The Fourth

By Rep. Mike Sanders 

Between the fireworks, the parades and family gatherings in the park, sometimes it’s hard to think about what that 1776 July 4 must have been like.

First, I think about how tense the scene must have been, the independence of a new nation hanging in the balance. Breaking from the tyranny of an old master was necessary, but it must have been bittersweet. England was a known empire builder, a protector and the fatherland of most of the American colonists. To declare independence would mean years more of war, being cut off from supplies from home, in many instances being at odds with neighbors and friends, even family members.

As a state lawmaker, I’ve been in tense negotiations before – plenty of times. We argue over things that in the moment seem monumental – how to fund almost 100 state agencies in a recession, for instance. Still, I’ve never felt like I was risking my life or the lives of all of those I love and care for when I author or argue a bill. Sometimes I’ve felt the federal government is tyrannical in its demands, but I’ve never faced it sending troops to my door for my defiance.

Sometimes I’m amazed that 56 men could come to such an agreement. I don’t know if this could be done today. We had a hard time getting 56 votes on any major piece of legislation this year.

Yet, on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress of the United States of America approved the final wording for the Declaration of Independence. After several days of what I’m imagining were very heated arguments and debates, the last i was dotted and the last t crossed. The letter declaring independence from tyranny was officially adopted.

I wonder how many people remember that independence from England actually was officially declared on July 2, 1776. The Declaration wasn’t even signed until Aug. 2, and the letter sent in November. The Constitution was signed in September. Yet we celebrate July 4 as our independence day. Sometimes I think our founding fathers picked this date because of the momentousness of being able to come to that final agreement. The first Continental Congress had met a year and a half before. War had already been raging in the colonies since April 1775. The draft of the declaration had been in the works for almost a month. And here was the finished work, agreed to on the future blood that would be spilled over its words.

Liberty, freedom, independence – none are free; none are cheap.

I hope wherever you are this July 4 you’ll remember those who agreed to the final version of the Declaration of Independence, and the divine help they must have received in coming to this agreement. It has kept U.S. citizens free for more than 240 years. Happy July 4!

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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The Way Forward

By Rep. Mike Sanders

This year, with so many new members and so many widely differing beliefs about what should and should not be funded by state government, the budget process was challenging.

Making it more difficult were the constantly shifting demands of the minority leader and his caucus. Believing they had just enough power in the House to stall budget negotiations indefinitely, they rejected every Republicans proposal to balance the budget. These included raising the gross production tax on oil and gas to 4, 4.5 even 5 percent. Republicans also agreed to six out of seven items in the Democrats’ budget plan. Each offer was left on the table.

Instead of being a statesman and a consensus builder – choosing to do what was best for the state instead of what was politically expedient for him individually – the minority leader over-kicked his punt coverage. Knowing we would not be able to rely on help to put the state on sound financial footing, the speaker of the House and me, along with other House leaders, turned to other measures to shore up core services demanded by our citizens, ones which we could pass without minority support.

We want to be able to work across the aisle, embracing all ideas that will make Oklahoma a stronger, better state – one that is open for business and economic growth and activity, one where personal freedoms are protected and the needs of citizens met. After several years of obstructionist tactics, however, it is clear we must move forward in developing an innovative and conservative policy agenda on which to build, regardless of whether theDemocrats join us.

To develop this agenda for implementation during the 2018 legislative session, House leadership recently announced it will hold a series of House Republican Leadership Policy Working Groups. I will help lead these groups. Our goal is to reduce government waste and increase efficiencies in spending, enhance personal freedom and grow economic opportunities for Oklahomans. We will study ways to rid agencies of duplicative services and help them run more efficiently; finding ways to better support but reform spending for transportation, public safety, education, healthcare and mental health. Members will participate in these groups voluntarily and will not be paid per diem or reimbursed for mileage. This won’t be on the taxpayer’s dime.

Bottom line is we need to restructure our state budget, moving more money from off-the-top appropriations to theGeneral Revenue Fund. We also need to take a more detailed look at each tax credit and deduction we offer and shed those that don’t benefit the state. We need to streamline the process by which we arrive at a balanced budget. We can’t do things the way they’ve always been done.

We started the changes this year, holding public hearings at the beginning of session for five state agencies that receive almost 80 percent of state appropriations. Each representative also rotated through various appropriation & budget subcommittees to get a better grasp of agency funding requests. These working groups will help us move even further forward next year.

To wrap up the highlights of our state budget for fiscal year 2018, I wanted to include a note about funding for public safety and corrections. Public safety received almost $13 million more this year than last, a 2.1 percent increase. Under this umbrella, the Department of Corrections received more than $4.5 million above last year. Keeping the public safe is one of the most important functions of government.  This money will mean our prisons can be better staffed, increasing safety for both the public and corrections’ officers, and our Highway Patrol troopers can get back to patrolling our roads without the threat of furloughs or mileage caps.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Rep. Sanders Comments on Retirement of Transportation Secretary Ridley

OKLAHOMA CITY – House Majority Leader Mike Sanders commented on today’s announcement that Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley is retiring.

“I would like to commend Secretary Ridley on his retirement,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “This will be a loss to Department of Transportation. Secretary Ridley is a true statesman, really the epitome of the Oklahoma standard. He’s been willing to cross party lines in order to get things done, and has always been willing to work on what is best for Oklahoma. Even when that meant giving up funding in tight years to ensure other core government services were adequately funded, he still ensured the 8-year roads and bridges construction plan always stayed on track. He will be missed.”

Sanders served for four years as the chair of the House Appropriations & Budget Transportation Subcommittee while Ridley served as Transportation Secretary. He said Ridley has been a mentor over the course of his career. He and his wife, Eula, are personal family friends.

“My wife Nellie and I send them all the best in this new phase of life.”

 

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Session Successes

By Rep. Mike Sanders

This is column two in a series on the 2017 budget process.

Contrary to what you might have read recently in the state’s largest newspaper, we had more successes this legislative session than not.

Many of our triumphs involved education. Despite facing an almost $900 million hole coming into session, we were able to hold the appropriation for education flat when compared to last year’s appropriation. We also completely made up for mid-year revenue declines that affected schools. In addition, we fully funded the flexible benefits allowance for teachers and support staff that helps pay co-pays and other medical expenses that otherwise would be part of out-of-pocket deductibles.

We also were able to pass several different funding mechanisms for education. One transparency bill requires school districts that pay below the state minimum salary schedule to notify their teachers in writing that they are following this procedure. Another bill gives full transparency on how the state calculates the per-pupil expenditure. This bill clearly defines all funding sources included in the formula and all that are not, such as adult and community education, facilities acquisition and construction services, debt services, property, and other expenditures not related to day-to-day operations. We also passed a bill that would allow school districts the ability to give teachers retention pay outside of the salary schedule; and we passed a bill that took the $18,000 cap off of pay for retired teachers who go back to the classroom to teach, allowing districts to make the determination on pay.

In addition to education, rural healthcare was protected in this year’s budget. We fully funded Medicaid provider rates, ensuring rural health care providers stay in the market to treat our area residents. We also ensured rural hospitals and nursing homes, and places like the Center of Family Love in Okarche, get to keep their federal matching funds. This is so important to helping keep the doors open on these facilities that allow our residents to get the care they need closer to home.

No budget is perfect. Going into the session, we were looking at potential cuts of at least 15 percent across the board if not more. This budget process was rough, but so is the process for refining a diamond.

In addition to the budget, there were other successes this legislative session. One was the passage of the REAL ID Act, which gives Oklahomans the option of keeping their current driver’s license or getting one that complies with federal law, allowing access to federal buildings and military bases and flight on commercial aircraft. If we had not passed this act, Oklahomans would have been forced to carry a second form of ID for air travel or access to the facilities mentioned above.

Other successes this year include victims’ rights laws that give victims equal protections under the law that defendants receive; and a DUI bill that would force those suspected of driving under the influence to take a breathalyzer test or await the outcome of their criminal trial before continuing to drive. This is about protecting people from the terrible consequences of drunk driving.

I’ll talk about additional successes from this legislative session in my next column. In the meantime, remember to be careful what you read. The big city papers tell only the side of the story that will help them sell more newspapers. They’re long on criticism and short on solutions. I’m thankful for my district papers, which report the full facts and how they affect people closer to home.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Budget Details

The House on Friday passed a $6.9 billion appropriation’s budget.

After many long nights away from my family and long hours out in the district listening to constituent concerns and agency hopes, this seems like nothing short of a miracle.

This was a challenging year. We started budget work in earnest last fall, and in January heard from the five agencies that receive almost 80 percent of state appropriated dollars. Next, we asked all of our appropriations subcommittee chairs to dive deeply into agency budgets to see where efficiencies could still be found. Each committee member rotated through the various subcommittees to get a better overall look at the state budget. 

We knew coming into session we had an $878 million hole to fill. This is the amount we were short for fiscal year 2018 to match what we appropriated in FY17. There were plenty of ideas for how to fill this hole, but getting consensus among the 73 Republican members of the House and 26 Democrats, including 32 freshmen members, then getting approval from the state Senate and the signature of the governor proved near impossible. But, we did it; we made it happen. We were able to pull together $578-plus million dollars of recurring revenue for future years.

The budget we passed not only fills this year’s budget hole, it holds 15 core agencies flat – meaning they receive almost identical funding to last year. This includes common education, public safety, the Health Care Authority, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Human Services and mental health.

This means, our schools get a 1.6 percent increase over last year’s funding, including $18 million to backfill mid-year cuts. Plus, we fully funded flexible benefit allowances for teachers. What we couldn’t do was pass a teacher pay raise. House Republicans voted three times this session to give teachers a $6,000 raise over the next three years, but this failed to get Democrat or Senate support. House leadership and House Republicans are 100 percent committed to this teacher pay raise next year. We will not stop until this is achieved.

On another note, though, we have funding to secure all of the health care federal matching dollars to continue services in our rural nursing homes and hospitals. Children in foster care will continue to be served. Our regional juvenile detention centers will continue to operate. Public safety services will continue.

Other agencies on average received a 4.2 percent cut, much better than the 15 percent cut feared earlier in the session. All of these accomplishments seemed impossible just four months ago.

Agencies taking a slight cut include the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. A $100 million cut came from the Roads Fund and $50 million from the County Improvement for Roads and Bridges (CIRB) Plan, but this was an amount the department assured us would still allow the 8-year plan to remain intact.

As I believe you will remember, our roads and bridges were decimated before Republicans won majority control of the House in 2005. More than 3,000 bridges were structurally deficient; within the next year that number will be down to zero.

I want to thank transportation for always being willing to help in tight budget times. In addition to the funding the department gave up to general revenue this year, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority came to the table with a $5 million check to fully fund an Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Academy in early 2018. These are outstanding examples of partnership.

I will give further details of this year’s session and the state budget in next week’s column. Until then, as always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Honoring Those Who Serve

By Rep. Mike Sanders

As we move through the business of life, it’s sometimes easy to forget what is truly important – the love of a spouse, watching our children play and grow, the importance of family and friends, living in a country where we are free to choose where to attend church, where to send our children to school, what careers to pursue, a nation where we can all have a voice in our government. We are so blessed.

Such freedom doesn’t come without cost. Unfortunately, all we enjoy in this nation comes at great sacrifice. It comes because men and women have been willing to lay down their lives for liberty.

As we approach Memorial Day, I want to say thank you to all of the men and women who have sacrificed for our freedom. From those who defended our liberty as far back as the founding of our nation, to those who served on either side in the Civil War, those who fought in World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam and those who currently fight in the war against terrorism in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a million military service men and women have died in all of these wars. I realize all that I love and hold dear is possible only because of the men and women who serve our country to ensure we stay free.

While Memorial Day was started as Decoration Day in the Civil War as a way to recognize and honor our military dead, it has since come to also be a day when we remember our family members who have preceded us in death. It has been three years since my own dear mother passed away, and I remember every day all of her personal sacrifice for me. I will always keep her memory alive and pray that her legacy lives through me.

As the flags fly this weekend, and the sound of “Taps” is heard at cemeteries across the nation, and flowers are placed on the graves of loved ones, I hope you all will join me in saying an extra prayer for our military and for their families who also sacrifice. Make sure to say thank you to all you know who have served in this capacity.

I’ll discuss the state budget in detail in my next few columns over the next few weeks. For now, please enjoy your Memorial Day.

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Sanders Comments on Trooper Academy

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Department of Public Safety today announced it will hold an Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy early next year thanks to funding from the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

The announcement was made at the state Capitol during a news conference.

“I’d like to thank the Turnpike Authority and Director Tim Gatz for making this happen,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “I also appreciate House leadership and Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson for helping to facilitate this arrangement.”

“One of the top priorities of state government is protecting our citizens,” said Sanders. “The Oklahoma Highway Patrol was unable to fund an academy this year to hire new troopers. Currently, 790 troopers protect more than 112,000 miles of Oklahoma roads. Having new troopers on our roads will help keep Oklahomans safe.”

The 2018 Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy is estimated to cost about $5 million and will fund up to 30 recruits, including the school, training, equipment, salary and benefits for a year.

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Bills Signed Into Law; Budget Pending

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The governor in the past week signed into law House Bill 1833, which I authored. This measure moves the duties of the state Council of Firefighter Training (COFT) to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. COFT works with all state volunteer fire departments to make sure our firefighters are ready for any emergency. It was critical to keep this council intact. This measure keeps COFT duties but returns the State Fire Marshal’s Office to non-appropriated status as it has been in the past, saving the state $1.4 million. This money is greatly needed in our current economy.

Also signed into law this week was my House Bill 1259, which increases the qualifications for sheriff’s candidates. The intent is to make sure those who serve as sheriff in Oklahoma are highly qualified for this important position.

Already signed into law is Senate Bill 324, which I authored. This creates the Oklahoma Awards Program. The Oklahoma Medal of Valor and the Oklahoma Purple Heart will be awarded to those in our Department of Public Safety and citizens who display heroic acts of valor or are injured or give their lives in the call of serving another or saving a life. I am very proud and honored to carry this piece of legislation.

In the meantime, we are still working our way through the budget process. Every year we work on the budget for months and months, and it comes to May and we’re still hashing out the final details. Despite our best hopes, this year has proven no different. A few reasons for this: when you allow 149 lawmakers to come to the table to work out a deal, you won’t get one until the pressure of deadline arrives. Try this little experiment at a family dinner sometime – throw out the question of how you solve a budget problem and see how long it takes to get consensus. Now imagine doing that with 149 different people. In the past, budget deals have not had as much input as under current House leadership. Under speaker McCall and his leadership team, we’ve had a much more robust and open dialogue with input from all 73 members of the Republican Caucus. I can’t say that for all leaders at the Capitol.

House Republicans have offered numerous proposals to solve the state’s ongoing budget problems. Time and again the Democrats have rejected these plans, while shifting the goalposts of what they say they will support. One week they tie their vote to Insure Oklahoma, the next week it’s an income tax increase, the next week it’s renegotiating gross production taxes.

Democrats claim that every other Republican plan for revenue reform is an unfair burden to the middle class or the working poor. They instead have asked us to increase items such as income tax. Take into consideration, however, that the state’s highest income tax bracket kicks in for those earning just $7,200 for a single tax filer and $12,200 for married couples filing jointly. How is raising this tax not a tax on the middle class and really the poor?

We’re in the final weeks of session, and many ideas are still being posited. The bottom line remains, however, that we must always look for efficiencies in state government first and cutting government waste.

House Republicans do, however, want to make sure we are paying our teachers a comparable wage to neighboring states. We want to make sure we are adequately funding our roads and bridges. We want to ensure we’re keeping our public safe and that we are taking care of the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

I’m still optimistic that a budget deal can be reached, but I would ask for your sincere prayers in helping us accomplish this task.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Goals in Sight

By Rep. Mike Sanders

We’re nearing the end of the Legislative session and several of my bills have either been signed into law or are headed to the governor’s desk.

Already signed into law is Senate Bill 324, which creates the Oklahoma Awards Program. The Oklahoma Medal of Valor and the Oklahoma Purple Heart will be awarded to those in our Department of Public Safety and citizens who display heroic acts of valor or are injured or give their lives in the call of serving another or saving a life. I am very proud and honored to carry this piece of legislation.

Headed to conference committee is House Bill 1116, which allows for the first time statements by vulnerable or incapacitated adults who alleges abuse, neglect, financial exploitation or any violent act to be admissible as evidence in court if a judge finds the statement to be reliable. This will help protect the vulnerable. I’m hopeful this moves forward.

On its way to the governor is House Bill 1833, which transfers all duties and responsibilities of the state Council of Firefighter Training (COFT) to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. COFT is an agency that assists and works with all state volunteer fire departments. It was critical its duties remained intact. This measure keeps COFT but returns the State Fire Marshal’s Office to non-appropriated status as it has been in the past, saving the state $1.4 million.

House Bill 1259, which strengthens the qualifications of candidates seeking the job of sheriff, also is headed to the governor’s desk. The intent of this measure is to make sure those who serve as sheriff in our state are highly qualified for this important position.

Changing gears, budget negotiations are still ongoing with several measures being discussed between the parties in the House before we send them to the Senate. There is much talk about raising revenue right now. Keep in mind that to raise revenue in our state requires a ¾ majority vote in both the House and the Senate and or a vote of the people. In 1992, Oklahomans voted for this high threshold to keep the Legislature from increasing their taxes without their permission. Before we consider raising revenue, however, we must always look at efficiencies in state government first.

The House meanwhile continues to lead on major issues such as working to secure funding for a teacher pay raise, ensuring greater efficiencies in state government, shepherding a number of victims’ rights bill through the legislative process – many of which have become law, and protecting transportation funding.

Speaking of transportation funding, there are some in the Capitol that would like to cut $125 million or more from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) budget. Let me remind you that $323 million was cut from the agency’s budget last year. The Legislature did approve a $200 million transportation bond, but the agency still absorbed a cut, plus they have to pay back the bond.

Some also would like to cut or cap the County Improvement for Roads and Bridges Program (CIRB). This is a non-starter in the House. County roads and bridges are a lifeline for rural residents. I will continue to stand with our county commissioners and with ODOT. Transportation is a core service of government and needs to be treated as such.

In the coming weeks – two to be exact – we will have a budget. I am hopeful and optimistic this will occur. I would ask for your thoughts and prayers during this time.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Drafting the State Budget

By Rep. Mike Sanders

It’s the time of year when we hear a lot about the state budget. Here’s a brief review of the process.

House leadership starts looking at the state budget for the next fiscal year in about October when we start seeing state agency preliminary requests. This year, in January, we added public budget hearings with the five state agencies that receive almost 80 percent of the state appropriated budget.

Once session starts, the speaker forms the House appropriations & budget subcommittees, broken up into education, general government, health, human services, judiciary, national resources and regulatory service, public safety, transportation and other areas. This year, these subcommittees met with various state agencies to do a deeper dive into their budgets. Each member was asked to rotate through the various committees to get a better look at the state’s overall budget.

The House Appropriations & Budget Committee and the Joint Committee on Appropriations & Budget, made up of House and Senate members, also have met multiple times, approving a number of bills that are now starting to move through the House and to the Senate.

The first of those measures passed the House last week.

House Bill 2343 removes red tape, making it easier to collect back sales taxes from businesses that are late on their tax payments. House Bill 2344 reduces the cap on film tax rebates from $5 million to $4 million annually. House Bill 2350 eliminates the sales tax exemption for certain sporting events, like tickets to the Oklahoma City Thunder games. Combined, these three measures are expected to generate about $20 million and are a step towards helping close the budget gap.

These are examples of bills that require 51 votes in the House to pass: bills that raise certain fees or end tax exemptions, deductions and credits. Bills that will raise taxes require two-thirds, or 76 votes in the House, to pass. Raising taxes is harder, as it should be.

Here’s a look at the budget breakdown. About 60 percent of the money in the overall state budget comes off the top, mainly for transportation and education; about 40 percent gets appropriated at the Legislature’s discretion. We’re working to move more money from the off-the-top category to the appropriated category to give the Legislature greater flexibility to better meet changing needs each year. But, there’s a reason that money was set aside in the first place, to protect things like transportation.

We hear a lot about education funding, but common and higher education and CareerTech gets about 52 percent of the appropriated budget. We have to fund the rest of government – more than 60 state agencies – with the remainder. Transportation as a whole only gets about 9 percent of the budget.

We’re working to craft a state budget this year that will adequately fund core government services but that will continue to force state agencies to spend conservatively and eliminate all waste. The taxpayer should get the greatest discretion of how their money is spent.

We are on track to have a balanced budget before session ends in May. I will keep you posted on our progress.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.

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