Prayers of a Grateful Lawmaker

By Rep. Mike Sanders

When many people think of the nation’s first Thanksgiving, they often envision the Pilgrims sitting down with a group of First Americans sharing a harvest dinner.

I want to harken to the Thanksgiving Day called to observance by President George Washington in 1789, the same year the government of the United States of America began under the newly ratified Constitution.

President Washington issued a proclamation declaring an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks” to be observed in November of that year to honor the new Constitution.

According to the George Washington Mount Vernon Society, “Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government.”

The items spelled out in Washington’s proclamation are things for which I still am thankful – the Almighty’s care and protection, His help in establishing and helping us maintain our liberty, and the opportunity to peaceably establish a constitutional system of government for our safety and happiness.

I may not always agree with our government, but I can honestly say I’m grateful for the foundation laid so carefully by our nation’s founding fathers and the Constitution that allows us to this day to continue to live in tranquility and freedom.

I’m grateful as well for my family – my wife Nellie and our boys. I’m very blessed.

I’m grateful for the district in which we live, for the people who enrich our lives in so many ways. I will continue to serve you to the very best of my ability.

On Thanksgiving as every day, I offer grateful prayers for our military – our service men and women who protect us both at home and abroad; for our law enforcement officers and our first responders; for our teachers and other civil servants who keep our many community services running. I’m thankful for the many business owners who choose to call House District 59 home.

As you go about your busy lives, I hope you too will take a moment to express your gratitude towards others and in the words of Washington, “Acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, obey His will, be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore His protection and favor.”

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Can’t Support Cut to Transportation

By Rep. Mike Sanders

I voted no on the stop-gap budget bill this week.

From day one I have been a supporter of the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges (CIRB) Fund. I have voted against state budgets in the past because they dipped too heavily into transportation. It’s one thing when our partners in transportation tell us they have enough to complete their projects and that we can pull the excess for other necessary state services. But, when Western Oklahoma county commissioners tell me this will hurt projects currently in the five-year plan, I believe them, and I stand with them.

Safe and well-maintained roadways are a vital part of our infrastructure, allow for economic development in rural Oklahoma and, most of all, assure our families can travel safely in their daily routines.

The state’s top three medical and health agencies will be funded, and the agency directors were very supportive of this bill. Keeping our rural nursing homes and hospitals open was my top priority of this special session. 

Twelve agencies will receive no cuts. These include common education, the state Health Department, Corrections and the Indigent Defense System, among others.

One source of revenue for the state budget is a removal of a remaining credit on gross production taxes on legacy oil wells (those drilled before July 2015) from 4 percent to 7 percent. This will bring in almost $49 million this fiscal year and about $100 million next year.

In the meantime, the state receives some positive economic news. October gross receipts rose by 10.6 percent over the same month a year ago. This is the first time for double-digit growth in the last 4½ years. It’s also significant that nine out of 10 months this calendar year have shown growth over the previous year as have almost all major revenue streams. 

Our No. 1 mission during this special session was to take care of the health care crisis, and we have done that. Now we are preparing for next session. The House is still committed to a teacher and state employee pay raise, and we will continue to fight for that among other priorities.

As always, I look forward to hearing your ideas and concerns. If I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at Mike.Sanders@okhouse.gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Revenue Raising Measure Fails

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The House on Wednesday voted on House Bill 1054X that would have increased taxes on cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco; gasoline and diesel; 3.2 beer consumed on premise; and the gross production tax on new oil wells.

The $79.1 million from the tobacco tax would have gone to the three health care agencies affected when the state Supreme Court struck down the Smoking Cessation Act of 2017. This would help keep services for our most vulnerable in place as well as our rural hospitals and nursing homes open.

The $40.5 million from the motor fuels tax would have been designated for roads and bridges beginning in July.

The $10.4 million from beer, and $2.1 million from gross production tax would have gone towards a teacher and state employee pay raises.

Those who don’t use tobacco or drink will not pay those taxes.

The bill failed to get the 76 votes required.

The bill was held over so it could be brought back to the House floor for another vote. I’m not sure yet whether that will happen.

In the meantime, the House already has passed – appropriations of state carryover cash, as well as a measure that increases the gross production tax on legacy wells (those drilled before July 2015) from 4 percent to 7 percent.

The measures await approval by the state senate and the signature of the governor.

I’m disappointed HB1054X failed.

For those who said they wouldn’t vote on this bill before we audit our agencies, I would say, I agree, we must audit our agencies for waste and fraud. But, those audits will not start in time to save our core health care services, to fix our roads and bridges, and to give our teachers and state employees a much needed raise.

People in this state are looking for leadership and a solution for our budget problems now. I have looked for compromise among my fellow Republicans and with my Democrat colleagues. I have taken a reasonable and bipartisan approach to this entire process and will continue to do so. I have listened to the people of my district, and I will always vote with those who hired me to do this job.

As always, I look forward to hearing your ideas and concerns. If I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at Mike.Sanders@okhouse.gov or (405) 557-7407.

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House Passes Measures to Save Health Care Services

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The House of Representatives this week voted overwhelmingly to appropriate supplemental funding to three state health care agencies to protect services for the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

In three separate bills on Monday, the House voted to use about $106 million in Rainy Day and carryover funds from fiscal year 2017 to send to the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Human Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Without the funds, the agencies had threatened to cut programs that serve the aging, foster children and the disabled, among others. House leaders said from the beginning, we were not going to let these three agencies feel the brunt of the budget shortfall. Keeping our rural hospitals and nursing homes open and ensuring health care services for those most in need is of paramount importance.

We couldn’t do this at the outset of our special session because the governor threatened to veto any bill that made use of these reserve funds or that cut spending for state agencies.

After months of trying to reach a bipartisan solution with House Democrats and the state Senate, however, this became the only solution that would garner enough support to pass the House and be sent to the Senate. These measures now go to the Senate for passage before the move to the governor for her signature. Any delay in the process threatens Oklahomans who need these health services.

In addition to the above measures, the House on Wednesday passed a measure that would end the incentive on gross production tax on legacy oil and gas wells, moving the tax rate from 4 to 7 percent. This is projected to earn about $48.5 million this fiscal year to help plug our budget hole, and up to $100 million next fiscal year that could be spent on teacher pay raises.

The House also passed a version of the teacher pay raise plan that would give teachers the first $1,000 of a pay raise beginning July 2018.

One additional measure would allow ball and dice games at tribal casinos that would raise $8.3 million this fiscal year and $35.6 million next fiscal year.

These measures still leave a small hole in this fiscal year’s budget. This could later be filled with supplemental funding once state reserves are replenished, or we could make some targeted cuts to state agencies without affecting core services. There are other options on the table as well. We’re still committed to finding a bipartisan agreement.

In the meantime, House leadership will continue to look for long-term budget solutions and to explore further efficiencies and look for cases of waste or outright abuse in state agency spending. You need look no further than the recent shakeup at the state Health Department to see examples of the kind of cleanup that is needed in our agencies.

As always, I look forward to hearing your ideas and concerns. If I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at Mike.Sanders@okhouse.govor (405) 557-7407.

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State Services Fall Prey to Partisan Politics

By Rep. Mike Sanders

House Republican leadership this week announced a plan that was agreed upon with the Senate and the governor. In it, we gave Democrats much of what they asked for in their own plan. We brought this plan to a vote on the House floor Wednesday.

The plan included an increase of $1.50 on the tax on cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco; 6 cents on gasoline and diesel; additional tax on 3.2 beer; and the restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the state’s lowest income earners.

The speaker also generously offered to put a measure raising the gross production tax on oil and gas wells to 5 percent to a vote of the House if the first plan passed. This is something the Democrats have requested for months.

Money would go to fill the current budget hole that threatens to affect health care, mental health and human services for our state’s most vulnerable citizens as well as to fund a $3,000 teacher pay raise and a $1,000 pay raise for state employees.

This plan contains recurring revenue, which is something everyone has insisted upon for our state budget. While it does include some revenue increases, it does so only on the basis of consumption. In the case of fuel, the tax will be spread out among all consumers – from high to low income as well as from individuals to corporations. In the case of tobacco products or beer, the tax affects only those who consume these products.

I campaigned on the premise of keeping taxes low. When it comes to making decisions that could keep my rural hospitals and nursing homes open and provide needed services for children and the aging, I had to vote in favor of people first. They are my first priority.

The gasoline tax would have gone to fund roads and bridges. This is necessary and something that should have happened 20 years ago. The gasoline and diesel tax in Oklahoma has not been raised since 1987. We have one of the lowest taxes in the nation and the lowest in the region. About 40 percent of the gas and diesel tax is already paid by out of state visitors, and as I said above, this is a tax that could be spread evenly among all consumers.

The earned income tax credit is something I voted against removing in the first place, and I have advocated for its return. This credit is something President Ronald Reagan and former Gov. Frank Keating both championed. I’m honored to join these heroes of conservatism in support of this good cause.

Teacher and state employee pay raises are paramount. Out teachers have gone without an increase to the minimum state salary schedule since 2008, and state employees have been without a pay raise for 11 years. This is something everyone wants and supports.

This plan is not perfect; no compromise is; but it would have solved the state’s current revenue problems and put us on a more sustainable path toward the future as we continue the work of reforming our budget process and begin work to audit our state agency spending.

At the end of the day Wednesday, Republicans put up 75 percent of the votes needed to pass this package while every Democrats voted in a block against it, even though every item included is something they have asked for in past plans. It’s always been apparent, but now more than ever, Republicans will have to fix this budget problem brought by a national recession and a depression in oil and gas by ourselves. The question is, do they really want a solution? Their actions say otherwise.

One final reminder: not everything you read on social media is true. There is no accountability in that theater. Instead, if you have a question or concern, my door is always open. I always respond to my constituents. I always have and I always will.

I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@okhouse.gov or (405) 557-7407.

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Special Session Update

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The Legislature convenes in special session Sept. 25. This is after the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Smoking Cessation Act of 2017, leaving a $215 million hole in the budget to be re-appropriated by the Legislature.

The easiest way to fill this hole and leave state services at current appropriation levels would be for the House and Senate to pass the original cigarette tax of $1.50. This is the only tax increase the majority of Oklahomans have said they would support. The caveat is this takes a two-thirds vote in both chambers. In the House, that is 76 votes. House leadership has tried to pass this tax the last two legislative sessions, but the minority leader has led his caucus into choosing not to keep rural hospitals and nursing homes open and let other health care services take a hit.

This is disappointing to say the least. I hope he and his caucus will now put politics aside and do what is right for Oklahomans.

If the tax fails outright, we will vote to put it to a vote of the people, which would take only a simple majority of 51 votes.

Since the court’s ruling in August, House leadership and the majority party have met regularly – the Republican Caucus met this week – to develop a plan that will preserve core government services but make strategic cuts to ensure efficiency and an end to waste and duplication. We currently have a plan we will be rolling out in time for special session. I will give more details in next week’s column.

I’ve been asked why we need a supermajority to pass the cigarette tax. This goes back to State Question 640, passed in 1992. After a state recession, Democrats then in charge raised multiple taxes. Oklahomans voted to make it harder to do so in the future, instituting the two-thirds majority vote requirement.

I will keep you updated on happenings here.

In one other piece of business, I again must express my disappointment with the state Department of Human Services. They recently announced that as of Oct. 1 they will begin assessing a fee on child support payments. This fee is not charged to the person making the payments but rather comes out of the pocket of the person receiving the payment – even if that person is a single mom or a single dad. In addition, two-thirds of this fee goes to the federal government because they provide the bulk of the program.

This is inexcusable. DHS should be ashamed of itself, taking money from already struggling single parents. I will not stand for this, and will lead the charge to reverse the rule that allowed this fee to go forward to be signed by the governor.

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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Capitol Closed but Leadership Continues to Meet

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The state Capitol is closed this week as crews replace the building’s entire electrical system, part of which includes original wiring installed more than 100 years ago. Despite the closure, House leadership has met via teleconference, and we will be in over the weekend putting in place further options for how to proceed in special session to re-appropriate the state budget.

The easiest way to fill the current budget hole is obviously for the cigarette tax to pass. But, any plan to raise revenue requires a three-fourths vote in both the House and the Senate, and the governor has said she would not sign a budget that contained cuts to state agencies.

So, we’re at an impasse.

The plan to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.50 has garnered Republican and Democrat support, and 67 percent of Oklahoma voters polled say they support this. Yet, instead of voting for this one tax increase to go toward affected Oklahoma healthcare budgets, Democrats have said they will not vote for this as a stand-alone measure. Instead, they want four additional tax increases on income, motor vehicle fuel, gross production on new oil and gas wells and services not currently taxed

House Republicans have been trying to go through negotiations in good faith, but this is not at all a good deal – four votes for one. Who in their right mind would think that is a fair trade? That’s disingenuous and dishonest.

My first priority is keeping my rural hospitals and nursing homes open, and I want to give teachers a raise. But, there is no way as a small-government conservative that I am going to ask the Oklahoma taxpayer to give four times over to bloat government. We will continue to work for the most pressing items in the governor’s call for this special session, but the rest of her wishes can wait for regular session.

Even though the Capitol is dark this week, please know I am still working on a solution. In the meantime, not convening in special session until a deal is brokered is still saving you, the taxpayer, money.

On a final note, I want to thank my constituents who have stopped me at ball games, at church, at the supermarket, at Rotary meetings and other places to offer suggestions and solutions. I want to thank each of you for the ideas.

I work for the people in House District 59, and I will continue to take this job seriously as I serve both our district and the state of Oklahoma. We will find a way forward that funds core government services but not solely on the backs of our citizens.

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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Plan in Progress

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The House plans to come back into special session on Monday afternoon to consider new appropriations measures.

In the meantime, the House Republican caucus continues to meet to discuss each and every part of the plan. The caucus met two times this week for four to five hours each time discussing how we can address the governor’s call while remaining true to our conservative principals and funding core state services.

I along with House leadership have been working behind the scenes and late into the night coming up with a plan that addresses most of the governor’s call. The first item is to fill a $215 million revenue hole left after the state Supreme Court struck down the Smoking Cessation Act of 2015. The revenue would have gone primarily to three healthcare agencies. Another item is to increase teacher pay. Overall, the governor has asked the Legislature to restructure the budget process.

The plan may change by the time you read this, but we are still discussing raising the cigarette tax and an increase in gross production tax. Other ideas also are still being vetted. While we’ve raised gross production tax on legacy wells last year, many House Republicans think there is still room to negotiate.

My main priority is keeping our rural hospitals and nursing homes open and that our children and senior adults who need services receive them. Those are the most vulnerable, and that is my No. 1 priority.

House leadership is talking Thursday and Friday with the governor and the Senate about healthcare and teacher pay. I will discuss in future columns more details of the plan once an agreement is reached. The plan must be one that will pass the House and the Senate and be agreed upon by the governor.

It takes both parties and both chambers and the executive branch to make this happen. I’ve asked my fellow lawmakers to please set aside politics, political ambition and political grandstanding so we can do what is right for the state of Oklahoma. I’ve encouraged them to be statesmen and stateswomen and do what our constituents hired us to do and fix the immediate problems with our healthcare issues and teacher pay.

I want to thank each person from my district who has taken the time to call or email or reach out to me on Facebook. I read each suggestion, idea and thought. They give me a great idea of what people in my district want so I can articulate that to the speaker and our leadership team.

I ask for your prayers during this tumultuous time. But, I am optimistic we will strike an agreed-upon plan and move Oklahoma forward.

In closing, I want to turn my focus for a moment to the horrific massacre our nation experienced last Sunday in Las Vegas. Evil struck down and killed nearly 60 Americans and injured over 500 people. I’m thankful for the law enforcement and first responders and the everyday heroes who put themselves between people they didn’t even know and bullets, sacrificing themselves to protect their fellow man. The heroism exemplified shows to all of us and the world that America can come together. I ask for continued prayer for the families of those who lost their lives and for the injured victims as well as for those who were in the crowd and still reeling from the trauma of this tragedy.

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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House in Recess for Now

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The House convened in special session this week, but has recessed until a budget agreement can be reached. Recessing allows budget negotiations to continue without the $30,000 per day price tag attached to special session.

The first two days of the session, the House did everything constitutionally allowed. The state Constitution requires first, second and third reading of bills to be conducted on separate days before they are passed to the opposite chamber. So, on day one, we first-read the 142 House bills filed for special session and the two House joint resolutions. The second day we read the bills and resolutions a second time.

House leadership was prepared to come in on day three and vote for a cigarette tax increase of $1.50 to help fill the budget hole left when the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Smoking Cessation Act of 2017. This would have ensured health care agencies could continue without worry of cuts to their budgets this fiscal year. Yet, we had no indication that House Democrats were prepared to deliver the votes needed on this measure.

To raise any revenue requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. That is 76 votes in the House, which has only 72 Republicans currently. Without support from the opposite party, House leadership deemed it would be best to recess until a plan can be achieved that has the Senate and the governor’s support. This allows us to continue negotiating but at no cost to the taxpayer.

Let me be clear: I am not in favor of raising taxes, but in the case of the cigarette tax, more than 61 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Oklahomans polled have said they want this for health care. I’ve received calls about cutting government spending, and our plan will include targeted cuts. There are always ways to find efficiencies and strip duplicate even triplicate services out of agency budgets. To do this, though, we will need to aggressively audit agency budgets. We need to make sure government works for us and not the other way around.

In addition to the cigarette tax, House leadership has been willing to consider all other options to address the state budget hole. These include examining other tax incentives and increasing the gross production tax (GPT). Every one of these options has been thoroughly discussed and vetted, but we just do not have enough votes in the Republican Caucus to move on these issues. This requires give and take on both sides.

When I answered the call to serve in state government, I knew it would require me to be a statesman – to make tough calls that others may not be willing to make, sometimes being willing to compromise. Not everyone will agree with the plan to raise this cigarette tax. I don’t always agree with those I love, even my wonderful wife, Nellie, but sometimes the outcomes – in this case keeping our rural hospitals and nursing homes and ensuring our seniors and disabled adults receive services – are more important than the method.

The three agencies affected by the current budget hole – the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services – assured the Legislature in writing weeks ago that they could make it at least until the end of the calendar year if not months longer on current appropriations. This gives us time to develop the right plan while saving the taxpayer the money it costs for special session.

In any case, I was elected by the voters in my district, and that is who I work for. I don’t work for lobbyists or other interest groups. I work for you.

For now, the House stands in recess until a budget plan can be agreed upon by the House the Senate and the governor. If I have to work 24/7 and sleep in my office until that agreement is secured, I will do just that.

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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Special Session Planned

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The governor this week announced plans to call a special legislative session beginning Sept. 25 in order for the Legislature to adjust the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

Frankly, I’m disappointed in the governor’s rush. It’s irresponsible and reckless to rush into a session that will cost taxpayers more than $22,000 a day every day we are in session on the House side alone, when (a) the Oklahoma Supreme Court has yet to rule on a final case that could affect the state budget; and (b) no agreement is in place between House Republicans and Democrats and the state Senate on how to re-allocate state funds. We face the same impasse we faced in session.

The governor announced her plans against advice from House leadership.

The need for a special session springs from the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month against the Smoking Cessation Act of 2017. The act would have placed a $1.50 fee on a package of cigarettes to promote efforts to get smokers to stop. Money from the fee – about $215 million – would have gone to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Department of Human Services.

But the truth is we have time before a special session is necessary. The agencies affected have state allocations to get them through until at least year’s end. But instead of waiting and being prudent, the governor and House Democrats have posed $1 billion in tax increases in order to plug the $215 million hole. That plan will never make it through the House.

Instead, House Speaker Charles McCall has announced that the original cigarette tax will be proposed again in special session. It is the only tax increase Oklahomans overall have said they would support.

If the plan fails, it will be put to a vote of the people and House Democrats can answer to why cuts were necessary to core government services.

House leaders and Republicans have met frequently to explore all budget options. At the end of the day, we must adopt something that cuts waste, increases efficiencies and yet still funds core government services and protects our state’s most vulnerable citizens.

I believe in the American and the Oklahoma dream, which includes a conservative and efficient government, but one which funds core functions of government. This takes working across all lines – Republican, Democrat, House, Senate, Legislative and Executive. We must all come together behind one goal – that goal is to preserve the Oklahoma standard. This calls for statesmen and stateswomen, those who will not grandstand but will make the hard decisions that need to be made.

I was hired to do a job, and I will do just that. That job, though, does not include voting for a $1 billion worth of tax increases. Of that you can be assured.

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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