Thursday, February 17, 2011
Week at the Capitol: Feb. 14-18
Speaker Names Investigatory Committee Members
This week, House Speaker Kris Steele named the eight members of the special bipartisan committee that will investigate the allegations that led to state Rep. Randy Terrill being charged with felony bribery.
The committee’s makeup is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
State Rep. Fred Jordan, R-Jenks, will chair the committee. Jordan is a former Marine Corps Judge Advocate and attorney who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
State Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Pryor and an attorney, will serve as vice-chair.
The other six members of the committee are
•State Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City
•State Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove
•State Rep. Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs
•State Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa
•State Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford
•State Rep. Purcy Walker, D-Elk City
The committee met briefly to adopt the rules that will govern the investigatory process. The group is charged with gathering evidence and ultimately making a recommendation to the full House if the Committee finds sufficient evidence exists that the legislator in question “has engaged in conduct which impairs the ability of the member to perform the duties of his or her office, or substantially impairs public confidence in the Legislature.”
The group’s work is not a criminal investigation.
Under the rules adopted, the committee members cannot discuss the investigation while it is ongoing to protect the member under investigation and all witnesses, as well as to protect the integrity of the process.
However, all the group’s findings and recommendation will be released to the public.
The rules adopted call for a multi-part process.
In the first phase, the committee or its counsel will conduct an investigation and gather evidence. Upon completion of the gathering process, all information will be provided to members of the committee.
At that point, committee members will determine if the evidence is sufficient to warrant additional proceedings. If so, a written report outlining the evidence will then be provided to the member under investigation, who will then have 14 days to respond in writing and to request an opportunity to present additional evidence.
At the conclusion of that process, the committee will vote on whether or not to recommend disciplinary action to the full body of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Throughout the process, the committee will have subpoena power to compel witness testimony and production of documentary evidence.
Upon completion of its work, the committee will submit a report of its findings to the House, which will be filed in the chief clerk’s office. The report will be made available to the public.
The final decision would then be left up to the full membership of the Oklahoma House of Representatives during a floor session.
Bill to combine school superintendents advances
Legislation providing financial incentives to school districts that hire the same superintendent as part of an effort to consolidate administrative functions cleared a subcommittee this week.
House Bill 2115 would allow school districts that share administrators to receive funding from the School Consolidation Assistance Fund. The extra funding would cover up to 50 percent of the superintendent’s salary for three consecutive years up to $200,000 total.
Cash in the School Consolidation Assistance Fund comes from the state lottery.
The bill’s author said it is an incentive for school districts to reduce administrative costs and devote more money to the classroom.
Oklahoma currently has 526 school districts.
House Bill 2115 passed unanimously out of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education and now proceeds to the full House A&B Committee.
Bill Would Grade School Performance
Under legislation approved this week, Oklahoma students won’t be the only ones receiving a grade; their schools will as well.
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.
The legislation is based on a similar plan in Florida.
In 1999, the first year Florida issued letter grades for schools, there were 616 schools that received an A or B, while 877 received Ds or Fs. Performance continually improved until 2,317 schools received As or Bs in 2009, and just 217 received Ds or Fs.
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 based on
•the district’s high school graduation rate;
•performance and participation of students in College Board Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate courses, concurrent enrollment courses, Advanced International Certificate of Education courses, and national industry certification;
•students’ SAT and ACT scores;
•the high school graduation rate of students who scored as limited or unsatisfactory on eighth-grade criterion-referenced tests in reading and mathematics; and
•student performance on the end-of-instruction tests.
House Bill 1456 passed out of the House Common Education Committee. It will now proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Communities Could Soon Have Local Control of Smoking Regulation
Lawmakers voted this week to grant local control of tobacco regulations to Oklahoma communities.
House Bill 2135 would allow local communities the right to set local smoking regulations.
The state of Oklahoma already grants communities similar power when it comes to setting “social host” ordinances regarding alcoholic beverages.
And Oklahoma is one of only two states in the country with restrictions that do not allow local decisions on tobacco regulation.
Productivity losses from smoking-caused early deaths are estimated to exceed $1.7 billion annually in Oklahoma. Smokers, on average, miss over 50 percent more days of work due to sickness compared to nonsmokers. The cost for those missed days for current smokers is an estimated $4,430/year compared with $3,246/year for former smokers and just $2,623/year for nonsmokers.
House Bill 2135 passed out of the House Public Health and Safety Committee and now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Lawmakers Consider Major Pension Reforms
Lawmakers are considering major reforms to shore up Oklahoma’s state pensions and provide opportunity for participants to have increased personal control.
Many bills have been filed and will be heard on the subject.
Among others, House Bill 1004 creates the “Leadership by Example Act” and would place all new members of the Oklahoma Legislature and statewide officials into a new defined contribution plan.
Some groups have opposed reform, especially if it requires moving their future employees into a defined contribution plan. The Legislature will not ask other groups to do something that they are not willing to do themselves.
The new defined contribution plan, “Save Oklahoma,” will build on the existing and successful SoonerSave program. As of June 30, 2010, it had 35,134 participants with net assets of $458 million and no unfunded liability.
Another pair of bills would significantly improve the financial standing of state pensions in future years.
House Bill 2132 would require that all COLAs be fully funded when authorized.
House Bill 1006 would help stabilize state pensions by requiring that a pension system be at least 80-percent funded before a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) can be authorized for the system.
House Bill 1011 would provide a funding source for COLAs. Under the bill, a portion of the revenues received by the Commissioners of the Land Office would be dedicated to funding COLAs for retired teachers. If enacted into law, House Bill 1011 would be the first dedicated funding source for COLAs in state history.
The Commissioners of the Land Office, also known as the “School Land Trust,” manages state-owned public lands to produce income for education.
Ten years ago the state’s unfunded pension liability was just over $6 billion. According to official actuarial reports, the unfunded liability now totals more than $16 billion – more than twice the size of the entire state budget.
With a growing portion of the state’s budget being needed to fund retirement plans, there are fewer tax dollars available to support core government services.
In addition, the unfunded liability threatens the state’s bond rating.
All four of these measures, along with several other important reform bills, were considered this week in the House Economic Development, Tourism and Financial Services Committee, where the executive directors of the major pension plans were invited to make public comment.
Legislation to Expand Visitation Rights Clears Committee
Legislation to allow judges to consider granting former legal guardians visitation rights to a child passed a House committee this week.
House Bill 1199 makes it possible for a judge to grant former legal guardians visitation rights to a child.
The bill’s author noted that there are many scenarios where a child lives with adults who are not their biological relatives, but who care for them as if they were. Under House Bill 1199, those individuals can continue to play a role in the child’s life.
House Bill 1199 passed the House Judiciary Committee and now awaits consideration by the full House.
Committee Green-lights Initiative Petition Bill to Require Funding Source
Legislation to require initiative petitions that mandate new spending to identify a funding source passed out of a House committee this week.
The bill was prompted, in part, by State Question 744, which went to the voters last fall. It would have required up to $1.7 billion in new education spending, but provided no funding source. The measure was defeated.
House Bill 1225 would require those submitting a petition to include a statement “outlining all sources of funding to be used in the measure.”
House Bill 1225 was passed by the House Rules Committee and now awaits consideration by the full House.
Bill Targeting Funeral Protests Clears Committee
Legislation to further restrict the activities of protestors at funerals passed out of the House Judiciary Committee this week.
House Bill 1074 would make it illegal to picket within 1,000 feet of the property line of a cemetery, mortuary, church or other place where any portion of a funeral service is held. The prohibition would begin an hour prior to the service until one hour after its completion.
Violations could result in a fine of up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail.
Current law imposes only a 500-foot restriction.
The Westboro Baptist Church, a radical group unaffiliated with any denomination, has gained national notoriety in recent years for protesting soldiers’ funerals, claiming the deaths of U.S. military personnel are a sign of God’s judgment on this country.
House Bill 1074 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. It will now proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Lawmakers Vote to Crack Down on Child Abusers
Legislation approved by a committee this week would provide new consequences for child abusers.
House Bill 1549 would allow any individual who was exploited as a child in the production of pornography to “bring a civil action against the producer, promoter, or intentional possessor of such child pornography, regardless of whether the victim is now
The legislation has the support of the Office of the Attorney General.
House Bill 1549 passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee this week. It now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Committee Clears Bill to Regulate Abortion-inducing Drugs
Legislation to further restrict the use of abortion-inducing drugs and provide for the safety of pregnant women passed a House committee this week.
House Bill 1970 would require physicians to conduct an exam and schedule a follow-up appointment before prescribing an abortion-inducing drug.
House Bill 1970 requires a follow-up appointment to ensure that adverse effects from the use of an abortion-inducing drug are caught and dealt with. The legislation would also require the physician to report any complications resulting from the use of the drug and the physician provide a patient with the drug manufacturer’s guide to anything prescribed to induce an abortion.
Lawmakers Seek to Cut Overhead for Local Businesses
Legislation passed by a House committee this week would reduce fees for local pharmacies with soda fountains.
House Bill 1938 would slash in half the annual Health Department fee paid by pharmacies for health inspections, cutting it from $250 to $125.
Since pharmacies do very little food business the cost of the health inspection often makes little sense, according to the bill’s author.
House Bill 1938 passed unanimously in the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. It now goes to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.