Committee Votes to Reduce K-12 Testing

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation approved today by the Oklahoma House of Representatives Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget will reduce testing in public schools.

House Bill 3218 reduces the number of required tests to 18, including:

  • One English and one math test in each grade from 3 to 8;
  • Two science tests, one in grades 3-5 and one in grades 6-9;
  • and four high school tests in English, math, science and U.S. history.

All of the remaining tests except for U.S. History are required by the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Tests removed include an art test, seventh-grade geography, fifth- and eighth-grade social studies and writing tests and three end-of-instruction tests.

“I agree with educators and parents that there is simply too much testing,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “This legislation will reduce testing and let educators do what they do best – teach their students.”

The legislation requires the same tests to be used in the upcoming school year, but authorizes the state education department to look for new assessments to fulfill the federal and state requirements for the next year. The measure also removes passage of the test as a requirement for graduation and authorizes the state education department to create new graduation requirements.

“Eighteen tests is still a lot of tests,” Sanders said. “By authorizing the state education department to continue working on the problem, we are leaving the door open to try to consolidate tests wherever possible and improve the assessments if a good replacement can be found.”

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Going into Overtime

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Oklahoma legislators continue to discuss the budget. The talks are going later into session than normal, due to the difficulty of building consensus around a way forward in such a difficult year. In particular, I am fighting against certain schemes to raise revenue such as doing away with the earned income tax credit and reducing benefits for teachers. I am also fighting against balancing the budget by cutting transportation funding.

The earned income tax credit was supported by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and by former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, yet it has somehow mistakenly seen as a “liberal” tax credit. Average Oklahomans use it and eliminating it would have a negative impact on their household finances.

While, I would prefer to get things done quickly, it is ultimately more important that they get done right. I think that for every delay we may run into on getting a budget done, a bad idea will have been shelved and a good idea put in its place.

Legislation to level the playing field between Oklahoma brick-and-mortar retailers and out-of-state vendors has been signed into law. House Bill 2531 will require online retailers that do not have a physical presence in Oklahoma to either begin voluntarily collecting sales tax at the point of consumer purchase or sending each of their consumers a notice at the end of each year stating the total amount of purchases with a reminder that sales and use tax remittance is required.

Oklahoma retailers compete on price, service and selection, but the current structure puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to taxes. Now, we will fix that problem and it should also lead to some money that will close the budget gap. The measure passed by a vote of 70-18 in the House.

I and many of my public-safety-minded colleagues were horrified in the state court of criminal appeals decision to refuse to interpret the sexual molestation of an intoxicated individual as “forcible sodomy.” A colleague who is a former prosecutor immediately revamped Senate Bill 2398 to make sure the intoxication of the individual does not allow the perpetrator to have a legal loophole. We approved it quickly in the House and it is now being carried in the Senate by my good friend Sen. AJ Griffin.

Budget negotiations continue to be intense and the sticking points remain the elimination of the earned income tax credit, transportation funding, how much to bond and our knowledge that agency directors will have a lot of control over that money once we approve it. I believe government must live within its means. Doing otherwise is setting up trouble for the future. I also believe that the agency heads must look at adjusting payroll rather than cutting services when we choose to reduce their funding and put it into core services. If they do not, we will hold them accountable.

In next week’s column, I hope to be able to present a budget agreement. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Caucus Elects Speaker-Designate

By Rep. Mike Sanders

During our busy weeks of policy and budget work, state lawmakers must also regularly meet and make organizational decisions. The current leader of the House, the Speaker, is leaving due to term limits. In order to have a smooth transition, we elected the individual we want to replace him at the end of the year.

I was pleased to see the House Republican caucus elect my good friend Rep. Charles McCall as the Speaker-designate for the 56th Legislature beginning in February 2017. McCall, an Atoka banker, will be a friend to Western Oklahoma, even though he hails from the Southeast. He was first elected in 2012, after serving as Mayor of Atoka from 2005 to 2012. He understands rural districts and I look forward to working with him and having him out to our district.

A very important criminal justice bill was signed into law on May 9. Since the creation of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea, it has been used repeatedly to get criminals off the hook for the crimes they commit.  While I do believe there are valid cases in which an individual may be in a state in which they cannot make a moral decision, I think these are few and far between. In particular, serial killers may have a clinically-defined antisocial personality disorder, which could be used to argue for a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” It’s a black mark on justice in our state.

The new law will replace the plea with two new pleas – “guilty but with mental defect” and “not guilty by reason of mental illness.” Serial killers, or more specifically, individuals with an antisocial personality disorder, would receive normal sentencing under the “guilty but with mental defect” plea, but would have the additional stipulation that they be examined by the state mental health agency and a treatment would be recommended that would be a conditional part of any probation.

The idea was proposed by Pottawatomie County District Attorney, Richard Smothermon, following a 2012 high profile murder case. East Central University student Jerrod Murray planned and kidnapped fellow classmate, Generro Sanchez, and shot him multiple times. He later confessed that he wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone. Under Oklahoma law, Murray was charged with murder but found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is now held at the Oklahoma Forensic Center, the largest inpatient behavioral health facility in the state system until a psychiatrist or other mental health professional deems it appropriate to let him out. This is simply unacceptable and will not be the kind of outcome we will see under the new law.

Another criminal justic bill was signed into law that will criminalize revenge porn – the unauthorized dissemination of intimate photos or video usually after a relationship has ended. The new law defines the crime as being of a sexual act or of a nude individual disseminated with an intent to harass, intimidate, or coerce and the knowledge that the dissemination was nonconsensual. Someone convicted of the crime can be sentenced to up to one year in a county jail, and a fine. Revenge porn is a disgusting crime and I am proud to be among those who supported its criminalization.

The budget is getting close, but there are still many issues up in the air. Transportation funding, funding for the Rural Fire Defense program and volunteer fire departments through the Oklahoma Department of Agiculture, rural common education funding, hospitals and nursing home funding are still priorities to me and I will continue to fight for them in budget negotiations.

As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Final Actions

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Already the Oklahoma Legislature and Governor Mary Fallin have completed action on a number of policy issues. I told you last week about sending my repeat DUI bill to the governor. Now, I am proud to report that it has been signed into law.

House Bill 3146 creates the Impaired Driving Elimination Act (IDEA) and prohibits municipal prosecution of driving under the influence, unless a municipality has a municipal court of record. Any municipality with a population of 60,000 or more would have the option to create a court of record. Arresting municipalities would still receive a portion of the fines.

Another important measure signed into law will broaden the definition of domestic violence, giving law enforcement and prosecutors a greater ability to go after abusers. Current statute defines domestic violence as a pattern involving three or more incidents of abuse within a 12-month period. Senate Bill 1491 removes the 12-month stipulation and reduces the required incidents of abuse to two or more. I worked hard to get this passed in the House. I have no tolerance for men who would hit their spouses and most Oklahomans agree.

While many bills are being signed into law, there is a separate route for policy questions that still have kinks to work out. This period of the legislative session is known as the conference process. Bills with amendments or title stricken can be rejected and sent to conference, where a committee of House and Senate members will agree on final language and send it back to a vote in both chambers. Low-priority legislation that goes to conference often dies there, while high-priority items get the most focus.

Right now, one of those high priority bills in conference is a bill to reduce the number of state tests. House Bill 1622 would eliminate all K-12 common education tests not required by the federal government. There are currently 26 standardized tests for K-12 instruction in Oklahoma. This measure would end nine of those tests. The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Conference Committee on Common Education.

Budget negotiations are intense right now. We continue to fight for core services, but, ironically, some of the biggest fights are over services with the least cost. Every year, the Oklahoma Legislature appropriates money for rural firefighters through the Rural Firefighter Defense Fund. This money is administered by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, but with the express intent of being used for fire departments. However, Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese continues to raid that money to balance his agency budget and could eliminate that funding stream this year with the cuts he will be trying to absorb. This is incredibly inappropriate and reckless when he has yet to eliminate any administrative staff position. Basically, he is choosing to keep the fat at the top, while eliminating a critical public safety service. It seems like every year, there are individuals who want to balance our budget on the back of either transportation or public safety. This is entirely unacceptable, and I will oppose it and help defeat it.

I look forward to telling you more about the progress of budget and policy discussions. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Bill to Catch Repeat Drunk Drivers Heads to Governor

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The Oklahoma House of Representatives has completed another deadline and all proposed laws have now either been signed, sent to the governor or amended. Amended legislation returns to the chamber of origin, where amendments can be accepted or the bill can be sent to conference committee to work out disagreements over the language of the bill.

I am proud to report that a bill I authored to get repeat drunk drivers off the road is among those headed to the desk of Gov. Mary Fallin and could be signed in the next week. House Bill 3146 creates the Impaired Driving Elimination Act (IDEA) and prohibits municipal prosecution of driving under the influence, unless a municipality has a municipal court of record. Any municipality with a population of 60,000 or more would have the option to create a court of record. Arresting municipalities would still receive a portion of the fines.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2010 Oklahoma ranked as the 46th worst state for impaired driving deaths. We have a problem partially because when drunk drivers are arrested in municipal courts and a record of their crime does not reach district prosecutors, then he or she may be a repeat offender with a serious drug or alcohol problem who is flying under the radar. There are 354 municipal courts in Oklahoma who handle a large volume of DUI arrests, but that are not ‘courts of record.’

Numbers are relevant, but being hit by a drunk driver brings the issue closer to home. My wife was hit by a drunk driver. Although she was fortunately not seriously injured, I learned that the individual who hit her was a repeat offender and it led me to look deeper into the process of repeat DUI prosecutions. What I found was a gaping hole in the number of DUIs being actually reported at the state level. No one had yet championed a solution to this critical problem through the legislative process. I was more than happy to become that legislator. This bill will protect the lives of Oklahomans. This bill is 100 percent about public safety and not money. 

My drunk driving legislation was not the only public safety success this session. The House sent a domestic violence bill to the governor that has now been signed into law. Senate Bill 1491 broadens the definition of domestic violence. Current statute defines it as a pattern involving three or more incidents of abuse. This measure would make it two or more and remove a stipulation that it occur within a 12-month period.

As a rural legislator, I’m keenly aware of how vulnerable farmers and ranchers are to crime because of the isolation of large country properties. The House Rural Caucus pushed for a bill this session to deter cattle rustling, a crime that has huge negative economic consequences for its victims. House Bill 2504 also awaits the governor’s signature to become law. It increases the fine for theft of livestock and implements of husbandry to three times the value of animals and machinery, not to exceed $500,000. It also gives district attorneys more options when prosecuting cattle rustlers.

I also know that most of my constituents feel strongly about the sanctity of life, so I also want to mention the progress of a bill to outlaw abortions intended to kill children who have a genetic abnormality such as Down’s syndrome. House Bill 3128 was approved by the Senate, but with the title stricken, so it now returns to the House and will have to go through the conference committee process. I support this bill. Every life is a precious gift from God.

Budget talks continue between the House, Senate and governor’s office. A final agreement is being discussed and vetted as we speak. These talks started late last summer and are a top priority of this Legislature. Stay tuned to more information on this as we near the end of session.

The conference committee process is often slow, so my next column will likely highlight bills being signed into law. My door is open to you. Call me at (405) 557-7407 or emailmike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Some Good News

By Rep. Mike Sanders

There was some good news this week in an otherwise gloomy revenue year. General Revenue Fund collections in March exceeded the estimate for the first time since July 2015. As the state’s main operating fund, it is the key indicator of state government’s fiscal status. It also means that it is less likely that we will see any more revenue failures in the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends in June.

March collections of $394.2 million were $3.1 million, or 0.8 percent, above the official estimate upon which this year’s budget was based. We did estimate a shortfall, so those collections are still $30.1 million, or 7.1 percent, below prior year collections. Total collections for the first nine months of FY 2016 were $3.7 billion, which is $323.8 million, or 8 percent, below the official estimate and $386.6 million, or 9.4 percent, below prior year collections.

I know that some constituents have been concerned about the increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma. While most are minor, some have caused damage to households. The Oklahoma Legislature has now sent Governor Mary Fallin a bill intended to clarify and increase the authority of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to respond to emergency situations that could have an environmental or public safety impact. House Bill 3158 allows the commission to take whatever action is necessary, without notice and hearing, to respond to an emergency. This follows on the heels of actions the governor took to increase funding to the commission and other agencies working on the earthquake problem.

The governor has signed several important bills into law. House Bill 3102 expands the number of hours an adjunct teacher can teach in Oklahoma classrooms from 90 to 270. These are teachers that have not gone through the teaching certification process, but are a necessary tool for school districts facing a teacher shortage.

Another measure signed into law was Senate Bill 1342, which modifies the Taxpayer Transparency Act. The change allows Oklahomans to see all federal funds received by state agencies and track how the monies are used.

We passed a measure on the House floor that authorizes a municipality to enter into agreements for used equipment that has been tested and certified as safe with a volunteer fire department. The measure exempts the municipality from liability for any damage caused by the use of such equipment.

Another important House bill approved by the Senate contains a budget reform. House Bill 3058 provides a process for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to reconcile all state agency revolving funds. This is an attempt to ensure excess funds to not remain in agency accounts when they might be needed in the budget process.

Finally, I always try to track child welfare reform bills. Another House Bill close to being signed into law is House Bill 2963. It provides that court approval of the affidavit disclosing all monies expended by an adoptive family during the process of adoption does not exempt a person, attorney or child placing agency from prosecution if it was fraudulent or false and specifies what constitutes reasonable fees of a child placing agency.

I look forward to telling you more about the progress of budget and policy discussions. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Senate Approves Bill to Improve Prosecution of Repeat DUIs

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation to aid prosecutors in keeping drunk drivers off the road was approved today by the Oklahoma Senate.

House Bill 3146, by state Rep. Mike Sanders and state Sen. Greg Treat, creates the Impaired Driving Elimination Act (IDEA) and prohibits municipal prosecution of driving under the influence, unless a municipality has a municipal court of record. Any municipality with a population of 60,000 or more would have the option to create a court of record. Arresting municipalities would still receive a portion of the fines.

There are 354 municipal courts in Oklahoma who handle a large volume of DUI arrests, but that are not ‘courts of record.’ Oklahoma City and Tulsa are the only current municipal courts of record.

“This is an important tool for prosecutors to be able to better flag and appropriately prosecute repeat drunk drivers,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “The security of Oklahoma families when they are driving on our roads should always be a top priority in public safety.”

“This bill closes a loophole that has put Oklahomans’ lives in danger by allowing repeat drunk drivers to get multiple DUI convictions in various jurisdictions without being held accountable,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “There are 350 courts not of record in Oklahoma that don’t report DUI convictions to a statewide database.  Therefore, someone could get arrested twenty or more times in multiple jurisdictions for DUI and because those convictions aren’t put on their record they’re treated like a first time offender and receive only minimal punishment.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2010 Oklahoma ranked as the 46th worst state for impaired driving deaths and the 51st (including states and territories) for improvement over the previous 10-year period (NHTSA, 2012).

“This legislation marks a watershed in the history of impaired driving in Oklahoma,” said Toby Taylor, Chairman of the Governor’s Impaired Driving Prevention Advisory Council, “by creating accountability for every impaired driving arrest in Oklahoma and providing law enforcement with a much needed tool to identify those individuals who are repeat impaired driving offenders.  This is a critical piece of the puzzle in our efforts to reduce the incidence of impaired driving related traffic crashes in Oklahoma.”

Several legislators also praised the legislation.

“Drunk driving can result in terrible tragedy and repeat drunk drivers are among the most dangerous,” said Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, a former prosecutor. “This legislation fixes a system in which many repeat offenders were flying under the radar and allows us to catch more of them.”

“It is hard to overstate what a victory this is for public safety,” said state Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa. “Thousands of DUIs are falling through the cracks that could be used to get repeat offenders off the road. Congratulations to Representative Sanders and Senator Treat for working to get bipartisan support behind this legislation’s passage.”

“Repeat drunk drivers are individuals who are dangerous to the rest of us and who are unlikely to reform their ways without intervention,” said state Rep. David Derby, R-Owasso. “This loophole needed to be closed so we can get these individuals off the road.”

“This is the most significant advancement made in recent history in making our streets and highways safer from drunk or impaired drivers,” said state Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami. “It closes a huge gaping hole in the area of public safety. Representative Sanders and Senator Treat deserve credit for leading on this issue. This proposal, once signed into law, will save lives.”

The legislation was approved unanimously and now proceeds to the governor’s office to be signed into law.

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Rep. Sanders: Canadian County Project Example of Importance of Road and Bridge Funding

OKLAHOMA CITY – A contract was awarded for asphalt resurfacing work in Canadian County, state Rep. Mike Sanders announced today.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the project will involve asphalt resurfacing on State Highway 3, about one mile south of the Kingfisher County Line in Okarche and extend south to State Highway 4 in various locations.                                                                                                                                                      

The State Transportation Commission awarded the nearly $460,000 contract to Schwarz Paving Co., Inc. The Oklahoma City company was the lowest of four bidders for the job.

Once construction begins, the project is estimated to be completed within one month. 

“This project is one of the many reasons I continue to advocate for road and bridge funding,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “After years of neglect, we are very rapidly updating our infrastructure, which increases both public safety and economic activity in Western Oklahoma.” 

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Late Stages

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Bills are now in the late stage of the legislative process. If there is disagreement or final details to be worked out, there is a chance bills will end up in a conference committee near the end of session. But otherwise, they are nearing their final leg of the process.

This week marked the deadline by which legislation must be heard in the committee of the opposition chamber. That means House committees completed their work on Senate bills. Now, we will pass bills on the floor. Once passed on the floor, those bills will either go to joint House and Senate conference committees to work out disagreements or straight to the governor.

On the Senate side, we are finally getting to see some movement on the bills we approved and sent over to them. My legislation to improve the prosecution of repeat drunk drivers in Oklahoma has passed through the Senate committee process and now awaits a vote by the full Senate. House Bill 3146, the Impaired Driving Elimination Act, will require all driving under the influence offenses to be tried in district court. This addresses the problem in which many drunk drivers are prosecuted in municipal courts that are not statutorily required to be courts of record. That means that when these drunk drivers are arrested, the record of that offense is frequently not pushed to the district attorneys. Without a record of previous convictions, these district attorneys cannot prosecute repeat offenders.

The Senate also approved two important education bills in committee. House Bill 2957 would return flexibility to local school districts in the area of teacher and leader evaluations. This bill restores local control in the evaluation of their teachers and administrators. The goal in these evaluations is higher student achievement and teacher and leader excellence. I believe this bill achieves that while removing some of the burden under the existing state model. The bill received a do pass recommendation by the Senate Education Committee and is eligible to be heard on the Senate floor.

House Bill 1622 would eliminate education tests not required by the federal government. In Oklahoma, this would eliminate three end-of-instruction tests, five middle school tests and a state art test. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade currently are required to take 26 tests throughout the course of their schooling. This bill has been scheduled for a conference committee this week in the House. By eliminating some of these tests, we can free up millions of dollars that could potentially go back into the classroom for our teachers and our kids, where it belongs.

Meanwhile, we have approved several Senate bills in committee. For example, the House Appropriation and Budget Committee approved an important measure to catch uninsured motorists. Senate Bill 359 allows law enforcement to use automated license plate readers to run those plates by the Oklahoma Insurance Department to determine if the owner is insured. If the owner does not have insurance, they will be sent a letter directing them to contact the District Attorney’s Office.

We also approved a Senate bill that will make it easier to hunt and kill feral swine. It adds feral swine to the list of animals that can be hunted with a variety of hunting licenses currently available to Oklahomans. It also allows the use of vehicles and night-vision equipment to hunt feral swine.

A bill that has moved through the entire process and now heads to the governor’s desk will extend the termination date for local firefighter pension and retirement boards. Senate Bill 1021 changes the termination date for local firefighter pension and retirements boards from 2000 to 2016.

It is fitting to end this column with a bill that affects firefighters as I also wanted to take this time to thanks all of the firefighters who have gone out in recent weeks to put out fires in Northern Oklahoma and specifically Blaine County. Thank you so much for all that you do to protect lives and property.

I look forward to telling you more next week. My door is always open and I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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More Major Legislation

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Last week, I told you about some of the major reforms approved by the session midpoint. This week, I want to talk about the budget and also highlight some additional legislation that we sent to the Senate.

First, budget discussions continue to include multiple scenarios and solutions, but at least one idea that has emerged and is worth mentioning is the idea of a transportation funding bond. Basically, road and bridge funding has been on the chopping block in the past several budget discussions. In order to get it off the block, we have begun discussing using a bond to fund it.  With a more than $1 billion budget shortfall, a reasonable bond is one way to account for this anomaly year without sacrificing long-term transportation goals. This is still in discussion, but a plan is in the works. Transportation is a core service of government and should be treated as such.

Education is a top priority for all legislators and while we may not be able to hold it harmless, we have been working to reduce mandates and oppose ideas such as the school vouchers in such a tough budget time. Last week’s supplemental funding agreement was a first step in shoring up education funding due to the revenue failures. Hopefully, we can get more accomplished and set schools on a path to get through this oil and gas downturn. In two of the last three years, we have increased common education funding and held it harmless last year. The Senate has sent us a bill to eliminate End of Instruction exams. Senate Bill 1170 authorizes each school district to certify that graduating high school students had mastered the curriculum requirements. The state board of education, higher education and CareerTech will create a list of approved assessments that would comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act and measure mastery of the state’s subject matter standards. The state would pay for the exams. 

Second, I want to tell you about another bond. We have committed to the idea of restoring the Oklahoma State Capitol, as it is the people’s building and putting off needed repairs would just make it a more costly project in the future. House Bill 3168 would allow the state to issue up to $125 million in bonds to complete the Capitol Restoration Project, which is scheduled for a 2022 completion date. The bond would be funded by tobacco tax revenues.

Third, we approved House Bill 2962 to require coverage of autism by a wide bipartisan vote last week. I think we must balance the need for accessible health care with reigning in insurance costs. This legislation did both. It requires health-benefit plans to provide coverage for autism, but limits the yearly maximum benefit to $25,000. It does not however limit the number of visits, as the cost is the important point.

Finally, I want to talk to you about a law enforcement bill approved last week. House Bill 2864 will place the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Department of Public Safety under one Commissioner of Public Safety. The legislation is intended to make it easier for the public to know where the buck stops in public safety and have one individual to deal with on any issues that arise. The individual law enforcement units will continue to function as in the past, but a single leader will help with the coordination and accountability that should be a part of any government agency. The title is off this bill, which means it needs to be tweaked more as it moves through the Senate. I will keep you posted on its progress. 

In my next column, I will begin to tell you about some of the Senate bills coming through my committees and about the progress of House bills in the Senate. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 ormike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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