Sunday, May 4, 2014

Cockroft Column: April's Monthly Legislative Update

April's legislative work consisted of the Oklahoma House of Representatives reviewing and acting on bill sent over from the state Senate. House members also got to see our bills approved in the Senate and sent onto the governor.

The most notable accomplishment of April was the signing of a Senate tax cut plan into law. The Oklahoma House of Representatives expedited the bill's enactment by approving it without amendments so that it would go directly to the governor's desk.

Senate Bill 1246 calls for two tax cuts that are tied to revenue triggers. This means that they will only take effect if revenues reach a certain level. The first would occur no earlier than Fiscal Year 2016. It would drop Oklahoma's top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. A second cut would not take effect until two year after the first cut. It would drop the rate to 4.85 percent.

Oklahoma's top income tax bracket applies to individuals earning more than $8,700 a year or couples earning more than $15,000 a year. The Tax Commission estimates that approximately 1.7 million taxpayers will be placed in the top income tax bracket in tax year 2016.

In 1998, the Legislature passed and Gov. Frank Keating signed a bill reducing the top income tax rate from 7 percent to 6.75 percent. Despite the cut, tax revenue grew to new heights. Legislation enacted during the 2005 to 2007 legislative sessions reduced the top income tax rate from 6.65 percent to 5.5 percent. Revenues further increased.

A second important accomplishment in April was the enactment of a 14 percent pay raise for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers. Troopers, prison workers, teachers and child welfare employees are all drastically underpaid. This not only affects those hardworking public servants, but also affects the quality of these critical state services.

I was very pleased to see this the trooper pay raise signed into law, but would like to see more done for those state workers who have not yet been brought up to the pay level that is necessary to address shortages and staffing problems.

I was proud to join 61 of my House colleagues in defeating a proposal to borrow up to $160 million to finance an overhaul of the state Capitol. We feel that we can fund these repairs out of the budget, either via the Rainy Day Fund or by eliminating wasteful spending items. I do not believe that there is any need to harm our essential services in order to do this, but I do think it is going to be tricky to get an agreement worked out between the governor, state Senate and House. This fight isn't over, but at least I know that the House is determined to pay for things in the right way, rather than incurring future debt.

I supported a bill that has now been signed into law to ban the off-label use of the drug RU486. The drug is used during the first seven weeks of a pregnancy to induce an abortion.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives voted down a proposal to allow district attorneys to collect delinquent state sales taxes. Senate Bill 865 specifies three levels of fees that could be assessed against debtors, according to the length of the delinquency and the amount of tax in arrears. The measure also would allow a prosecutor to enter into a restitution agreement with a defendant to defer prosecution for up to three years on an embezzlement charge. The legislation failed on a 35-59 vote.

We also amended a bill to ensure active-duty military personnel and veterans can get lifetime handgun carry licenses. Senate Bill 1442 was originally intended only to allow current and former court officials to carry handguns.  A lifetime license would cost a veteran $125, but a lifetime license for active-duty personnel would be free. A veteran who already has a handgun license issued prior to Nov. 1, 2014, could request a lifetime license upon completing a renewal application and paying a $25 renewal fee. The revised SB 1442 passed the House, 58-23, and was returned to the Senate for consideration of House amendments.

The governor vetoed House Bill 2539, which redefines the use of deadly force in defending a third party. Current law only authorizes the use of deadly force in defending one's "husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress or servant." This measure replaces it with language allowing for a person to use force necessary to prevent death or bodily harm to anyone or to terminate or prevent the commission of a forcible felony. Although I disagreed with the governor's veto, I will note that the courts have interpreted the current law to expand the use of self-defense beyond the current language.

The governor signed House Bill 2676 into law, making Oklahoma Highway Patrol dash cam footage open to the public.

A lot of legislation is currently in flux as state senators and House members work out their differences on the language of major legislation such as pension reforms and Capitol repairs. We also have a budget to negotiate. At the end of April, the governor publicly criticized the House for not moving more of her agenda forward and not being far enough in budget negotiations. I hope this kind of negative public fighting will not derail any of the work we have left to do this year.

I look forward to telling you about more progress in a future update.

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