Welcome Back Students and Educators

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The school year is starting again and I want to take this opportunity to praise the educators for their diligent work on behalf of Oklahoma children. Your hard work ensures young Oklahomans’ ability to thrive in their adult lives.

I use the word educators because there are many players involved in a young person’s education. Their teachers have a direct impact on their progress during their school years. Administrators and support staff help to ensurestudents have an optimal environment for learning. And, of course, study after study has shown the important impact parental involvement has on a child’s scholastic success.

Teacher quality is one of the most significant factors related to student achievement. Unfortunately, in the U.S., 14 percent of new teachers resign by the end of their first year and 50 percent leave by their fifth year. It is a tough job, a fact that is often reinforced to me by my family members who have worked or currently work as teachers. For those of you who have made a long career of educating students, I salute your endurance and strength of character.

Reading is an important key to your child’s ability to learn throughout their school years. Parents can help encourage strong reading habits. Looking online, one of the most frequent suggestions are allowing children to have a period in which they are allowed to read in their room after bedtime. Other suggestions include having a large variety of books at home for your child and reading alongside your child.

Science and math are increasingly the foundational skills for careers in Oklahoma’s most lucrative industries. You can help raise your child’s interest by conducting simple science experiments at home and showing them practical applications for math, such as family budgeting.

In Oklahoma, as in much of the country, public education is a hotly debated area of public policy. Every year, my colleagues introduce proposals to tweak education policy. I personally believe that local school boards should make many of these decisions with the input of parents in the district. For that reason, I restrict my own legislation to other areas of law. Even so, it would be irresponsible for me not to weigh in on those discussions brought forth by other legislators.

I try to navigate tough education policy questions by consulting the parents and educators of my district. For that reason, I want to encourage you to contact me with your concerns and your thoughts. I also want to wish every teacher and administrator good luck on the new school year. I pray that they will have a great and productive year. As always, I can be contacted at (405) 557-7407.

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Ag Department Cuts Rural Firefighter Money

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry got my attention this summer when they reduced the funding they will provide that benefits rural volunteer fire departments. I knew that they received a cut this year, but I was surprised that they decided to redo their budget in a way that reduces the public safety service provided in rural communities.

Operational funds are provided through the agency for each of the more than 850 certified rural fire department with each receiving equal portions. Prior to 2010, this money was never raided to balance the agency budget. This year, each volunteer rural fire department will lose about $200, on top of raiding that has already occurred in past years. Rural Fire Coordinators provide technical advice and assistance to rural fire departments in communities whose population does not exceed 10,000 residents through the Oklahoma Forestry Service Rural Fire Defense Program. The coordinators are funded through a contract between the agency and the Oklahoma Association of Regional Councils. This program has seen no increase in contract funding since 1999 and has received funding cuts since 2010. This year, they are receiving a 5 percent cut. The 80/20 grants has also been cut down to an estimated $200,000. Two additional programs that helped get surplus equipment to rural firefighters have been eliminated.

I decided not to be rash and to talk to Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese before I drew any conclusions about the agency’s actions. I understood that the agency budget was going to look different than in past years. The budget shortfall was created from a combination of the slowdown of the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma and longterm budgetary problems, such as the use of one-time revenues in past years and off-the-top obligated monies for higher education, roads and bridges and state retirement systems. With that shortfall, it made sense that they would review their budget and look for ways to save money.

When I met with Secretary Reese, one of the questions I had for him was whether or not any full-time employees were cut under the agency. The reason I asked this was that a common practice among agency administrators is to target a popular program in order to make legislators “feel the pain” of any cut to appropriations. If the agency did a thorough review of its overall spending and cut from multiple areas, I can accept that the cut to rural firefighters was a purely budgetary position. If, however, he cut only that program, while not releasing even a single full-time employee, I will be suspicious that his actions are due to politics.

Secretary Reese’s response to me in person was that he didn’t have that information in front of him but that he would get it to me shortly. Generally, I do not nitpick every agency decision, but I think any reduction to core services such as public safety or road and bridge funding warrant my interest. If the Ag Department is protecting secondary services on the backs of core services, I will be very disappointed. 

In the coming weeks, I will let you know what I have learned about the Ag Department’s budgeting decision. As always, I can be contacted at (405) 557-7407 or by email at Mike.Sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Federal Highway Reauthorization

By Rep. Mike Sanders

I have recently talked with U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and his staff, who are working to get reauthorization of federal funding for highways. The job of all elected officials is to work together for the common good of their constituents. For that reason, I want to help explain the need for this important federal legislation and for a robust and continuing investment in this country’s infrastructure.

A measure to reauthorize federal funding for six years will soon be on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Through his leadership, it was approved unanimously in Senator Inhofe’s committee in late June. Unlike many federal programs today, highway funding is a core service which benefits all of the public and falls very strongly in line with the constitutional duties of Congress. The U.S. Constitution calls for the federal government to support interstate commerce. Nothing is more central to that goal than our interstate transportation infrastructure.

There are 47,000 miles of interstate and 18 billion tons of freight worth $17 trillion moving across the country annually. A strong, well maintained and efficient local, state and national transportation network is the only publicly accessible infrastructure that can directly impact our quality of life, our economic viability and our very strength as a State and a Nation. Every year, Oklahoma produces more than $6 billion in exports to more than 25 countries. Our goods travel across multiple states to get to ports such as Long Beach, which we use to export to Asia.  Eighty percent of the tonnage shipped annually from sites in the state are carried by trucks and another seven percent are carried by courier services or multiple mode deliveries, which include trucking. Highway accessibility consistently ranks among the top site selection factors that drives the decision making of corporate executives.  Sound investments in transportation infrastructure add travel and access value and provide a tangible, immediate and easily quantifiable return.

The proposed reauthorization bill provides almost $100 billion in additional funding for the next six years. Lesser amounts over shorter authorization periods constrains our ability to develop our best investment strategy and would force states to give up larger, longer projects. The bill also streamlines the project delivery process to improve the speed at which projects can be started and completed. The bill also specifically targets bridge safety and the interstate system. Finally, it provides for more local control over which projects are priorities.

I have written at length about the need to prioritize infrastructure funding. No doubt, the administrative burden and overreach of the federal government needs to be downsized, but when it comes to road and bridge funding, the opposite is true. Investing in transportation infrastructure is a primary and constitutional responsibility of the federal government that cannot and should not be ignored. 

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

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Rep. Sanders Statement on King v. Burwell Ruling

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Mike Sanders today released the following statement in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell:

“It is very disappointing that the Supreme Court has consistently supported the Affordable Care Act despite clear arguments for constitutional flaws in the law and how it is being executed by the federal government. This sets the stage for the Affordable Care Act to be a central issue of contention in the upcoming presidential election. Conservatives like myself will continue to fight to overturn bad policy  that can only lead to increased costs and limited access for many Americans.”

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Rep. Sanders Statement on Same-sex Marriage Ruling

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher) today released the following statement in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges:

“The Supreme Court continues to disappoint those of us that expect rulings that are consistent with our history of law and traditions. Instead they have chosen to legislate from the bench, redefining the legal definition of marriage and giving same-sex couples an elevated status that should be reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman.

“Since the beginning of Western culture, based on biblical teachings, marriage has been defined as between a man and a woman. Western marriage law also followed that teaching, until today. In Oklahoma, we had an overwhelming majority who supported a state ban on same-sex marriage. What right does the federal government have to overturn state policies on almost every front?

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Celebrate Independence Day, but Remember its Meaning as well

By state Rep. Mike Sanders

Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Australia to see the sights down under.

During his travels, he had a conversation with an Aussie and they got to talking about the British Royal Family. They talked about the Queen being on their money and that she is the official Head of State for Australia. Finally, my friend was asked: “So, what’s America’s connection to the Queen?”

Slightly surprised, he answered that America has no official connection to the United Kingdom or British royalty – that we fought a war to earn our freedom and independence from the British crown. That is unique compared to two of Britain’s overseas colonies that eventually became their own countries – Australia and Canada – as they are independent commonwealths that still recognize the Queen as Head of State. In Australia, the Queen is able to preside over the Senate and begin the legislative year. If we had lost that war, I imagine that, in time, we would have gone the way of those two lands and become a nation – but still recognize the Queen as our leader.

If that’s not a clear indication of how unique and special our history is, I don’t know what to tell you. Because of the efforts of this nation’s founding fathers, we have a different situation than our allies down under or in the great white north. Because of their efforts to break free from the British, because of phrases like “Give me liberty or give me death!” we have this independent nation that has become a beacon of freedom across the globe.

And that freedom isn’t free. It has to be fought for, time and again. We’re a war-weary nation at the moment but that’s because there are existential threats to our country and to the Western way of life. We must continue to stand tall in the face of terrorism. My former boss, President George W. Bush, said it best in regards to standing tall against those who threaten liberty and freedom:

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

And that American resolve has stood strong and tall now for 239 years. And it’s all due to two groups of people – the Founding Fathers that fought so hard to break away from Britain and our military service members, who have fought since then to preserve and protect that freedom with their own lives.

I cannot describe with words how thankful and grateful I am that those people chose to risk their lives for the idea that is America. The idea that a nation can be run by the people, for the people and of the people. The idea that we didn’t need a king to rule over us and tell us how to live our lives. The idea that smaller government was best and more personal liberty was of paramount importance.

I hope everyone enjoys this Independence Day weekend. Have a great time at the lake or your cookout. And take in those fireworks. But also take a moment to be thankful for this country and those who sacrificed for its existence and your freedoms.

Mike Sanders serves District 59 of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He can be reached by phone at (405) 557-7407 or via email at mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Session End, Part 3 – Fiscal Policies Going Forward

By Rep. Mike Sanders

There is ongoing heartburn in Oklahoma over the state’s fiscal policies. Tax cuts, spending decisions, tax credits and even the budgeting process are all continually under scrutiny and criticism.

I find this heartburn to be natural. The state budget is the most important product of the legislative session. Why shouldn’t it receive scrutiny and criticism? In fact this year, I voted against the budget on principle, even though I supported many of its spending priorities. I voted against the budget because the good strides it made were on the back of transportation funding. Like education, I consider infrastructure funding to be a top priority of state government. I think recent flooding has further highlighted how important our county road and bridge funding, which took a hit in this year’s budget, really is.

On taxes, I believe that conservative policies have held up well to the intense pressures around fiscal decisions. Our state has seen economic growth and diversification since conservatives took office. The state does have many fiscal challenges. Our prison system is overburdened. We have a population that suffers from health problems, educational challenges and regular natural disasters. These problems are often equated with conservative policies, but the simple truth is that these problems emerged before our time and will continue to be a headache in future years. The most recent tax cut will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2016. Tax cuts in the past have had a positive effect on revenue because of the broader base of taxes we receive when more businesses open and relocated in our state.

What about tax credits? Tax credits and incentives do eat into our revenue that could be used for state services. On the other hand, they grow industry in our state, which translates to jobs and also taxable revenue growth.

However, in the case of some tax credits, we have seen their usefulness outlived. Such is the case of wind industry incentives, which we are now retiring.

This year, Senate Bill 498 was enacted. It phases out the current property tax exemption for wind power generating facilities. Senate Bill 502 removes a job creation tax credit from wind facilities. The governor said about the two measures: “When these tax credits were originally conceived, they were meant to support a new and groundbreaking form of alternative energy. Today, Oklahoma’s wind industry is among the strongest in the nation and is an integral part of our power grid and our economy. Wind energy is here to stay. It no longer needs the same level of support and encouragement from the state.”

The retirement of these tax credits do not represent an acknowledgement of a failed policy, but simply a product of their own success.

Two other tax credit reforms were approved by the Oklahoma Legislature and signed into law by the governor. House Bill 2182 creates a process to provide legislators with independent data on economic incentives, including estimated fiscal impacts and assessments of whether incentives are achieving their goals. Senate Bill 806 requires that any economic incentive include a measurable goal or goals when enacted.

Two bad fiscal policies enacted this year were the two museum bonds approved. The first one dealt with the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. Legislative leaders were able to win support for the bill because many legislators felt like it was the only way to get the museum off our hands. As a conservative, I voted against the bill, because I believe core services trump non-essential projects. I also voted against the OKPOPS museum bond. In order to pass this bond, legislative leaders had to pull in support from across the aisle, because they could not get a majority of conservatives to support the measure. The two measures will set up back $50 million in bonds, or several million dollars each year for a decade or two to come.

The budgeting process itself will change slightly this year. Under one measure, agencies will now have to justify their expenses according to a set of goals set forward by your elected officials. We did not enact a reform that would have created a budget-only session. There is still interest in that policy, but there are reservations that we would be blocking important policy work we do each year.

I think our overall fiscal approach is good, but could be improved and could be more conservative. I and other like-minded legislators will continue to push for core services over non-essential spending and pro-growth tax policies.

This interim, I will be in the district as I always am. I look forward to your thoughts, concerns and suggestions. Have a wonderful summer and thank you for all that you do for our district and state.

My door is open to you at all times. If we don’t already know each other, you can reach me through my legislative office at (405) 557-7407 or at my e-mail mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Session End, Part 2 – Public Safety Wins

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The recent storms and flooding is a reminder to us all about how important public safety is in Oklahoma. Many brave firefighters and law enforcement individuals have risked their lives to save the lives and property of others. We appreciate the safety that they provide us. Public safety has always been a priority for me. This year was no different.

One of the biggest headlines this year was our passage of a stricter ban on driving while texting. Oklahoma already had a driving while texting law, but it was weak enough that there wasn’t much teeth to it. House Bill 1965 makes driving while texting a primary offense carrying a penalty of $100. A primary offense means that an officer can pull you over for it.

Because we were worried about unintended consequences, we wrote exceptions into the law to account for emergency situations and voice-activated use of devices. There were some reluctance about making the law a primary offense, but ultimately the desire we had for safe communities won out. The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year. Nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.

Oklahoma’s law enforcement officers deserve respect and legal protections. Unfortunately, criminals have become more emboldened and do sometimes pursue law enforcement officers. I authored House Bill 1318, which is now law, will ensure that criminals receive a felony when they assault an officer. The way in which the law was written previously created a number of loopholes that could result in a misdemeanor charge. When we deter the assault of officers, we increase their authority so they can better serve us. I was very proud of this legislation.

I have worked over the years to support our volunteer firefighters in my district and throughout the state. I was also proud to author an important bill that will increase the pool of potential volunteer firefighters. Many constituents have told me that they would like to serve but that an limit on how old a new volunteer firefighter can be was preventing their service. I looked into it and it turned out that our pension system could not support new recruits starting at a later age. House Bill 2005 removed the age limit, but with the stipulation that they would not receive state firefighter pensions. Those constituents I talked to already had pensions and money from other careers, so this was the best solution to a complex problem. The new law takes effect in November.

Prescription drug abuse is rampant in Oklahoma. It has been a difficult conversation, because we want to limit access to abusers and dealers, but not overly burden health care providers or the general public. House Bill 1948 is a good, nuanced bill that requires doctors to check a database of patient prescriptions, but not on every visit. An initial database check is required for the first time a doctor writes a prescription for certain opiate painkillers, anti-anxiety medicines and muscle relaxers. Afterwards, the doctor is only required to check the database once every 180 days.

Another public safety issue involved prisoner transfers from county jails to state prisons. House Bill 1630 requires counties to transmit sentencing documents to the state within three days of their availability. The new law requires the state corrections agency to pay county jails a per diem fee for the day of an inmate’s sentencing. The intent of the legislation was to save the state money while also making sure our county law enforcement officials are receiving fair compensation for their housing of inmates.

My final column will focus on the fiscal policy enacted this year. 

My door is open to you at all times. You can reach my legislative office at (405) 557-7407, e-mail mike.sanders@okhouse.gov or stop by Room 205 at 2300 North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City.

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Session End, Part 1 – Education Wins

By Rep. Mike Sanders

A new annual event at the Oklahoma State Capitol is the education rally. I wholeheartedly support those of you who participated and want to devote one of three columns summarizing this legislative session to education issues. In my second column, I will summarize public safety accomplishments this session. My third column will look at long-term fiscal decisions made this session.

The biggest accomplishment for education this year was the flat K-12 budget. There was intense pressure to cut education, because of the estimated $611 million hole in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. We came up with enough budget fixes to spare our schools a cut.

We were unable to achieve an increase for schools this year, but over the last two years gave common education over $191 million in new money. The House planned on a teacher pay raise this year but realized that with the $611 million hole we could not do that this year. A measure to increase the minimum pay of teachers in Oklahoma was drafted, but ultimately left for consideration next year. I know that the education budget must increase over time to address increased enrollment and rising costs at schools. I expect that in future budget years, there will be increases, just as there have been in the past few years.

Recruiting teachers is becoming an increasing problem in Oklahoma. Two measures signed into law this year are intended to help school districts with recruitment. House Bill 1521 will allow school districts to offer teachers a one-time incentive payment. Senate Bill 20 will allow the state education board to issue a teaching certificate to an out-of-state teacher with five years’ experience at an accredited school.

High-stakes testing for third grade students is one of the hottest topics among educators and parents. We voted to modify Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act this year. Senate Bill 630 awaits the signature of Gov. Mary Fallin. In 2014, we created student reading proficiency teams to allow probationary promotion for students not reading at grade level. This year’s legislation extends the use of those teams and probationary promotion through the 2017-2018 school year. The legislation also phases in higher reading proficiency requirements beginning in the 2016-2017 school year. Finally, the legislation directs students in kindergarten through third grade to be screened at both the beginning and end of the school year. If they show they can read at a third-grade level during any screening period, they will satisfy the law’s promotion requirements.

Senate Bill 706, which awaits the governor’s signature, delays the full implementation of the Oklahoma Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Evaluation System (TLE).

Several measures made it far in the process, but will have to be taken up again next year. Further fixes to the A-F grading system, were tied up in the process. There were also several bills to reduce testing. We will hopefully get them all the way through next year. 

My door is open to you at all times. You can reach my legislative office at (405) 557-7407, e-mail mike.sanders@okhouse.gov or stop by Room 205 at 2300 North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City.

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Budget Mostly Good, Voted No on Principle

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Budget negotiations lasted longer than in past years, but the result was that we were able to come up with a fix to the shortfall that did not include cuts to schools. As a budget subcommittee chair, it was my task in particular to fight for transportation funding in the budget. I was able to talk negotiators down from one plan that would have severely reduced the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges fund, but I still was unsatisfied with the changes made to the CIRB fund.

One of the wins on transportation funding was convincing my colleagues to avoid touching the gross production taxes that go to both schools and roads. We also got them to reduce the amount they intended to impact the CIRB fund. However, I promised county commissioners that I would not agree to fund state government on the back of our transportation funding. I voted “no” on the budget out of principle along with numerous Republican colleagues. Despite a large majority of Republicans in the House, only 54 members came out in support of the budget. Opposition even included the House’s second-in-command. Another budget item I took issue with was an approximately $400,000 reduction to conservation district funding.

Before the growing shortfall, most lawmakers had planned to address teacher pay this year. My sister is a teacher and I understand the need for us to keep pay competitive. I know our schools could use additional resources, but we had to work very hard just to spare K-12 the kind of cuts received in 2008. We did provide funding for ad valorem reimbursements, including $28 million in supplemental appropriations for the current budget year. I do plan to revisit teacher pay in the future.

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority received an $18 million increase while the state health department received a flat budget. The court-mandated Pinnacle Plan for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services received a scheduled $15.9 million increase. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections received a $14 million increase. I have told you before about the state of the prison system. It is bare-boned when it comes to staffing as it is. The system cannot afford to take cuts and instead needs regular increases just to keep up with our growing prison population. We also provided the second half of a raise for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers, at a cost of $4.6 million. I was very proud to have pushed for and received a flat Rural Economic Action Plan budget.

A total of 49 agencies received cuts, spread out in a way to lessen the pain of any one agency. This is an example of focusing on core services while allowing reductions to occur to many non-essential spending items. We plugged up the budget shortfall with $125.2 million worth of agency revolving funds, $150 million from the “rainy day” fund and several other accounts.

Now that we have completed the budget, I will begin to focus these columns on reviewing session highlights and give you an overview of what happened this year.

My door is open to you at all times. You can reach my legislative office at (405) 557-7407, e-mail mike.sanders@okhouse.gov or stop by Room 205 at 2300 North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City.

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