Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rep. Cockroft Praises Vote on Bill to Reject Common Core Standards

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Josh Cockroft today praised the vote by the Oklahoma House of Representatives to reverse a law requiring the implementation of Common Core standards.


“There are too many questions about the national education standards and what they mean,” said Cockroft, R-Wanette, a co-author of the bill. “House lawmakers decided the better course was to allow state higher education institutions to develop local standards and give schools flexibility in how they meet those standards.


“I have heard loud and clear from many of the teachers in my district with concerns on what implementation of Common Core will do to our education system in Oklahoma. Our teachers demand high standards, but with local control; not federal intrusion. Our teachers know what is best for our students. Not the federal government. Not state overreach through less local control. I am proud to stand with my teachers on this vote.”


House Bill 3399 calls for the state of Oklahoma to opt for Option B under No Child Left Behind. Option B allows states to create elementary and secondary school standards that are certified by state higher education institutions to be college and career ready.


If signed into law, HB 3399 would order the State Board of Education to adopt education standards that are college and career ready by August 1, 2016. By adopting Option B of No Child Left Behind, the State Board will maintain independence from any national or state compact standards, and school districts will control the learning materials and curriculum adopted to meet the new set of standards.


The legislation cedes exclusive authority to schools districts on the curriculum they develop to meet state standards.


The legislation was approved by a 78-12 vote and will now proceed to the Oklahoma Senate for consideration.




Wednesday, March 12, 2014

House Votes to Fund Education ‘Off the Top’

OKLAHOMA CITY – A bill approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives today would create a fund to provide millions of dollars in “off the top” funding for education.


HB 2642, by state Rep. Lee Denney, would create the Securing Educational Excellence Fund for the State Board of Education. The money in the fund would be used to increase the per-pupil expenditure through the state aid formula.


Contingent upon a Oklahoma Board of Equalization estimate of an increase of 1 percent in revenue to the General Revenue Fund, the Securing Educational Excellence Fund would receive $57.5 million in fiscal year 2015. The amount would increase by another $57.5 million in each subsequent fiscal year, dependent upon a 1 percent estimate increase in revenue, up to $575 million.


“The intent of this bill is to insulate schools from the uncertainty of the appropriations process and ensure they remain a top funding priority,” said Denney, R-Cushing. “There is a revenue trigger in the bill, but as long as revenues continue on their current track, schools can expect to see $57.5 million in ‘off-the-top’ funding for fiscal year 2015, and eventually as much as $575 million in ‘off-the-top funding. It’s our way of showing a commitment to education funding.”


The legislation was approved by a 94-1 vote and will now advance to the Oklahoma Senate.




Tuesday, March 11, 2014

House Overwhelmingly Passes Major Employee Compensation Reform Measure

OKLAHOMA CITY – A measure that would boost state employee salaries to 90 percent of private-sector pay over a four-year period cleared the House of Representatives today.


“The State of Oklahoma is losing skilled and educated employees to retirement and the private sector,” said House Bill 3293 author Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang. “Our state agencies need productive minds and ingenuity to fill those gaps, provide better services and address the problems of the future. Competitive wages will greatly enhance the state’s ability to choose from the top recruits.”


HB3293 would set aside 3 percent of the previous fiscal year’s payroll costs for salary adjustments each year. The bill would also remove salary structures from statute and give authority to the Office of Management Enterprise Services to set pay structures and determine if targeted pay band adjustments are necessary, rather than the state doling out across-the-board pay raises as in years past.


House Speaker Jeff Hickman praised House Bill 3293, calling it a commitment to attracting and retaining quality employees who will provide efficient services to the people of Oklahoma.


“As stewards of the taxpayers’ money, it is our duty to provide core government services in a cost effective and productive manner,” said House Speaker Hickman, R-Fairview. “To do so, we need to attract hard-working and skilled employees with competitive compensation. By investing in those who choose to serve, we will be capable of providing a better product to the people of Oklahoma.”


A recent study requested by the governor and state leaders found state employee salaries to be up to 20 percent below market, particularly in the areas of public safety, corrections and social services.


“The Oklahoma legislature must improve state employee salaries this year if it wants the people of Oklahoma to continue to receive quality services from our state employees,” said Sterling Zearley, Executive Director of Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “For several years, state employees were asked to do more with less and they did. However, we have neglected state employee pay for too long leading to high turnover rates and short staffing for correctional centers, DHS offices, veteran’s centers and other locations providing core services. We appreciate the Speaker of the House and House members making employee compensation a top priority for this session and will continue to work with them through the process.”


HB 1716 now moves to the Senate for consideration.






Monday, March 10, 2014

Monthly Legislative Update - February 2014

February was a productive month at the Oklahoma Legislature. Not only were we able to advance legislation that will be to your benefit, but we also ended the life of a number of measures that were not in your best interest. They are the many issues that I hear about on a daily basis from constituents, and I am proud to represent your voice at the Capitol.


The legislative session kicked off with Governor Mary Fallin’s State of the State address. The governor listed her priorities as job creation, the reduction of government spending and waste, school safety, education funding, pension reform, a .25 percent tax cut, and resistance to federal intrusion and Obamacare. She released a budget proposal to provide a $50 million increase to education, other targeted increases, and 5 percent budget cuts for most agencies.


House lawmakers also voted on a new leader, Speaker Jeff Hickman, to replace Rep. T.W. Shannon, who is now running for U.S. Senate.


In February, we received word from the Oklahoma Board of Equalization that we face an estimated budget shortfall for fiscal year 2015 from $171 million to $188 million. Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger said that gross tax revenues to the state treasury have continued to rise this year, at the same time the amount available for appropriation has declined from about $7.13 billion to $6.94 billion, a decline of 2.6 percent. This has happened because current law designates that certain funds be taken “off the top” and not be subjected to the appropriations process. That money is used to pay for things such as roads and bridges and higher education’s Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program. So, we don’t have less revenue, just less discretionary spending revenue available.


I was pleased to see my government modernization bill clear committee in the first week of legislative session. House Bill 2954 has now been approved also on the House floor and proceeds to the Senate. The legislation provides a funding mechanism to aid counties in the conversion of their vehicles to compressed natural gas, which will reduce their fuel costs considerably. The bill will also provide for an increase in state infrastructure devoted to CNG fuel stations.


During the first week of session, the House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 2491, which would require the Department of Corrections to forward the file and reentry plan for non-violent offenders to the Pardon and Parole Board 180 days prior to the offender’s release. If the Board does not act within 30 days, the offender is given the option of choosing a reduction of 4 months of incarceration in exchange for agreeing to a period of post-release probation supervision of 8 months. The measure will reduce future costs associated with offenders sentenced after the effective date of legislation.


Lawmakers were visited by hundreds of Oklahomans at the Oklahoma State Capitol for the 23rd annual Rose Day to ask legislators to support pro-life legislation this session.Later in February we approved a bill to make it a felony to knowingly destroy a humanembryo. A person could be imprisoned for one year to life and fined up to $100,000 for violating terms of the act, if it becomes law.


In the second week of February, the Oklahoma House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill to prohibit employers from requiring access to potential hires and their employees’ social media accounts. I considered this bill to be a way to protect the right of my constituents to basic privacy.


The bill would allow employees and prospective employees to bring civil action against an employee who violates the law within two years of the violation. If successful, the court could award a minimum of $500 per violation or actual damages in addition to court costs and “reasonable attorney fees.”


I fought hard for the passage of my election reform legislation on the day that municipal elections were held around the state. House Bill 1887, which was a constituent request bill, would have coupled election dates for school board positions with municipal elections. The intent is to encourage greater participation in school board races and save tax dollars spent on holding separate elections. Unfortunately, it did not receive enough support among my colleagues.


In the committee process, a bill was advanced to increase the pay for state troopers and other Oklahoma Highway Patrol employees. Both the governor and Oklahoma Senate have expressed a desire to support raises for troopers, so we will soon give them an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. House Bill 3098 would increase the pay for cadet troopers from $33,192 to $40,760 a year and increase the pay for beginning dispatchers from $26,750 to $30,771.70 a year. Salary increases in the Highway Patrol Division are 18.5 percent and 13 percent in the Communications Division. The annual cost of the raise will be $9.8 million.


The House Judiciary Committee advanced a number of gun bills, including a bill to

allow licensed guns in school parking lots as long as the weapons are kept in a locked vehicle and a bill that would allow college administrators to carve in common-sense exemptions to gun bans, such as the use of firearms by the ROTC.


My gun legislation, House Bill 2958, would allows for application of SDA concealed carry license by persons convicted of drug-related misdemeanor provided 20 years have passed since last conviction.


On the House floor in February, we advanced a number of pension reform bills. One would set a minimum funding schedule for the pension system while others would reform the system from a defined benefit plan to a defined “401k-style” contribution plan.


We also voted unanimously to allow students to express their faith in public schools.House Bill 2422 would require school districts to treat student expressions of faith in the same manner as any other permissible subject. The bill would require school districts to adopt a “Model Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Policy.” It would also requireschools to provide the same access to school facilities for religious groups as it does for other student groups and allow students to organize prayer groups.


House lawmakers experienced an intense floor debate over a bill to allow Oklahomans the right to access physical therapy services without a referral. The House’s two doctors were on opposite sides of the issue, but we ultimately chose increased access to care and the path of most other U.S. states.


In late February, we voted to create a foster parent mediation program. House Bill 2588 would create a process for mediating and addressing grievances by foster care parents. The program would be overseen by the Oklahoma Commission of Children and Youth Office of Juvenile System Oversight. The legislation would give foster parents the right “without fear of reprisal” to present grievances with respect to providing foster care services.


The House Common Education Committee was busy in February working to fix the problems caused by the third-grade reading sufficiency reform that is currently law. Their final product has now been approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives and would put the decision of whether or not to promote a third grade student back in the hands of a team of local educators and the child’s parent. House Bill 2625 would require the student is to receive “intensive” reading remediation, regardless of the decision.


House lawmakers worked on tax cut proposals in committee and ultimately came up with a tax cut measure that includes revenue triggers, meaning that revenues will have to rise in order for it to take place. The legislation would provide for a quarter of a percent cut.


As I said, we also killed a number of bills. After starting out with thousands, we are now down to only a few hundred. It has been a very busy February. I look forward to telling you about more progress in a future update.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Oklahoma House Votes To Save Millions With CNG Bill

OKLAHOMA CITY – A bill that would help counties convert their fleets to compressed natural gas and increase state infrastructure devoted to compressed natural gas fuel stations was approved today by the Oklahoma House of Representatives. House Bill 2954, by state Rep. Josh Cockroft, would use existing funds generated by the gross production tax to help counties convert their vehicles to compressed natural gas and potentially further develop fuel stations that could be used by state and county government and the general public.


“Compressed natural gas is an investment that has been proven to save the state money and we are basically giving counties the opportunity to get in on those savings to further benefit taxpayers,” said Cockroft, R-Tecumseh. “Compressed natural gas is a cheaper fuel than gasoline, but also continues to benefit the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma. Using it in government vehicles is a win-win.”

Cockroft noted that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation recorded a savings of approximately $32,690 per month after converting 174 vehicles to compressed natural gas. There are approximately 2,400 county vehicles excluding law enforcement vehicles in the state , he said.


The legislation would require tracking of fuel savings and help the counties develop fuel stations that would be available to counties, municipalities, the state fleet and the general public, Cockroft said. It expands on Gov. Mary Fallin’s efforts to advance Oklahoma’s energy policy, he said.

House Bill 2954 was approved by a vote of 71-17 and will now proceed to the Oklahoma Senate.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Cockroft Column - Weekly Legislative Update

Deadlines at the Oklahoma Legislature ensure that there is a deliberate process to every new law we add to the books and to every spending item we place in the budget. With each deadline, the number of measures is reduced and we can pinpoint our focus on those that remain.

The first stage of the House’s deliberations, committee work, is ended. The deadline has passed for committees to hear House bills and now we will be working on the floor, debating the merits of surviving legislation in front of all 101 members. The next deadline will end the life of bills that have not yet had a hearing on the House floor. After that date, we will begin working on bills sent over to us from the Oklahoma Senate. We start out every year with thousands of bills, but enact less than a fourth of them.


I am the co-author of a bill that is already headed over to the Oklahoma Senate after we voted in support of it on the House floor. The legislation would make it a felony to knowingly destroy a human embryo to create stem cells. The bill would also ban couples from destroying frozen embryos that are left over following in vitro fertilization. Excess embryos left over from in vitro fertilization would either need to be kept frozen forever or provided to others who want to adopt the embryos and grow them into babies. It is not our place to destroy life and adult stem cell research is the only appropriate line of research I can support.

Gov. Mary Fallin has called on the Oklahoma Legislature to approve a $160 million bond to fund repairs to the Oklahoma State Capitol. While I agree these repairs are necessary, I do not support a bond as a mechanism to fund them. We should pay as we go rather than borrow money, much like we pushed to do last year. The Oklahoma Senate has voted in support of this bill, so we will have to be the ones to vote against it, if we want to push for a direct appropriation. The argument can be made for the current affordability of bonds and the fact that a large portion of our current bonds will be rolled off in 2018, but I cannot in good conscience vote to place more debt on our state.

A second topic of discussion this year is an effort to put more money into the Native American cultural center in Oklahoma City. This project was fully funded, but did not properly use its resources and is now looking for more money. The current plan is to borrow the money from a state treasury fund used to pay back unclaimed property to Oklahomans. In truth, I believe this project is most appropriately finished with private funding. However, the reality is that our state has taken on this project as a priority and the sooner we finish it, the less of a burden it will be in the future. I have pushed for the completion of this project and then the transfer of liability over to Oklahoma City or any other entity so that the state would not be responsible for reoccurring expenses in the future. The state has already contributed and has many more important priorities to focus on.


I will have more to report on the budget and House bills as we discuss them on the House floor. I can be reached through my Capitol office at (405) 557-7349.