Joint water policy committee formed, further pension reforms envisioned

Two of the most significant issues facing the 2012 session of the Oklahoma Legislature will get fresh examination from key legislators, in wake of leadership announcements this week. 

Today (Tuesday, June 14), leaders of the House and Senate formed a joint committee to fashion long-range policy for water. CapitolBeatOK first reported the panel was being established. In other news, a special House committee will look at further state government pension reforms.

Speaker of the House Kris Steele of Shawnee and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa formed the water panel, which will work during the summer and fall interim period, and into the 2012 session.
Starting point for the committee, and the bi-partisan members, will be announced later this month,  and will be the state Comprehensive Water Plan now in final stages of development, the two said. 

The draft plan has circulated since April and was the basis for recent public hearings all around the state. A final plan is due this fall.

In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Speaker Steele said, “Responsible allocation of water – our most precious natural resource – is among the greatest responsibilities we have today to the citizens of tomorrow. 

“The state’s last 50-year water plan is about to expire. We need a new one, and we need it now. With the updated comprehensive water plan nearly complete, we must no longer defer action on this vital issue.”

Steele said the legislative committee would take no action until the comprehensive plan is finalized. He said, “In the meantime, it is prudent for the Legislature to begin at least reviewing the parts of the plan that are publicly available. The plan is lengthy and complex, so we need to make sure we’re doing our due diligence in preparing ourselves to act upon it next year.”

Bingman commented, ““To develop a plan that works for all of Oklahoma, we must include all of Oklahoma. The committee will take all interests  into account, whether they are rural, urban, tribal, or anywhere in between.”

The Senate leader continued, “Water policy is a complex and sometimes emotional issue, but I am confident that the leadership and will power exists within this Legislature to meet this challenge.”

Sen. Brian Crain of Tulsa will be co-chairman of the water committee, with Rep. Phil Richardson of Minco as the House co-chair.

State Rep. Randy McDaniel  of Oklahoma City will serve as chairman of a select House committee on oversight committee on pensions, Steele announced June 13. 

Even after a year of historic changes in state pension laws, the Speaker said more reforms are needed: “We have reason to believe past pension system investments and other financial policies may have further imperiled an already strained pension system in ways that warrant serious attention. This committee will determine precisely what problems exist and how Oklahoma can continue improving its pension system.”

Next week, on June 21 and 22, McDaniel will attend a pension policy conference at the Pew Center for the States in Washington, D.C. On July 18, he will detail Oklahoma’s reforms at a meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. Steele will also attend that session. 

When the 2011 legislative session began, Oklahoma’s funding ratio for the six government pension programs were among the nation’s worst. The $16 billion in unfunded liabilities as of March ranked the Sooner State as third worst in America, according to House staff. 

The diverse package of reforms passed this year gained more than $6 billion against those liabilities. House staff sketched the reform package in these words:

•                House Bill 2132, which requires the Legislature to fully fund cost-of-living adjustments made to pension plans, reducing unfunded liabilities by about $5 billion;

•                Senate Bills 377, 794 and HB 1010, which increase the normal retirement age on various pension systems for those who join after Nov. 1, 2011, saving nearly $2 billion;

•                H.B. 1007, which requires a monthly transfer of revenues from a State Department of Education revolving fund to the Oklahoma Teacher’s Retirement System, improving the fiscal stability of OTRS and increasing the recognized state per-pupil spending amount;

•                S.B. 891, which requires school districts employing a retired member of the teacher’s retirement system pay the employee’s contribution when he or she returns to work for a school system;

•                S.B. 347, which requires a municipal employee to forfeit pension benefits if convicted of certain criminal activities related to the duties of his or her office.