Mixed Reviews as Oklahoma Legislative Session Ends

Oklahoma City – Republican leaders at the state Capitol declared themselves pleased with the results of the 2019 session of the Legislature, but diverse reviews from the minority party and other quarters were mixed.
In a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, Senate Republican leaders characterized the session as “incredibly successful,” with “major investments in classroom funding and another teacher pay raise, transformational government accountability measures, increased funding for criminal justice reforms, the passage of constitutional carry, and many other successes.”

President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said in his prepared statement, “Senate Republicans kept our promise to Oklahoma by delivering on budget transparency, government accountability, education investment and reforms, and criminal justice reform investment. This year was capped by a terrific budget deal that makes significant investments in classroom funding, teacher pay raises, and criminal justice reforms. Senate Republicans also delivered on important policy fronts like constitutional carry, judicial redistricting, and workers’ compensation reforms. The totality of our work this session will bring positive, transformational changes and help make Oklahoma an even better state. I appreciate the members of the Senate Republican Caucus for working together toward the same goal and accomplishing great things for Oklahoma this year.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Kim David, R-Porter, commented, “The 2019 session started off well with the passage of constitutional carry. We are ending on a high note with a terrific budget that makes investments in classrooms, teachers, state employees, criminal justice reform, mental health and so many other areas. Senate Republicans worked well together through the legislative process and delivered on our commitments to Oklahoma. I appreciate the professionalism and work-ethic of all members of the Senate, which made this session run smoothly and successfully. When we look back, this session will be judged as a tremendous success because of all the great policies and budget decisions that will move Oklahoma forward.”

Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, guided the upper chamber’s Appropriations process this year. He reflected, “This year we produced a remarkable budget for Oklahoma that makes significant investments in areas like education, criminal justice reform, health care and mental health. I want to thank the Senate sub-appropriation committee chairs for their diligent and detailed work – going back to August – that brought this budget to life. I’m also proud that we passed big reforms like ‘pay for success’ legislation that will enable innovative public-private partnerships to improve the delivery of state services. Overall, this will go down as one of the most successful legislative sessions for our commitment to Oklahoma.”
With Republicn priorities tagged with an asterisk (*), a partial listing of Senate budget and policy highlights (as presented by the majority caucus), follows: 

    •  $200 million in savings.
    •  Brings Oklahoma’s total savings at the end of this fiscal year to $1 billion.
    •  $29 million for a fund to preserve Medicaid provider rates during economic downturns.

    •  $157.9 million in increased funding for public schools:
    •  $74.4 million in new classroom funding
    •  $1,220 on average teacher pay raise
    •  $18 million for the CareerTech system for pay raises and course additions.
    •  $28 million for higher education for increased research and a professor pay raise.
    •  $7.5 million for concurrent enrollment.
    •  $5.5 million for the Reading Sufficiency Act.
    • Increased classroom instructional time to benefit students (S.B. 441).*

    •  Series of bills giving governor the authority to hire/fire the director of five top state agencies (S.B. 456, S.B. 457, H.B. 2480, H.B/ 2479, H.B. 2483).*
    •  Creation of the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (S.B. 1) and $1.7 million appropriation to fund LOFT startup.*
    •  $37.7 million for a state employee pay raise of up to $1,500.
    •  $16.4 million for digital transformation of state services to improve customer service and enhance transparency.
    •  $700,000 to hire new auditors in the State Auditor’s Office.

    •  $1.1 million for wildfire mitigation and additional resources for rural fire fighters.
    •  $1.5 million to improve rural flood control dams.
    •  Advanced the production of industrial hemp in Oklahoma (S.B. 868/H.B/ 2628).

    •  “Pay for Success” which encourages innovative public/private partnerships to help state agencies provide services without risking tax dollars (H.B. 2670).*
    •  $20.1 million to reform District Attorney office funding.
    •  $10 million for “Smart on Crime” mental health and substance abuse treatment programming.*
    •  $1.5 million for the Women in Recovery diversion program.*
    •  $1.7 million to expand drug courts options for nonviolent offenders.
    •  Protected Oklahomans’ Second Amendment rights via constitutional carry legislation (H.B. 2597)
    •  $4,000 raise for Department of Corrections employees “behind the wire.”
    •  Modernized the Oklahoma Supreme Court judicial districting maps to enlarge the pool of qualified candidates eligible to fill judicial vacancies (H.B. 2366).
    •  Preserved and strengthened landmark workers’ compensation reforms (H.B. 2367)

    •  $1 million for additional job growth and economic development in the automotive and aerospace industries through the Aerospace Commerce Economic Services (ACES) program.
    •  $1 million to help entrepreneurs and innovators through the Oklahoma Center for Advancement of Science and Technology.
    •  Created income tax credit for qualified software or cybersecurity employees (H.B. 2759).

    •   $2 million to decrease Developmental Disability Services (DDSD) wait list.
    •  $8 million to increase DDSD provider reimbursement rates by 4 percent.
    •  $4.6 million to increase immunizations and staff county health.
    •  Passage of testing/labeling requirements (“Unity Bill”) for medical marijuana (H.B. 2612).

    •  $2 million appropriation for two new veterans’ facilities.
    •  Designated Oklahoma as a Purple Heart State (S.B. 232).
    •  S.B. 931 creates the Revised Uniform Veterans Guardianship Act.
    •  Modified the Oklahoma veterans’ registry, and set the official launch date as Jan. 1 (S.B. 358).
    •  Enabled the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs to grant preference to veteran-owned business entities when contracting for goods or services (S.B. 135).
    •  Expanded benefits for the dignified interment of homeless veterans (S.B. 340).

    •  $30 million in funding for the County Improvement for Roads and Bridges (CIRB).
    •  Appropriations to fully fund Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s eight-year plan.

Democratic Leader Kay Floyd offers critical view

Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, supported some but by no means all of the majority’s agenda items. She circulated the following statement to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations:
“The story of this legislative session is one of both progress and missed opportunities. After a decade of revenue failures and drastic budget cuts, last year legislators came together to pass a historic bipartisan revenue package. As a result, our state finances are no longer in crisis.

“We had a chance this legislative session to build on last year’s progress by investing in our public schools and restoring core state services. The budget passed by the legislature this week takes some positive steps, but also falls short in addressing some critical priorities. It is disappointing $200 million is left in a bank account when we still have many unmet needs. Saving for the future is important, but you can’t save when you haven’t yet paid your bills.

“The funding increase for education is less than half of what the State Department of Education requested, and Oklahoma spends over $1,000 less per student in education funding than our neighboring states.
“Oklahoma has the second highest uninsured rate in the country, yet the legislature did not take action to expand access to SoonerCare, which would help cover an additional 233,000 people. There was no consideration of restoring the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, which would provide tax relief for over 200,000 hardworking Oklahomans.

“The Senate Democrats remain committed to working with our colleagues on these issues in the coming months and in the next legislative session.”

Speaker McCall and Governor Stitt pleased

Capitol reporter Carmen Forman wrote for The Oklahoman: Like schoolchildren hearing the final bell before the summer break, state lawmakers cheered Thursday as the House and Senate adjourned for the year. (https://www.oklahoman.com/article/5632139/oklahoma-legislature-adjourns)

Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said, “There’s always much more work to be done, but we will take that up in the interim to be prepared for next session. I’m proud of you … . We are one Oklahoma.”
Significant growth in state government revenues, in the midst of the healthiest state economies in the U.S., allowed legislators to grow government, using what Forman characterized as “a rare $600 million surplus.”

Forman quoted Se. Floyd saying, “We were reaping the rewards of some tough times last session, and I’m pleased that we’re now able to get some funding to the needs of the state.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt visited the legisaltors on their alst day, shaking hands and saying he had “changed the culture” at the Capitol, while praising McCall and Treat. 

OK Policy’s David Blatt blasts budget restraint, bemoans policy choices 

A critcal assessment came form David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based “think tank.” He decried the Legislature’s unwillingness to increase some areas of government spending, including his group’s calls for Medicaid expansion, restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit and a cost-living retirement hike for teachers and other government employees. 
In OK Policy’s press release, sent to CapitolBeatOK, Blatt declared, “Low-income working Oklahomans were once again forgotten this session. In a year where there was plenty of money to expand business incentive programs like the Quick Action Closing Fund and to allocate enormous increases for the governor’s office and the Legislature, there was no excuse for turning a deaf ear to those struggling to get by and get ahead.”

Jonathan Small calls inability to expand Scholarship Program ‘a particularly glaring failure’

The president of the state’s largest public policy research group had some good words for the legislative majority — but also a pointed critique of an important policy area failure during the 2019 session. 
Jonathan Small of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), which advocates free market policies and limited government, said in a release, 
“This year the Legislature advanced many important reforms that OCPA has endorsed for years. Those measures, if implemented correctly, should result in better oversight of government and less waste.

“However, the Legislature’s inability to expand the Equal Opportunity Scholarship program is a particularly glaring failure, especially since lawmakers doubled a ‘Hollywood handout,’ a voucher that sends millions of dollars to out-of-state producers such as disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“Thousands of children with special needs, kids struggling with addiction, and students living with the challenges of poverty are desperately seeking to attend schools that can best serve them, and this session let them down. Those children deserve better, and OCPA will continue to advocate for them.”
(https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/ocpa-s-jonathan-small-comments-on-2019-legislative-session?fbclid=IwAR0AjrQbKmCtK9wHSyCjVS6ItefrIut9biGfmXnydflvOAsK_W1ThUcuydA )