a single optometrist can practice simultaneously. However, it prevents the legislature from enacting laws discriminating against optometrists and opticians who practice in retail establishments and prevents laws limiting the ability to sell optometry products in retail establishments.
Our current state law bans eye clinics in retail establishments. To get around this law, clinics currently located in retail stores are owned by an independent optometrist in leased space at the perimeter of the retail store. This allows the clinic to be accessed from the outside of the retail establishment. Customers, by law, cannot access the clinic from within the retail store.
Forty-seven states allow the sale of glasses in stores and thirty-four states allow an optometrist clinic inside retail establishments. However, Oklahoma would be the first state where large, retail establishments would have the ability to determine how an optometrist would be able to practice.
Those who support SQ 793 argue it creates better and easier access to eye care, removes business regulation and promotes convenience. They also contend this will lead to increased competition and drive eye-care prices lower. Finally, supporters say Oklahoma’s regulatory environment for eye doctors stifles business opportunities.
Those who oppose SQ 793 argue it will hurt small business since it will drive some optometrists out of business. They say it will also allow large retail establishments to increase costs once the small, independent optometrists have gone out of business. Opponents argue allowing large, retail establishments to limit the scope of the optometry practice will lead to a lower standard of eye care.
Additionally, those in opposition contend, if enacted, this question would make Oklahoma the only state in the nation to allow a retail company to supersede the authority of the legislature. In other words, opponents argue this would be the first time a corporation has successfully amended the constitution in any state. They say putting this measure in the constitution will tie the legislature’s hands in making changes if there are unintended consequences. Finally, opponents argue SQ 793 is less about increasing the quality of eye-care and more about increasing the profits of large, retail establishments. Optometrists argue their prices are already less expensive than Wal-Mart’s prices (Oklahoma Optical Retailers Association).
A YES vote means you support allowing retail establishments to own and operate eye clinics within their stores.
A NO vote means you are against allowing retail establishments to own and operate eye clinics within their stores.
(Sources: Oklahoma Policy Institute, The Oklahoma State Chamber and Oklahoma Optical Retailers)
SQ794 Marsy’s Law
SQ 794 will amend the state constitution with the goal of giving victims of crimes equal rights with the accused and/or convicted in both adult and juvenile proceedings. It aims to expand victim’s rights to victims’ family members, as well. Victims’ rights added by SQ 794 are: the right to talk to a prosecutor, the right to reasonable protection, the right to be heard at proceedings and that those proceedings are free from unreasonable delay, the right to be notified of proceedings like hearings, sentencing, release or parole, and the right to refuse interview requests from the accused or convicted person’s attorney without a subpoena.
A version of Marsy’s Law was first passed in California in 2008. It is spearheaded by Henry T. Nicholas, the founder of Broadcom. Nicholas’ sister, Marsy Nicholas (pictured), was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Days later, the ex-boyfriend was out on bail and confronted Henry and his mother at a grocery store. They were not notified of his release from custody. In response, Henry has used his wealth to ensure victims of crimes are notified when the accused or convicted are released from custody and a number of other victims’ rights.
Supporters of SQ 794 argue the state question will give victims co-equal rights with the accused and convicted. They say people accused and/or convicted of crimes should not have more rights than their victims. Victims should have a say in plea bargaining and be able to participate in the case. Also, by placing the right to be notified in the constitution will force agencies to notify victims. The state question is supported by many Oklahoma prosecutors and many who serve in law
Those opposed to SQ 794 contend the state question will be expensive to implement. They say allowing victims to testify at many, if not all, stages of the legal process will jeopardize fair trials, parole hearings and, ultimately, due process. Additionally, those opposed argue there are already victims’ laws in the Oklahoma constitution. Additionally, this question has many separate rights in it, it could be struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Montana’s Supreme Court struck it down on the grounds voters need to decide on each right individually, not as a package of rights. They argue extending victims’ rights to the victims’ family members is concerning, as well.
Finally, those opposed argue - because of privacy concerns raised by the Attorney General’s office - victims would no longer know the defendants’ locations following arrest, during sentencing, imprisonment or probation. This provision was originally built-into Marsy’s law, but it was deleted. Supporters, however, argue state statute already requires the location of the defendant to be shared with victims.
A YES vote amends the constitution to adopt Marcy's Law.
A NO vote is a rejection of the Marsy's Law amendment and keeps current victims rights.
(Sources: Senate Joint Resolution 46, Oklahoma Watch, Oklahoma Policy Institute, The Oklahoma State Chamber)
SQ 798 Governor and Lieutenant Governor on a Joint Ticket
**Remember, this synopsis of State Question 798 is for informational purposes. The goal is to inform, not persuade.**
SQ 798 is a state constitutional amendment. It will require the governor and lieutenant governor to run together on the same ticket. It will mimic how we vote for our president and vice president at the federal level. If passed, these offices will not be elected together until 2026.
Currently, we vote for the governor and lieutenant governor separately. 26 states require these positions to run together on a single ticket. Some allow the gubernatorial nominee to choose his or her running mate and some states use primary elections to determine who will be paired with the governor on the ticket.
Supporters of SQ 798 argue this change will ensure the governor and lieutenant governor are from the same party, which increases the likelihood of a unified vision, better coordination, and more efficient policy implementation. All of these point to a more effective executive branch. Supporters also point out this change will create a CEO-type situation in the executive branch allowing for more oversight of state agencies. Also, if the governor dies, the lieutenant governor can take over seamlessly. Finally, running the positions together may increase attention and awareness about the lieutenant governor and his or her role and actually strengthen the position.
Opponents assert SQ 798 does not set up a process for how the lieutenant governor will be chosen, which causes confusion. They say voters already do a good job researching the lieutenant governor and governor positions at election time. Those opposed argue a joint ticket will concentrate too much power in the governor’s office and if the governor dies, is removed from office, or is impeached, an independent lieutenant governor is a better option. Finally, some believe the lieutenant governor position is weak and the position should be abolished altogether.
A YES vote will put the governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket.
A NO vote is for keeping the governor and lieutenant governor running on separate tickets.
(Sources: Senate Joint Resolution 66, Oklahoma Policy Institute and The State Chamber of Oklahoma)
SQ 800 is a state constitutional amendment which creates a trust fund called the “Oklahoma Vision Fund.” The fund will begin to be funded on July 1, 2020 with 5 percent of the total of gross production taxes (GPT) collected on oil and gas. Each year after, an extra two-tenths of a percent of GPT will be funneled into the fund. The funds will be invested by the State Treasurer and all interest will remain in the fund.
The amount of the trust fund will be averaged over a 5 year period. 4 percent of the trust fund’s 5 year average will be deposited into the General Revenue Fund (GRF) to fund government services like education, roads and bridges, public safety, and more. As the trust fund grows, the deposits into the GRF will grow proportionately. The larger the fund, the larger the deposit into the GRF.
Those supporting SQ800 argue the fund helps our state prepare for the future. Oil and gas are non-renewable resources and this fund will allow us to save now for future needs. They also contend this is a wise measure because it has the potential to stabilize and supplement our long-range budget needs without raising taxes because the fund is guaranteed to grow. It is important to note most energy-rich states already have trust funds like this.
Those opposed argue trust fund plans like this are unproven, could be mismanaged, and because a portion of GPT is being invested into the fund, the legislature will have less money to work with in the short-term. To expound on this, they argue we have the Rainy Day Fund and the Revenue Stabilization Fund, already. Those funds receive portions of GPT. With all three funds receiving GPT, they argue too much GPT could be diverted in the short-term.
Vote YES if you are for the Vision Fund
Vote NO if you are against the Vision Fund
(Sources: Senate Joint Resolution 35, Oklahoma Policy Institute and The State Chamber of Oklahoma)
SQ 801 Allows Local Funds Designated for School Buildings to be Used for School Operations and Teacher Pay.
SQ801 is a state constitutional amendment. It will change the way schools can spend 5 mills of property (ad valorem) taxes. A mill is a measure of property taxes; the term “mill” is from Latin and translates to “thousandth.” A one millage tax rate translates to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value. In this case, the rate is 5 mills or $5 of every $1000 in assessed property value. Currently, schools are limited in how they can spend property taxes by the state constitution. It directs districts to use the 5 mills of property taxes specifically for school property maintenance, landscaping, construction and remodeling.
SQ 801 will change the constitution to not only allow schools to use those property taxes on all the items mentioned above, but also to buy classroom supplies, books, fund teacher pay and other fund other operational expenses. *It is important to understand school bonds are not affected by this ballot measure.
Those who support SQ 801 argue it will make school districts more competitive with other districts. Using property taxes to increase teacher salaries could draw more and better teachers. Also, they believe SQ 801 will give school districts more flexibility with their budgets, especially during lean financial times to minimize the impact of non-budgeted mid-year budget cuts. Supporters say this measure empowers local control, as well, because local school boards know their funding needs and will have more control of their finances to get funding to the needed areas. SQ 801 simply gives school districts a choice in how to spend the 5 mills of property taxes.
Those who are against SQ 801 argue it allows state government to shirk its responsibility to fund education and shifts some the funding of teacher salaries to the local level. Also, opponents contend school districts already use most or all property taxes on facilities, janitorial services and maintenance; this measure puts more pressure on those funds. Opponents are concerned that poor financial decisions by school boards and administrators regarding these property taxes could put district budgets in a bind and lead to an increase in school bond measures. Also, they say wealthier districts will have an advantage over less wealthy districts, which may affect educational outcomes. Finally, opponents argue this measure does not increase school funding.
A YES vote means you support amending the constitution to allow schools to choose to use property taxes for teacher pay, textbooks, supplies and other expenses.
A NO Vote means you want schools to use property taxes on what they are being used for currently.
(Sources: Senate Joint Resolution 70, Oklahoma Policy Institute and The State Chamber of Oklahoma)
Last session, the Legislature raised taxes on cigarettes, motor fuels and production from new oil and gas wells. This provided enough money to fill a budget hole that loomed for much of the year. It also raised enough to fund an average teacher pay raise of $6,100 – the first raise in a decade – as well as give additional benefits to teachers and funding for textbooks and classroom materials. Money also went to DHS to support in-home care for elderly or disabled adults. Medicaid providers saw reimbursements increased. The Department of Health was able to reinstate funding for child abuse prevention services. Also, money was appropriated to the Department of Corrections to give their employees and guards a very modest pay raise. And, legislators were able to appropriate enough dollars to the Transportation Department to continue its 8-year plan for roads and bridges.
I’m hearing arguments that the state Legislature raised taxes too high last year. I’ve heard some say there will be a billion-dollar budget surplus next year.
I hate to argue, but it’s too early to tell. The taxes the Legislature raised last year have already been spent to fill the $800 million budget hole and provide funding to areas of the budget that needed it. We may, for the first time in several years, have enough to fund core government services instead of cutting services to the vulnerable among us. Enough to keep our teachers in classrooms, fund healthcare, mental health and elder care, put a dent in the disabled services waiting list, sufficiently staff our state public safety agencies, continue the push to fully repair state roads and structurally deficient bridges, and more.
The good news is our economy is trending positive. According to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), the past two months’ data shows 2 percent growth above the amount the office estimated for the current fiscal year. This is good news, but we simply do not have enough data to predict a massive surplus at this time.
Let’s assume receipts keep coming in at the same rate as the past two months for the entire year. That would be an overall surplus of 2 percent. The total appropriated state budget was around $6.5 billion last year. A 1 percent change equals around $65 million; 2 percent growth would be a surplus of $130 million – certainly not chump change, but not the excessive billion-dollar amount some are arguing. To reach that amount, receipts would need to come in at more than 15 percent over estimates.
We are moving ahead with the audits of state agencies to find duplication of services and efficiencies. This is good, but the Legislature must make a concerted effort to scrutinize spending across-the-board to stretch our budget and fund what really needs to be funded.
Thankfully, we made a significant dent in our structural budget deficit problem. The policies the Legislature enacted over the past two years have allowed a shift from using one-time, erratic funding sources to more stable recurring sources of revenue. This will help stabilize our budget, but there is still much work to do. We need the economy to hold like it is or get better so we can focus on long-term planning to help us save dollars instead of focusing on filling budget holes.
Fortunately, we shouldn’t have a budget hole next year, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be flush with cash. For now, growth is positive based on the two-months of data we have, but much can change and in a short time, in Oklahoma – as we all know.
The primary and resulting runoff elections are now in the rear-view mirror. They were telling on two fronts: Public engagement with Oklahoma politics is increasing and Oklahomans sent a loud message to the Legislature.
An unprecedented number of citizens ran for state House and Senate seats this year. This is a good sign. It is a sign Oklahomans are interested in the politics and policies of our state. The spectacle of multiple special sessions highlighted the state of deadlock in the state legislature. The scene was fortified further with the teacher walkout. The apathy toward state politics is in decline - for now. This is good.
I have spoken to many candidates this election cycle. The most pertinent information on what the people of Oklahoma want can be gained from candidates’ interactions on the doorsteps with voters. The message I hear from constituents locally and candidates throughout the state is Oklahomans are sick and tired of gridlock. Oklahomans want results; they want their representatives to govern and govern in a way that produces excellence. Oklahomans abhor being a low ranking state. I agree, and the results of the primary elections seem to, as well.
When I was on your doorsteps in 2016, you told me to do two main things: fix the budget hole and give teachers a pay raise. We tried many times. 50 or-so representatives were with me and consistently voted in favor of bills that would provide teacher pay raises and fill the budget hole, but holdouts on both sides of the aisle caused those attempts to fail. That is until House Bill 1010XX was brought to the floor.
HB1010XX provided the funding to fill the budget hole and provide pay raises for teachers, education support staff, and state employees. The bill achieved this with gas/diesel, cigarette, and gross production taxes. The bill was designed to have as minimal of an impact as possible on working Oklahomans.
The bill arrived on the floor of the House a week before the teacher walkout. It was as divisive as the other attempts, but the pressure of the impending walkout was enough to move all the Democrats who were holding out for more or different taxes and some Republicans holding out on principle to vote yes.
How a representative voted on this bill was magnified by the teacher walkout. Representatives and Senators who voted no on HB1010XX were the target of teachers and, looking at election data, many others.
There were a total of 19 no votes on HB1010XX. Of those 19 representatives who cast no votes, seven representatives either termed-out or resigned, two lost in the primary, and six lost in their runoff. As a point of emphasis, there were a total of 10 Republican representatives pushed into runoff elections. 3 of them voted yes on HB1010XX, and all three won their runoff. In contrast, 6 of the seven who voted no were defeated.
What does this mean? Do the yes votes on a tax-raising bill mean the Oklahoma legislature is becoming pro-taxation? I don’t believe so; legislators were willing to cast politically risky votes because the revenue was sorely needed and a majority of their constituents believed the tax proposals were justified. The majority of the legislature chose to govern rather than vote to secure re-election. We need more of this mindset and courage. The primary election results have proven a yes vote on HB1010XX was the right vote.
Time will tell if Oklahoma voters’ revived interest in state politics will hold. I hope it does. Exercising your right to vote is extremely important and impactful; look at the primaries. Now that the primaries are in the rear-view, it’s time to look at the road ahead and move Oklahoma forward.
Lawmakers adjourned the Second Regular Session of the 56th Legislature on May 3, wrapping up work three weeks earlier than is statutorily required. Despite the early Sine Die, legislators were able to accomplish some significant policy gains this session. "Sine Die" is the end of session; it is a latin term that means "without day" or adjournment.
The reforms I have the most hope for concern our state’s criminal justice system. My colleagues and I passed nine measures aimed at streamlining our sentencing structure, authorizing bonds to fund repairs at state penitentiaries and creating risk assessment tools. By investing money into the front end of people’s lives, instead of stacking felonies and increasing sentence lengths, Oklahoma should be able to reap millions of dollars in savings.
The Legislature’s hope is to transfer those savings to intervention and diversion programs as well as mental health services. By doing so, Oklahomans will have a better chance of staying out of prison and getting their lives back on track. I’ve heard concerns about these reforms not going far enough, but I know we can all agree these are important steps toward bettering the future of so many Oklahomans.
Of course, the biggest achievement this session was balancing the state budget. As our economy continues to rebound, more money flows into our state’s general revenue fund. When you combine those additional dollars with the revenue measures lawmakers passed this session, our state agencies should feel the difference. These departments have undergone years of funding cuts, and providing them with budgetary increases was a welcome relief. My goal is to properly fund core services without bloating government and do so without waste.
I am keenly aware the money the Legislature doles out belongs to you, the taxpayer. Thankfully, we have developed important checks and balances that should constantly evaluate government spending. The Incentive Evaluation Commission is integral in ensuring the money we spend on tax credits and incentives reap a good return on investment. The Agency Performance and Accountability Commission will be invaluable as lawmakers move toward forming each year’s budget. As those experts relay their findings to the Legislature, we will consider our practices and adjust as necessary. Also, we saw the legislature return to line-item budgeting this year. This is huge because line-item budgeting keeps bureaucrats accountable to the legislature and, ultimately, the people. We are on the right track, but there is still much work to do.
Some people have asked why lawmakers opted to adjourn three weeks early instead of sticking it out through the end of May to continue policy work. The short answer is this – the Legislature absorbed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexpected cost through both special legislative sessions and other major events that occurred this year. By ending formal session early, lawmakers are saving taxpayer dollars while spending much-needed time back in their districts. Work continues at the local level, and I know we’re all glad to be home for a bit.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything. I’m at Marcus.McEntire@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7327. Thanks, and may God bless you and this great state.