Higher Education and higher spending — Fallin signs three bills

To the cheers of about two dozen college and university presidents in the state Capitol Blue Room on Wednesday afternoon (June 6), Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed three state laws providing millions of dollars in new resources for Oklahoma’s tax-financed colleges and universities. 

Joining Fallin for the celebration were legislative leaders and Higher Education stalwarts, including David Boren, Burns Hargis and Glen Johnson. 

One of the measures was House Bill 3058, co-sponsored by Speaker of the House Kris Steele of Shawnee and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa. Senate Bill 1280, by Steele and state Sen. Mike Schulz of Altus, appropriated $3.08 million to find the efforts envisioned in H.B. 3058.

The measures create a new medical residency training program to be affiliated with the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. 

When the residency training program passed the House in April, Steele, a Shawnee Republican, said, “Oklahoma’s doctor shortage is a real problem for the insured and uninsured alike, particularly in rural areas. Improving hospital residency programs is a pragmatic, realistic step the state can take to boost the number of doctors treating patients in our state.”

The program, in conjunction with efforts at the University of Oklahoma, is expected to have a high impact around the state, not only in rural regions but also in underserved areas like north Tulsa, where OU is developing a specialty clinic named for the late Wayman Tisdale, an OU and NBA superstar who died of cancer. 

Senate Bill 1969, the third measure signed Wednesday, transfers resources from the EDGE program to the Higher Regents Endowment Trust Fund. The two Republican appropriations chairmen in the Legislature, state Rep. Earl Sears of Bartlesville and Sen. Clark Jolley of Edmond, shepherded the measure to passage.

The measure will make up, over time, about half of what Higher Education officials characterize as a “backlog” – a lack of taxpayer funding to match private contributions accumulated to finance positions at colleges and universities. The measure will benefit at least 22 of the 25 institutions in the government’s Higher Ed system.

Interest from EDGE will also provide start-up funds for the “closing fund” Fallin has sought since her first State of the State address. 

In an upbeat assessment of the 2012 legislative session, Fallin’s staff summarized the luster of Higher Education bills with these words, saying the system would receive: 

“$10 million annualized funding for operations, matching an FY 2012 supplemental measure; transferred the bulk of the $161 million funding the EDGE program to university endowed chairs program; allocated $3 million for the Wayman Tisdale specialty health clinic in Tulsa; $3.08 million for the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine to fund the rural residency program to increase access to health care in rural and underserved areas.” 

In her remarks before the signing ceremony, the chief executive gave a “shout out” to not only the Oklahoma City Thunder – seeking the Western Conference title of the National Basketball Association later that evening – but also to the OU softball team, playing for a Women’s World Series title. Hargis later said he, too, would be cheering for the Lady Sooners. 

Fallin thanked legislators, Boren, Hargis and others from the Higher Ed system, as well as several organizations whose lobbyists played an important role advocating for the significant funding boost and the “backlog” fill-in. 

Speaker Steele teased Sears about a dramatic change in his hair style since the end of the 2012 session on May 25, then turned serious in thanking state Reps. Corey Williams, a Stillwater Democrat, and Doug Cox, a Grove Republican, for advocating the rural residency programs. 

Hargis, president of Oklahoma State University, said the new legislation for residencies addressed “a critical, acute need” and was something that only could have been triggered by state government action. 

Sen. Jolley pointed to a group of medical students in the Blue Room, saying “those who might benefit the most are the students in the back wearing the long jackets.” He also said the shift of resources from EDGE into endowments was laudable and would serve the original program’s objectives. He hailed the University of Central Oklahoma (Edmond), now with the state’s third largest number of students. 

Rep. Sears said he was proud the Legislature was “fulfilling a promise” by boosting the matching endowment program. He pointed to Higher Ed officials in the room and said, “Don’t blow it. Keep moving Oklahoma forward.” 

OU President Boren, a former governor himself, thanked Fallin for her support and said the endowed chairs have “allowed us to recruit stars into our state.” He said the “remarkable public-private partnership” allows the state to battle “raiders from Harvard and MIT” who try to draw Oklahomans away from the state. He said the effect of the legislation “will be felt for years to come.”

Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Higher Education system, said 22 of the 25 institutions have endowed chairs waiting for “the public match” that taxpayers will fill thanks to the new laws.  He asserted, “the winners are the students” whom he characterized as “our leaders of the future.” 

In discussion with reporters, OSU officials projected 40 to 50 new medical residencies a year, leading ultimately to 300 more primary care physicians over the next several years. A favored talking point for the legislation is an anticipated federal funding match. 

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Boren characterized a partnership with the University of Tulsa for a “school of community medicine” will be part of a “a major investment” by his institution in the north Tulsa area.