Thursday, February 24, 2011

State Capitol Weekly Wrap

Weekly Wrap
Property Tax Reform Bills Advance
​Two bills to reform Oklahoma’s property tax laws and reduce annual increases cleared the House Rules Committee this week.
House Joint Resolution 1001 would allow Oklahoma citizens to vote to impose a 2-percent annual cap that would limit future property tax increases.
House Joint Resolution 1002 would impose and a permanent freeze on property tax levels for seniors over 65 for as long as they own their homes.
​The bills’ author noted that one recent study by the Tax Foundation showed that Oklahoma has the eighth-fastest growing property tax levy in the nation.
​Under current law, property tax valuations can increase 5 percent each year.
​Oklahoma is not the only state considering such reforms this year.
​New Jersey recently imposed a 2-percent property tax cap in a bipartisan agreement between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic legislators. And Indiana voters recently approved a 1-percent cap by a hefty 72 percent margin.
Lawmakers Vote to Suspend “Art” in Public Places Act
Legislation approved by a state House committee this week would temporarily end a state law that requires millions of tax dollars to go to “art” projects.
           House Bill 1665 would eliminate the Arts in Public Places Act for the next three years. Under current law, anytime the state has a building project or renovation costing $250,000 or more, 1.5 percent of the cost must be dedicated to “public art.” The cost of that “art” can be as much as $500,000 per project.
           Those expenditures are occurring even as the state faces a $500 million shortfall just one year after grappling with a $1.2 billion shortfall.
           The art law recently drew attention after the state paid a reported $450,000 to mount large rusted disc blades in front of the new Office of State Finance at 30th and Lincoln.
​According to The Oklahoman, about $726,000 has been spent on public art for three new state buildings and two road projects since 2004, and another $3.4 million is budgeted for artwork for more than 20 projects.
Lawmakers Approve New Penalty for Uninsured Motorists
To increase the incentive for all Oklahoma drivers to carry mandatory liability auto insurance, a House committee voted today to prohibit uninsured drivers from being able to sue for vague “pain and suffering” damages after an accident.
           Under House Bill 1045, the “maximum amount” an uninsured driver could receive through a lawsuit following an automobile accident would be limited to “the amount of medical costs, property damage, and lost income.”
​The bill would not allow uninsured drivers to sue for vague “pain and suffering” awards that often result in large settlements, potentially lowering the cost of auto insurance premiums in Oklahoma.
           The bill contains an exemption for situations where an uninsured driver is hit by a drunk driver or if the uninsured motorist was a passenger in a wreck.
​In recent years, several official estimates have indicated Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of uninsured drivers in the nation.
           House Bill 1021 passed out of the House Insurance Committee today. It now advances to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Subcommittee Approves Bill to Shift Education Funds to Classroom
Legislation that would require schools to devote a minimum percentage of their spending on direct instructional activities was passed by a House appropriations subcommittee this wee.
           House Bill 1746 would require school districts to spend at least 57 percent of total yearly expenditures on direct instructional activities in the 2011-2012 year, at least 60 percent in the 2012-2013 year, at least 63 percent in the 2013-2014 year, and at least 65 percent in the 2014-2015 year and thereafter. School districts could file for a one-year exemption if they could show that they had reduced administrative expenses
           The legislation would also require school districts to gain approval for any plan to dismiss or lay off teachers.
           Under the bill, total yearly expenditures would not include capital construction, debt or bond payments, which are funded with local tax dollars and not state appropriations.
           The legislation would require school districts to file an annual report to the State Board of Education that would include the percentage of total expenditures that had been used to fund direct instructional activities, the percent of total expenditures used to fund direct instructional activities related to courses that are subject to assessment pursuant to the Oklahoma School Testing Program and the percentage of full-time employees in the district whose job function was to directly provide classroom instruction to students.
Committee Votes to Streamline Process for Firing Bad Teachers
Legislation to simplify and speed up the process to ensure the best teachers remain in the classroom while ensuring educators’ constitutional rights are protected gained bipartisan support in committee this week.
Currently, teachers can appeal a firing in district court, an expensive and time-consuming process for all involved.
The Oklahoman recently reported that it cost Purcell Public Schools around $80,000 to fire a teacher later charged with lewd acts with a child.
Under House Bill 1457, a teacher fired by a school board could instead request a hearing from a three-member panel, whose members would be selected by the state Education Department.
The bill has the support of the state teacher’s union as well as education reformers.
House Bill 1457 passed unanimously in the House Common Education Committee and now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
House Lawmakers Vote to Give School Grades
Member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted this week to implement a new grading system – for schools.
​Under House Bill 1456 Oklahoma’s public schools would be given an annual grade of “A” to “F” based on student performance on state tests.
​Under the legislation, annual reports would be issued giving letter grades to schools based on student performance on the Oklahoma School Testing Program.
​The grades would be as follows:
•​“A”  means schools making excellent progress;
•​“B”  means schools making above average progress;
•​“C” means schools making satisfactory progress;
•​“D” means schools making less than satisfactory progress; and
•​“F” means schools failing to make adequate progress.
Schools receiving an “A” or those that improve at least two grade levels in a year would be rewarded by granting them greater authority over the allocation of the state-funded portion of the school’s budget.
​Each school’s grade would be based on a combination of student test scores on all criterion-referenced tests and end-of-instruction tests, student learning gains in reading and mathematics, and improvement of the lowest twenty-fifth percentile of students in reading and mathematics.
​For high schools, 50 percent of the school grade would be based on the above-listed factors and the other half of the grade would be graduation rates, student performance on the ACT and SAT, and similar factors.
​The legislation is based on a similar plan in Florida.
​In 1999, the first year Florida issued letter grades for schools, there were 515 schools that received an A or B, while 677 received Ds or Fs. Performance continually improved until 2,317 schools received As or Bs in 2009, and just 217 received Ds or Fs.
​House Bill 1456 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 65-32 vote.
Committee Clears Eminent Domain Bill
Legislation to ensure Oklahomans who lose property due to a city or other authority’s use of eminent domain have the right to buy back any part of the property that goes unused was passed by a House committee this week.
           House Bill 1226 would also require the city or authority to send the original owner a notice of the right to buy back the property at either its original price or, if it had lost value, at the current appraised value. The original owner or his or her heirs would have 90 days to claim the right to purchase the property.
           House Bill 1226 was passed by the House Judiciary Committee and awaits a hearing by the full House.
Committee Advances Reform of State Board of Education
Legislation to reform the structure and responsibilities of the State Board of Education cleared committee this week.
The House Common Education Committee approved House Bill 2139, which modifies the administration of the State Department of Education. It transfers the administrative control and direction of the Department from the State Board of Education to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
House Bill 2139 also  
• allows the State Superintendent to establish divisions and positions within the Department.
• removes the State Board as the governing board of the Department.  
• requires the State Superintendent to prepare a departmental budget and submit division reports.
• clarifies and updates language relating to the administrative duties of the State Superintendent.  
• establishes powers and duties of the Superintendent related to the Department.
The State Board of Education will remain in charge of supervising public instruction; overseeing curriculum and implementing education policies advanced by the Legislature.
The measure now moves to the full House.        
Pain-Capable Unborn Child Bill Clears Committee
Legislation to make it illegal to perform an abortion on an unborn child who is capable of feeling pain cleared a House committee this week.
​House Bill 1888 creates the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” The proposed law would require abortion providers to determine fetal age prior to an abortion and make it illegal to perform an abortion on an unborn child who is 20-or-more weeks of age.
​The bill exempts situations in which the life of the mother is at risk or when the mother faces “serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment.”
​A similar law has already been enacted in Nebraska.
​The legislation is based on the latest medical research, which now shows that pain receptors (nociceptors) are present throughout an unborn child’s entire body by no later than 16 weeks after fertilization, and nerves linking receptors to the brain’s thalamus and subcortical plate are present no later than 20 weeks.
​In addition, it has been determined that by eight weeks of age an unborn child will react by recoiling from stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult.
Research has also found that the application of painful stimuli is associated with significant increases in stress hormones in an unborn child.​That is one reason that fetal anesthesia is routinely administered when surgery is done on unborn children.
​House Bill 1888, which is one of two priority bills for pro-life groups this year, passed the House Public Health Committee and now advances to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Lawmakers Vote to Increase Regulation of Abortionists
Legislation approved by a House committee would increase regulatory oversight of abortion providers to increase safeguards for women.
           House Bill 1642 would require any abortion provider to have “clinical privileges at a hospital which offers obstetrical or gynecological care” that is located within 30 miles of the site where abortion is performed or induced.
​State Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, authored the bill. Ritze is a Board Certified Family Practice Physician and Surgeon who has delivered over 2,000 babies.
​Although he is strongly pro-life, Ritze said officials should not ignore the potential medical risks faced by women that undergo abortions, and said the recent case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider, illustrates the need for greater oversight of abortion providers.
​Gosnell is facing murder charges related to the death of a woman who died as the result of a botched abortion provided at his office. In addition, Gosnell faces murder counts for delivering seven babies alive and then killing them with a pair of scissors. It is believed that many of Gosnell’s female patients suffered major medical problems due to the severely unhygienic conditions at his clinic.
           House Bill 1642 passed on a bipartisan vote of 11-0 in the House Public Health Committee. The bill now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Lawmakers Vote to Ban Creation of Embryos for Experiments
Legislation that would make it illegal to create human embryos for experiments was approved by a House committee this week.
​House Bill 1442 creates the “Destructive Human Embryo Research Act.” The proposed law would make it illegal to “intentionally or knowingly conduct destructive research on a human embryo” or to “buy, sell, receive, or otherwise transfer a human embryo with the knowledge that such embryo shall be subjected to destructive research.”
​Violations would result in misdemeanor charges.
​The legislation states that the destruction of human embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells “raises grave moral, ethical, scientific, and medical issues that must be addressed,” and that the moral justification for medical or scientific research “cannot be based upon the dehumanizing and utilitarian premise that the end justifies any means.”
​In spite of millions spent, the bill’s author noted that embryonic stem cell research has not produced a single treatment and typically generates cancer tumors, not cures.
​In fact, Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Oklahoma Bioethics Center at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Tulsa, told the Tulsa World (April 24, 2009 edition) that “embryonic stem cell research so far and in the future is a dead end. There are no foreseeable cures in the next decade for certain.”
​In addition, embryonic stem cell research also has a supply problem.
A report by the RAND Corporation found that only 2.8 percent of so-called “leftover” embryos at fertility clinics have been specifically designated for research while 88.2 percent continue to be held for family planning. (
​The RAND report also found that 11,000 embryos would generate just 275 new embryonic stem cell lines.
​Locally, KOTV in Tulsa reported in 2009 that the Integris Fertility Clinic in Oklahoma City had 230 sets of embryos stored for later use, 20 sets for embryo adoption, and just two sets designated for research. The clinic indicated that each “set” can contain anywhere from two to 11 embryos each.
​As a result, the only viable way to conduct embryonic stem cell research is to create thousands of new embryos specifically to harvest them for stem cells.
​Rather than support embryo destruction, Oklahoma officials have dedicated millions to adult stem cell research, which has resulted in 70 treatments already. Researchers have also been able to “reprogram” adult stem cells to duplicate embryonic stem cells without destroying an unborn child.
​In 2009, the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust committed $500,000 for a year-long planning phase for adult stem cell research funding, followed by $1 million per year funding for the following five-year implementation phase, for a total of $5.5 million.
​House Bill 1442 passed the House Public Health Committee. It now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Native American Caucus Elects New Co-Chairs
The Native American Caucus has elected state Rep. Dan Kirby (R-Tulsa) and Rep. Chuck Hoskin (D-Vinita) to serve as co-chairs of the caucus for the 53rd Legislature.
           State Rep. Anastasia Pittman (D-Oklahoma City) was re-elected to serve as secretary of the caucus.
           The purpose of the caucus is to identify and prioritize issues, support the establishment and maintenance of state-tribal communications and policy processes pertaining to sovereignty. Oklahoma has 39 federally-recognized tribes.
           The caucus held its first 2011 monthly meeting Feb. 8. It was established in 2006 through the foresight of state Rep. Lisa Billy and former state Rep. Shane Jett. The National Council of Native American Legislators was formed in the 1980s and was reformed as the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators in 1992.
Committee Green-lights Bill Requiring Generators in Large Assisted Living Facilities
Legislation to require Oklahoma assisted living facilities with 50 or more beds to have a backup generator for emergency power in case of a disaster cleared committee this week.
           House Bill 2002 includes a provision allowing a facility to request an exemption if they could show financial hardship. The legislation also requires facilities to file an emergency evacuation plan with their local fire department and county emergency management director.
​The legislation was filed after the author heard of a facility that did not have a backup generator during an ice-storm related power outage.
           During a legislative study the Oklahoma Department of Health Long Term Care Service reported that of 133 facilities surveyed, 89 had a backup generator. OSDH also stated that they strongly supported onsite sheltering as opposed to the transfer of residents to another facility during a natural disaster.
           House Bill 2002 passed out of the Long-term Care and Senior Services Committee by a vote of 7-1.
Firearms Freedom Act Clears Committee
Legislation declaring that firearms made and kept in Oklahoma are not subject to regulation by the federal government has passed out of a House committee.
           House Bill 1645 creates the “Firearms Freedom Act.” The legislation references the Second, Ninth and 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and declares firearms, accessories and ammunition made and sold in Oklahoma to be free from federal regulations.
           Under the bill, guns must be clearly marked “Made in Oklahoma.
           House Bill 1645 was approved by the House Judiciary Committee and now proceeds to the full House for consideration. In 2010, it passed the House by a vote of 89-9 and the Senate by a vote of 37-7 before being vetoed by the governor.
Committee Clears Nullification of ObamaCare
Legislation passed by a House committee this week would effectively nullify the new federal health care law in Oklahoma.
           House Bill 1276 notes that the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution defines the total scope of federal powers “as being those which have been delegated by the people of the several states to the federal government, and all powers not delegated to the federal government in the Constitution of the United States are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people themselves.”
           The bill then notes that the assumption of federal power made with passage of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” and “Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010” is “nowhere expressly granted by the United States Constitution and interferes with the right of the people of the State of Oklahoma to regulate health care as they see fit.”
           Because those two federal laws were “not authorized by the Constitution of the United States,” the bill then declares them to be “invalid in the State of Oklahoma” and states that they “shall not be recognized by this state, are specifically rejected by this state, and shall be considered null and void and of no effect in this state.”
           House Bill 1276 was passed by the House Judiciary Committee and now awaits consideration by the full House.

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