Democrats press measures on voting rights, education proceeds from lottery, long-range plans for veteran health care

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the annual deadline for bill filings comes this week, members of the House Democratic caucus advanced several ideas they hope to enact, despite minority position in the Legislature.
State Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, says she will press legislation to clarify state law pertaining to restoration of a convict’s voting rights.
Rep. Goodwin filed House Bill 2277 for consideration during the second regular session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature, which convenes Feb. 1.
H.B. 2277 provides that anyone convicted of a felony could register to vote upon having “fully served” his/her sentence, “including any term of incarceration, parole or supervision,” or after completing a probationary period imposed by a judge.
“My intent is not to change the law, but simply to clarify some ambiguous language in the statutes,” Goodwin said. The law as written is “confusing,” she said. “We need to make it clearer.”
State law now says that anyone convicted of a felony “shall be ineligible to register for a period of time equal to the time prescribed in the judgment and sentence.”
Goodwin said some people have interpreted that language to mean that a felon cannot register to vote until he/she has completed not only the court-ordered term of prison/parole/probation, but also a subsequent waiting period of equal length – in other words, twice the length of the convict’s sentence.
“My bill is not a partisan political measure,” Goodwin said. “I believe that once a lawbreaker has ‘paid his dues to society,’ he or she needs to become a productive citizen, and voting is a fundamental right and responsibility of an American citizen.”
In a December press release, Rep. Mike Shelton stated his intention to renew efforts to boost public education funding from a constitutionally-created fund.
The Oklahoma City Democrat will resubmit legislation eliminating a statutory requirement that net proceeds from the state lottery “shall equal at least 35 percent of the gross proceeds.” All net proceeds from the lottery are deposited into the Education Lottery Trust Fund. 
Eliminating the required minimum would enable the Oklahoma Lottery Commission to “put more money into the prize payouts, which would generate more ticket sales,” explained Rollo Redburn, the commission’s executive director.
“The Legislature won’t fix the problem to ensure that the fund works up to its full potential, and more ticket sales would ultimately mean more money for the education lottery,” Rep. Shelton contended in a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK.
“We know what it takes to fix the problem, but we won’t make the changes,” he asserted.
Contributions to the Education Lottery Trust Fund plunged by 47 percent —  from $17.1 million in Fiscal Year 2014 to $9.1 million in Fiscal Year 2015, an audit report submitted in November showed.
“With the Legislature facing a catastrophic budget deficit of at least $900 million, we need to put every serious revenue idea on the table for consideration,” Shelton said. “Raiding one-time revenue sources again, and tapping the ‘rainy day’ fund again, won’t plug a gap of that magnitude.” This will be Shelton’s third attempt in four years to repeal the 35 percent requirement.
Three types of games accounted for 87.5 percent of the lottery’s operating revenues in FY 2015, ledgers reflect: scratch-off games, 47.5 percent; Powerball, 27.1 percent; and Mega Millions drawings, 12.87 percent.
The remainder of the revenues were derived from Pick 3, Pick 4, Cash 5, Poker Pick, Hot Lotto and National Millionaire Raffle games.
“That 35 percent requirement is the reason why” ticket sales
declined a little over 10 percent in the past year, Redburn said. “People who gamble want to win once in a while. If the prizes aren’t large enough they don’t win as often or as much.”
As detailed in the press release from House staff, Redburn noted that the Oklahoma Education lottery competing for gambling dollars against lotteries in Arkansas, Texas and Kansas. Further competition for the gambling dollar comes also from the 125 Native American-owned/operated gaming operations in Oklahoma, the newest of which opened earlier in November.  
In other news from the House Democratic caucus, state Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman helped guide an interim study focused on long-range planning in the arena of veterans health care benefits.
Oklahoma has seven state-run veterans centers with 1,423 beds, but the Sooner State has more than 340,000 military veterans. Furthermore, the needs of today’s veterans will probably be much different from the requirements of veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Those were among the messages delivered during an interim legislative study conducted by the Health Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations and Budget at the request of state Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman.
Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, the state Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Adjutant General, told the subcommittee his mission statement is to provide Oklahoma military veterans with “the highest quality care they can find anywhere in the nation.”
The agency’s website says it is the vision of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs that all programs administered by the ODVA for Oklahoma’s veterans “will always be first in the nation in services, benefits, care, facilities, employees and relationships.”
However, achieving that goal is a challenge in today’s environment, for various reasons, Griffith noted.

* The Legislature is facing a revenue shortfall for the third consecutive year. The budget deficit was $188 million in 2014, followed by $611 million this year, and next year’s shortage will be at least $296 million.
* Oklahoma’s seven veterans centers need some capital improvements. The Ardmore center, for example, was built in 1910 to accommodate veterans of the Civil War, and the Sulphur and Talihina centers both were constructed in 1921. (Lawton’s opened in 2003; Claremore’s was completed in 1988; Clinton’s was renovated in 1995 and again in 2002; and construction on Norman’s center was completed in 1996.)
* Adequate staffing is “a moving target,” Deering said. The centers cope with high turnover rates among a staff of largely young, mobile employees.
* The type of care required by the centers’ residents is expected to change dramatically over the next 20 years, Deering indicated.
In the next two decades the veterans centers will face “more mental health challenges” such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; more veterans with substance abuse addictions; more orthopedic challenges, such as amputees, because of the types of injuries sustained from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan; large numbers of veterans coping with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema) because of Oklahoma’s high smoking rates; and admissions of women, who are assuming even combat roles in today’s armed forces.
“We need to be forward-thinking about these issues,” said Griffith, a registered nurse. “In the not-too-distant future we’ll need more beds for more veterans with severe health issues. These veterans answered our country’s call, and we need to support them when they require our assistance. We need to start preparing now for these eventualities.”