Republican leaders press ahead on cluster of substantive policy proposals

Tax reform and tax reduction — as well as the fate of existing tax credits and business incentives – are coming to dominate policy discussions at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. By no means, however, are those the only substantive matters under consideration in the 2012 session. 

Both of the top Republican legislative leaders believe that “Open Carry” legislation, advocated by Second Amendment activists, will pass and be signed into law. Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman observed, in his weekly discussion with the Capitol press corps, “There is strong sentiment for that. Oklahoma is one of just [a few] that doesn’t have open carry provisions. Now, some actually prefer concealed carry.”

Speaker of the House Kris Steele said he is “very supportive” of the measure because he believes it includes safeguards allowing law enforcement to work peacefully with gun owners. In response to a question from one reporter, Steele said a recent gun incident in Tulsa did not give him any second thoughts about the proposal. 

Concerning this week’s disclosure of a highly critical audit of privately-funded bank accounts used to finance past Department of Education events, Bingman was asked if he thought there would be a push for further investigation or examination of past policies at the agency. Bingman said, “Any member can request we take a special look at something. I don’t know enough yet to comment intelligently on that one.” 

When he was asked about the audit, Steele said. “I’ve not had a chance to read it. Based on what I’ve read in the newspaper, a lot of it shocking, if true. Some of the actions taken seem inappropriate.” 

Bingman predicted the Senate Judiciary Committee would consider Steele’s justice reinvestment proposal and the upper chamber would “get it done in the next 2-3 weeks.” House Bill 3052 passed the House 66-27 on Tuesday. 

Concerning the approval of supplemental funding for core services in the current Fiscal Year (2012), both leaders said they were happy with the package that advanced in the past two weeks. Steele elaborated, “I am glad the supplementals are moving forward. The economy has allowed us to do that. I believe that bill will be eligible to be signed by the governor next week.” 

In his session with reporters, Speaker Steele gave strong support to the push by Speaker-designate T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, in the area of transportation system improvements, including the Sooner State’s notorious bridges. 

Shannon’s House Bill 2248 aims to increase road funding from another $19.2 million beyond a $37.5 million boost already planned for the Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety Fund. According to Steele’s communication’s staff, “The bill directs that the fund continue receiving an additional $56.7 million each year until the total increase equals $550 million.”

Shannon is also pushing House Bill 2249, a measure increasing the percentage of licensing fees and penalties going to the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges Fund. Both bills, part of the transportation infrastructure program Gov. Mary Fallin detailed in her State of the State address last month, sailed through the House this week. 

Steele gave a new “atta-boy” to his ally on pension reform, state Rep. Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City. McDaniel’s House Bill 2952 increases state government and employee contributions to the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Retirement System (OLERS) by 1 percentage point each. This is projected to provide another $1.42 million every year.

H.B. 2952 also puts new members of the OLERS system under the same benefit structure as other state employees. Although once a well-funded program (as high as 100 percent adequacy in 2001), OLERS in the past decade has become increasingly untenable, now standing at 75 percent funded. (The private sector standard for sufficiency is 80 percent funding, at a minimum.)

The latest pension reform measure to clear the House joins the wave of reforms McDaniel has crafted and Steele has pressed, in close cooperation with state Sen. Mike Mazzei of Tulsa. CapitolBeatOK deemed the 2011 pension reforms as the most significant public policy steps taken in Oklahoma last year. 

On another topic, Steele said state Rep. Jason Murphey’s proposals to open records/open meeting provisions to the Legislature are “the next logical step” in the push for openness and transparency that has characterized the past two years. 

Thursday, the House worked well into the evening. With another round of bill processing deadlines looming, he explained, “We are trying to maximize the time and not make important decisions at 10 or 11 or 12 o’clock at night. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the progress thus far.”

With roughly another 100 bills to process in the coming week, Steele warned he could not promise there would be no midnight sessions, but stressed he was hopeful of avoiding that.