Rep. Sanders Praises Passage of Constitutional Amendment to nix Language Cited in Ten Commandments Monument Ruling

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Mike Sanders praised today’s passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate a portion of law cited in the ruling against the display of a Ten Commandments monument on Oklahoma State Capitol grounds.

House Joint Resolution 1062, by state Rep. Randy Grau, removes a section of the Oklahoma State Constitution that provides that “public money or property cannot be used directly or indirectly for any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.”

“When we learned that the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the Ten Commandments monument removed from the Capitol, everyone was surprised,” said Grau, R-Edmond, an attorney and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “The ruling went against clear legal precedent supporting the placement of such monuments on government property. Our state’s highest court misinterpreted the Constitution, and we had no choice but to send the question to the people of Oklahoma regarding the public display of such monuments. Today, the House voted overwhelmingly to do that. ”

Sanders said most Oklahomans were astounded by the ruling of the court against the display of the Ten Commandments monument.

“A ruling against the display seemed crazy in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in favor of Ten Commandment monument displays on government property,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “We are undoing that damage by striking the language cited in the ruling.”

The proposed constitutional amendment was approved by a vote of 86-10 and now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate for consideration. If approved by the Senate, a state question will be submitted to the Secretary of State to be placed on the November 2016 ballot.

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Round 1 of Committee Work Ends

By Rep. Mike Sanders

State legislators are a step closer to final policy solutions as we enter into March. The Oklahoma House of Representatives have reduced our total legislation to 383 bills and joint resolutions after beginning with 983 bills filed this year. We are now spending all day on the House floor discussing and voting on those 383 proposals.

In the area of education, we moved bills forward that do not contain final language, but will serve as vehicles for three important policy discussions this year. First, strong support exists for the elimination of End of Instruction tests. Bills advanced in both the Senate and House to reduce or eliminate these tests. Second, there is support for reducing the planned teacher evaluation implementation. Third, with the hope that we will find funding, we advanced legislation that will contain a teacher pay raise. If not, we have several other bills such as House Bill 2247 to try to address the teacher shortage with more targeted incentives.

In the area of health policy, we approved legislation by a Grove emergency physician who strongly believes that Medicaid includes too many able-bodied adults. Even a liberal health economist like Jonathan Gruber has estimated that as many as six out of every 10 enrollees added to Medicaid would otherwise have private coverage. House Bill 2665 will further limit Medicaid, which would likely improve the service for the remaining Medicaid enrollees.

In the area of public safety, we approved a bill to shore up the state’s 9-1-1 system on the House floor. House Bill 3126 increases the transparency and accountability for 9-1-1 fees and provides state coordination for improved 9-1-1 service delivery. The measure also replaces the funding that has been lost due to the drop in the use of landline phones with an increase to the individual 9-1-1 fee on each cellular contract. Just like with transportation infrastructure, public safety infrastructure is critical to maintaining the safety of all Oklahomans.

We also advanced several child welfare proposals. One would require parents to show up for hearings if they want to have a say in custody and other child placement decisions. Another would allow the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to discontinue operations if a child has been shown to be appropriately placed with a safe family. Currently, by statute, if a judge does not close a case, the agency has to continue to provide evaluations and other services, even when they are no longer necessary.

The next legislative deadline is March 10. Until then, I will be letting you know about our discussions on the House floor. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 ormike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Senator Proposes Transportation Cut

By Rep. Mike Sanders

There is a battle this year between the House and Senate just like in 2015 over the issue of transportation funding. An Oklahoma City senator has proposed to redirect $59.7 million that was scheduled to go to the state’s roads and bridges fund to instead help with the budget shortfall. Although I appreciate his efforts to solve the shortfall problem, taking money from a core service of government is the wrong approach.

Under current law, the funding for the eight-year transportation plan is increased by $59.7 million annually until funding reaches $575 million in Fiscal Year 2018. This “off-the-top” process was created back in the day because the state was so far behind in maintaining its roads and bridges. In order to get back on track, we had to figure out a long-term plan and commit to long-term funding.

Senate Bill 1394 threatens that long-term funding by blocking the automatic increase to the Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety Fund (ROADS fund). The measure adds a trigger mechanism for future increases based on the revenue picture each year.

Our district will be especially affected by this decrease, because of the many road and bridge projects scheduled. These future projects include shoulder work on State Highway 33 east from Kingfisher to Highway 74, shoulder work on State Highway 51 to I-35, a project to add lanes and turning lanes to Highway 270/51 at the Canton turnoff, an ongoing project on 270 south of Seiling and a bridge repair project on State Highway 3 between Watonga and Kingfisher. The critical safety and access needs being addressed by these projects are not isolated to my district, but are widespread across our state and many such improvements would be stalled or simply eliminated by his legislation. Oklahoma is investing in our transportation infrastructure to keep our traveling families safe and to position our communities to be economically viable now and for future generations. We simply must find a way to stay the course because our work is far from complete.

But, I don’t want to just talk about bad ideas. I am pleased to announce the House passage of an important prolife measure. House Bill 3128 enacts the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2016, which would prohibit the performance of an abortion due to a diagnosis of Down syndrome or genetic abnormality of an unborn child. If signed by the governor, Oklahoma would become only the second state in the nation to provide protections specifically for unborn children who have been diagnosed with these abnormalities.

Statistics show that children who are prenatally diagnosed with a genetic abnormality are 73 percent more likely to be aborted. The protections which are currently extended to children outside of the womb would be extended to those who are only being terminated because of a genetic abnormality that is no fault of their own.

I’m also happy to report that the Senate Education Committee gave unanimous, bipartisan support to legislation to eliminate state-mandated End of Instruction exams.  Under current law, high school students must pass four of seven EOIs in order to graduate from high school. Under Senate Bill 1170, it would be up to each school district to certify that graduating high school students had mastered the curriculum requirements.

Finally, I want to mention the committee passage of House Joint Resolution 1062, which I am co-authoring. The legislation will create a state question that will ask voters to remove the Blaine Amendment from the Oklahoma State Constitution. This amendment was part of a nationwide anti-Catholic effort that required that nothing religious be allowed on state property. The Blaine Amendment was cited in a ruling last year that removed the Ten Commandments monument from state property, even though it was paid for with private monies.

In next week’s column, I will continue to discuss the progress of bills and budget discussions. As always, I can be reached at(405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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House Approves Bill to Improve Prosecution of Repeat Drunk Drivers

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation intended to improve the tools prosecutors have to address repeat drunk drivers was approved Monday by the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

House Bill 3146, by state Rep. Mike Sanders, 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.

“Repeat drunk drivers are often flying under the radar, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and District Attorneys Council,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “These drivers, who warrant felony-level prosecutions under current statute, often receive misdemeanor convictions because their records are incomplete. This is because 354 municipal courts that deal with a large volume of DUI arrests are not ‘courts of record.’ My legislation eliminates that loophole through which repeat drunk drivers are escaping the consequences of their actions. This was a bipartisan bill. I worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to end this black eye on our state. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. This is an Oklahoma issue.” 

The measure directs the Commissioner of Public Safety to create a statewide impaired driver database with the assistance of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

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).

According to the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, there are 354 municipal courts that are not “courts of record,” 77 district courts of record and two municipal courts of record in Oklahoma.

Several legislators praised the legislation.

“Drunk driving is one of the biggest threats to Oklahoma families as they drive on our roads,” said state Rep. Biggs, former prosecutor and R-Chickasha. “As a former prosecutor, I know how important it is that we catch repeat drunk drivers and get them off our roads.”

“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 for use in subsequent prosecutions, severely endangering public safety. This idea to stop it has been floating around the Capitol for a while. Congratulations to Representative Sanders for leading the Herculean corroboration that got it past its first hurdle.”

“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. “We badly need to close this loophole in the system and 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. I hope the Senate and governor will agree. Representative Sanders deserves a lot of credit. This will save lives.”

The legislation was approved by a vote of 82-5 and now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate for consideration.

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Schools Catch a Break

By Rep. Mike Sanders

In a year with so many concerns, I was pleased to hear a bit of good news on the education funding front.

State Budget Director Jill Geiger and Office of Management and Enterprise Services spokesman John Estus explained that a 1017 Fund cash balance was not included in previous monthly reports from the Oklahoma Board of Equalization. This means that at least one anticipated revenue failure will not occur.

That education fund began the current fiscal year with a cash balance of $43.8 million. The Office of Management and Enterprise Services failed to include this carryover money in reports and the board had projected a $19 million revenue shortfall in the fund.

In January, $47 million in state funding was cut from schools’ budgets because of sharp declines in revenue collections in the state’s general fund due to the worldwide decline in the price of oil. Budget officials say that this may not be the end of cuts, as revenues continue to decline, but the overlooked money in the 1017 Fund will absolutely help our schools in the short-term and have an impact immediately.

Another topic of great interest has been the teacher shortage. House Bill 2951 directs the State Department of Education and Regents for Higher Education to develop and implement teacher recruitment programs, with priority given to teacher shortage areas. This bill passed the Appropriations and Budget Committee on Wednesday evening and I supported this bill.

I also want to mention that a bill to consolidate some K-8 dependent schools into larger districts, House Bill 2824, failed to pass out of committee.

Lastly, I would like to mention some news on the topic of judicial reform. A measure that would allow voters to create judicial elections in Oklahoma was approved in committee and will soon be up for discussion by the full Oklahoma House of Representatives. House Joint Resolution 1037 would create a state question that would eliminate a current nominating commission and make the justices directly accountable to the people.

Several Oklahoma Supreme Court decisions over the past decade have led some state legislators to question the independence of the judiciary. In particular, there interpretations of law regarding lawsuit reform and workers’ compensation reform seemed out of synch with other rulings.

In Oklahoma, three judges are selected by a commission and then the governor chooses from among those candidates. The Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission includes six members approved by the Oklahoma Bar Association and nine members chosen by various other means. This process is uncommon among states and the specific concern is that the Oklahoma Bar Association has a strong influence on the commission and could affect its decisions on laws impacting lawyers. 

In next week’s column, I will continue to discuss the progress of bills and budget discussions. As always, I can be reached at(405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Committee Work

By Rep. Mike Sanders

This week, House lawmakers began their work to review the nearly 1,000 bills filed.Committees either accept bills as is, improve upon them or vote no. There are plenty of bills that deserve scrutiny and many of them will not go beyond this step of the process.

As the chair of the transportation budget subcommittee, my work focuses on our roads and bridges. This week, we began the work of vetting all transportation bills filed by the 101 members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Our state not only needs modern roads and bridges, but also modern laws that help increase the safety of Oklahomans. Thiscommittee is where we work to create good public policy on our roads.

First, I should note that my House Bill 2289 was approved in the committee and then also on the House floor. It modifies a notice requirement for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation agents. Currently, they are allowed to go on private property while surveying and conducting other business in their daily work on behalf of roads and bridges. However, they are required to notify property owners. My bill changes the notice requirement to the use of first-class rather than just registered mail.

Second, we approved House Bill 3167, which I believe will increase public safety. It removes speed limits that are set in Oklahoma law on turnpikes and four-lane highways. Currently, those speed limits are arbitrary. Going forward, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation will determine appropriate speed limits based on engineering studies to determine the condition of the road and other factors. In some cases, this could lead to higher speed limits if appropriate and, in others, lower speed limits.

Third, I have an announcement on a local transportation project. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has programmed a project to mill the existing surface failures out and replace them with new asphalt pavement in Okarche and Piedmont. In Okarche, the targeted section of road will be from Stroh Avenue south to the US81 interchange. Both the northbound and southbound outside lanes will be milled and filled. In Piedmont, the section of road will be each side of State Highway 3 to the State Highway 4 signal light in Piedmont. This project will be discussed and approved in the March meeting and would likely begin in early summer. Its present estimate is $420,000. Improvements at both these locations will make for a much improved ride.

Finally, state legislators continue to discuss the plight of children in our state. Currently, there is a great need for more foster families. We desperately need more Oklahomans to step up. Gov. Mary Fallin is using her prominent position to get the word out and I would like to join her in doing so. If you think you are able to provide love for a child, without the intent of adopting them but instead just to get them through a difficult time in their lives, I would encourage you to go to the DHS website and fill out the required application. The more applications they get though, the more foster care families we will have available for children in need.

In next week’s column, I will continue to discuss the progress of bills in the early weeks of session. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Governor Fallin Calls for Teacher Pay Raise

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Sitting and listening to Governor Mary Fallin as she gave her State of the State this year, it was clear she was presenting bold proposals in a difficult budget year. The governor is calling for a teacher pay raise, major budget reforms, the completion of the state Capitol project and a personal consumption tax on cigarettes.

She emphasized that this year’s shortfall was an opportunity to fix the way in which we budget state revenues. Over time, legislators have less and less to appropriate despite growing revenues. This year, legislators will only appropriate about 45 percent of total Oklahoma tax receipts, down from 55 percent in 2007.

Governor Fallin asked legislators to automate the reconciliation of agency non-revolving funds from one-time funds to general revenue. These funds, which contain about $1.5 billion, are an example of non-appropriated revenue.

The governor also said the state could bring in an additional $200 million a year by modernizing the way sales tax is collected. Annual sales tax exemptions total $8 billion, while only about 6.9 billion are available for appropriation. There are some exemptions we must protect, including the agriculture sales tax exemption and the property tax exemption for nonprofits that aid aging service providers. No one has yet named either exemption, but I know that there are some who would target those among others. I will oppose the elimination of either of those exemptions.

The governor stated she did not support draining the Rainy Day Fund, nor do I. Without her proposed reforms, Fallin said that most state agencies would face a 13.5 percent cut for the upcoming 2017 fiscal year.

The governor’s proposed $3,000 teacher pay raise will cost the state $178 million. I have also seen proposals filed by legislators for larger amounts. In a budget shortfall year it might be tough, but with the governor’s proposed reforms and other plans being discussed, it might be doable. I will fully support giving teachers a well-earned raise.

Governor Fallin thanked lawmakers for approving legislation two years ago that authorized a $120 million bond issue to begin restoring the state Capitol. She told them it was approved with the understanding that more would be needed to complete the project – current estimates call for another $120 million. Legislators will of course review the full details of any bond proposal, but there is without a doubt a need to ensure the “people’s house” is properly maintained and repaired and a bond issue of some size will likely be approved.

Finally, the governor is proposing to capture $910 million of recurring revenues for appropriations that will help fund core services next year and in the years ahead. That includes $181.6 million from increasing the personal consumption tax on cigarettes.

The governor’s proposals are a good start. More discussion and talks will take place this week and in the next 16 weeks. We will end the session with a balanced budget. My focus will be supporting and defending funding for rural fire departments, state and county roads, services that protect our children in DHS custody, getting drunk drivers off the road and protecting our rural way of life. 

In next week’s column, I will discuss the progress of bills in the early weeks of session. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Local Transportation Projects

By Rep. Mike Sanders

I’ve received numerous constituent questions on local transportation projects. Today, I want to provide an update on the State Highway 51/US-270 junction project and plans for bridges on US-60. I also want to mention that we have totaled up the projects in the eight-year transportation plan for Dewey County and that amount is $90.56 million from 2016 to 2023.

The project to surface the parallel lane southeast of Seiling was let out to bid in March of 2015. It includes plans to provide turn lanes at the SH-51/US-270 junction because of the many accidents, deaths and near deaths that have occurred on it. The project was awarded to Cornell Construction Company in April.

Flooding in the spring and summer of 2015 and winter weather have delayed the project. May was the wettest month in state history. This spring and summer rain combined with winter weather conditions have ultimately pushed back the majority of all state transportation projects by about seven to nine months. Cornell Construction Company is just now finishing up the work on a previous project in Kiowa County.

Barring further weather delays, construction should begin within the next few week on the resurfacing of the parallel lanes. However, because of potential slick conditions in January and February, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has asked that Cornell not start the portion of the project adding the turn lanes to the SH-51/US-270 junction before March 1, but that it must be started no later than April 1. Once Cornell begins the project to add the turn lanes, they have 45 days to complete them, with a penalty of $1,000 per day for every day past that 45-day mark.

I know that these delays can be frustrating but I also want to remind you how hard the state transportationagency is working for us. I was told that the US-270 corridor is progressing faster than any other corridor in our area. ODOT has also informed me that they are moving up two US-270 projects in the eight-year plan. First, a rehabilitation project southeast of Seiling will let out bids in October 2016 instead of 2018. A second project to complete the four-lane divided highway to the State Highway 51 junction will let out bids in 2017 instead of 2019.

We also have $32 million planned in the eight-year plan for 2022 and another $16 million planned in 2023 to complete the four-lane divided highway to a point 13.4 miles southeast of the junction of State Highway 51 East.

Now, I have also been asked about why work has not begun on the bridges on US-60. I’m told by statetransportation employees that while the bridges are rated “5” or “at risk,” that there are still many bridges in the state that are rated at or below a “4” or “structurally deficient.” For safety reasons, those structurally deficient bridges must be dealt with before the at risk bridges. There is a chance that the four bridges on US-60 could be moved up the schedule at some point, but that will depend on how long it takes to get the work on structurally deficient bridges in the state first. 

During our public meetings, the public sentiment was to avoid closing the roads during these bridge projects. They would be cheaper and faster with closed roads, but this would create great inconveniences during theproject period.

Transportation officials and employees are working incredibly hard to get our transportation infrastructure up-to-date. Unfortunately, they are contending with having to work through decades of neglect prior to this last decade. On top of that, we have the weather that Oklahoma is known for, which creates delays. I hope everyone can be patient as these projects continue to progress.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted at (405) 557-7407.

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$3.4 Billion in Federal Transportation Funding

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Since I chair the budget subcommittee that oversees transportation funding, I have closely watched federal funding for transportation. I am pleased to report that federal legislation has been approved by both Congressional chambers. The legislation will provide nearly $3.4 billion in highway funding and more than $240 million in mass transit funding.

Praise goes to U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who was a lead negotiator on the legislation. He has worked hard to pull his colleagues away from the practice of short-term funding streams that have contributed to the deterioration of transportation infrastructure throughout our country. The federal gasoline tax has simply not kept up with the cost inflation of construction and repair needs.

Currently, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation receives about $460 million annually from the federal government. That comes from a larger figure, with the remainder going to counties, municipalities and other entities. The new federal legislation will increase that larger figure to an estimated $643 million this year, but it is not clear what amount will go to ODOT. Even so, any increase will be welcome and will coincide nicely with Oklahoma legislative efforts to increase state funding for transportation to record levels. It’s also worth mentioning that the long term funding stream will make it easier to plan ahead.

Transportation infrastructure was neglected for decades by both state and federal lawmakers. For 20 years, from 1985 until 2005, the only source of annual state funding directed to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation originated from fuel tax proceeds. Beginning in 2006, with the creation of the Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety (ROADS) fund, state funding levels for highways have incrementally risen to more than $608 million annually. In the decade since 2006, the state has sustained transportation infrastructure investment as a priority and invested more than $4 billion to begin to address the backlog of critical highway system and bridge needs. This investment includes both the proceeds from the fuel tax revenue combined with resources provided by the ROADS fund.

Safety problems abound when you allow your infrastructure to become outdated. Inadequate shoulders and roads that don’t to support volume increases lead to accidents. In 2013, Canadian County had a whopping 12 fatality crashes. A large number of fatality crashes indicates that there is a safety problem. Kingfisher County had three, Blaine County had four, Dewey County had three and Woodward County had six. In terms of individual towns, Woodward, Yukon and Watonga each had one of those fatality crashes.

I cannot stress enough my commitment to road and bridge funding. Oklahoma will be good stewards of the federal funding coming into further boost infrastructure and the safety of our citizens. 

As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407.

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Thankfully Yours

By Rep. Mike Sanders

As Thanksgiving is upon us, I thought this would be a good time to once again thank you, my constituents, for your support and feedback during my time in office. The communities in my district are among the best Oklahoma has to offer in my humble view. I look forward to another legislative session representing your interests at the Capitol.

I also want to thank my wife, Nellie, for building a family with me. I count Nellie, Davis and Walker as first and foremost among my personal blessings. Our family life has been blessed because of the community we live in. Our kids have access to quality schools and we enjoy freedom and safety.

Our freedom, safety and access to education are not by accident. We live in one of the greatest nations in the world, because of the commitment of everyday Americans to vote for and support these goals. We also rely on our brave men and women who serve in the military, in law enforcement and as volunteer firefighters to help keep our communities safe. I am very grateful to our local educators, who will help prepare our children to inherit this great country from us.

I also want to give thanks to my legislative assistant, Billie Uhlenhake. She has been indispensable to me and to my constituents. Billie lives in the district, in Loyal, and commutes to the Capitol each day. Our families have become very close. Know that, more often than not, when I fight for your priorities at the Capitol, Billie is right there fighting next to me.

I believe there is much to be optimistic about during this season of Thanksgiving. Our economy is much more diversified than in the past. Even within the oil and gas industry, companies were much better prepared to handle difficulties than in the past. Our economy will recover, along with state funding. It will likely be stronger than in years past once that occurs.

I know that many of you are concerned about the direction of the country, as well as the increasing threat of terrorism globally. These terrorists hate us because of the freedoms we enjoy and our way of life. We are Americans. We make up the greatest nation in the world. We will defeat terrorism and will overcome all other challenges to our freedoms.

I hope that you will continue to count me among your blessings and come to me with your concerns. I can be reached at (405) 557-7407.

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