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.
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.