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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Volunteer fire departments around the state will be able to recruit new volunteer firefighters over the age of 45 when a new law takes effect Nov. 1.
House Bill 2005, by state Rep. Mike Sanders, eliminates an age limit that was put in place to address a pension dilemma. In order for the pension system to work, new enrollees must be under a certain age. His legislation gives potential volunteers the option to join without a pension if they are above that age.
“Basically, the law was keeping people from serving just because the state didn’t want to pay a pension for someone starting their firefighting career at 45; it just didn’t work,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “But there were men and women who would like to serve, even if it had to be without a pension. So, this law just opens that door to them. The men and women I talked to said that they already had pensions, that they were looking to serve and didn’t need to be part of the pension system.”
State Sen. AJ Griffin, who carried the bill in the Senate, said rural communities rely on volunteer firefighters.
“Our rural communities in particular rely on the service of volunteer firefighters. Not only do these courageous men and women save lives and property from fires, they are also first-responders in a host of other emergency situations, including tornadoes, flooding, and ice storms,” said Griffin, R-Guthrie. “Removing this unnecessary restriction will enable more Oklahomans to serve their friends and neighbors in communities throughout our state.”
Sanders said he hopes the new law will help address a nationwide and statewide decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters. Nearly 90 percent of the fire service in Oklahoma is all volunteer.
“This is one more tool in the toolbox to help our volunteer fire departments,” Sanders said. “I am grateful for the support of the governor and my legislative colleagues.”
By Rep. Mike Sanders
Policy and budgetary discussions are the major topic among state lawmakers, but occasionally we also look at the way we organize ourselves and conduct state business. As part of a new strategy, the Oklahoma House of Representatives came together Monday, November 2, to discuss some of the most pressing issues of the day in preparation for the 2016 legislative session.
Normally, legislative studies are conducted by committees made up of a small portion of the total body of the House. Their intent is to prepare lawmakers for the policy and budgetary work of the upcoming session. However, in order to work on issues that are often contentious, smallstudies do not really help build the coalition needed to move forward in some areas. On Monday, three of four studies took place with an invitation to all members of the House.
The first study focused on innovative education ideas and reforms from other states and other countries. Speakers from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Southern Region Education Board, along with a leading expert from Paris, presented information to lawmakers on education best practices from around the globe. I prefer to hear from my constituents, rather than experts on education issues, but it is good to know what others may be proposing in the future.
After breaking for lunch, we heard from water infrastructure experts on the state’s ongoing drought conditions and how we might better approach water policy. One of the contentious points about water policy is that different geographic parts of our state have different needs. Some parts are more prone to drought, while others have abundant water and are not eager to share what they have with others. Each geographic faction tends to hear only from their regional constituencies. In this study, we heard various ideas from water policy experts and agricultural and tribal representatives on how to ensure citizens across the state have adequate water supplies in the coming decades. The members also heard an update from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board on the Comprehensive Water Plan, which guides policymakers in water use and management decisions for the next 50 years. Now, all of us have received the same information, even if we may not be in complete agreement.
The third and final study presented an overview of Oklahoma’s court system and how appellate court judges and justices are chosen. I found this study very relevant in light of the issues we have seen with the decisions made by the state’s Supreme Court justices. According to one presenter, the basis for our current system was a Progressive-era push to put experts in charge of public life rather than the “masses.” It was a hard sell and most states did not agree to the judicial system we have in Oklahoma. In many states, citizens elect judges. In other states, there is a simple appointment process similar to the national-level appointment process. If we wanted to change our system, we can simplify our judicial process in a way that gives the governor more direct power or we could open it up to elections. Lawmakers can now discuss these ideas among themselves and see how we want to move forward in 2016.
The House is also meeting in joint session with the Senate in the House Chamber on Thursday, November 5. Capitol management best practices will be the topic. The hearing will focus on a management structure to care for and preserve the building to avoid the mistakes made throughout the nearly 100 years since the Capitol was built and allowed to fall into disrepair.
I am looking forward to discussing each of these issues with more depth during the 2016 session. As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted at (405) 557-7407.
By State Rep. Mike Sanders
In my role as Chairman of the Oklahoma House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Transportation, I continue to track our state’s progress in updating our road and bridge infrastructure.
In 2004, there were 1,168 structurally deficient bridges in Oklahoma – an all-time high. For decades, transportation funding had been stagnant. In 2005, Republican candidates came into office in a wave and began to prioritize infrastructure investment. State lawmakers joined Secretary ofTransportation Gary Ridley in taking politics out of the decision of howprojects were prioritized. By doing so, we allowed the professionals at ODOT to prioritize and schedule the projects that would have to most effect on safety and freedom of movement for our citizens.
Since then, state lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin have worked to accelerate the schedule of these projects. We enacted legislation and appropriated money to eliminate all structurally deficient bridges by 2020.
The investment in roads and bridges in Oklahoma since 2005 has led to a lot of improvements in my legislative district, House District 59. I want to give you an update on district projects.
The current eight-year plan includes 23 projects and approximately $67 million of infrastructure investment in Kingfisher County alone. I want to provide you with a sample of those projects below.
Two bridge and approaches projects along SH-33 are complete now and open to traffic. The first bridge is over Campbell Creek, about 12 miles east of the junction of SH-33 with US-81. The second bridge is over Uncle John’s Overflow and unnamed creeks. The total investment in these two projects was nearly $7 million.
Some other recently completed projects include:
- · a $5.6 million bridge and approaches project over Turkey Creek on SH-51, 1.6 miles west of US-81;
- · a $780,020 pavement rehabilitation project within the city limits of Kingfisher on US-81;
- · a $189,783 pavement rehabilitation project within the city limits of Okarche on US-81;
- · a $1.65 million resurfacing project on SH-3/SH-33 from 9.7 miles east of the Blaine County line to the junction with US-81;
- · and a nearly $4 million resurfacing project on US-81 beginning 9.6 miles north of SH-33.
Some upcoming projects include:
- · a $4.7 million bridge and approaches project on SH-51 over Skeleton Creek,
- · a $11 million grade/drain/bridge/surface project on SH-51 in Hennessey, from US-81 east 7.53 miles,
- · a $4.5 million bridge and approaches project on US-81 over Kingfisher Creek,
- · a $7 million bridge and approaches project on US-81 northbound and southbound bridges over the Union Pacific Railroad,
- · a $600,000 pavement rehabilitation project on SH-33 from US-81 junction to Second Street,
- · three shoulder improvement and resurfacing projects on SH-33 totaling $20 million,
- · a $1.2 million resurfacing project on US-81 from just north of SH-51 to the Garfield County line,
- · and a $930,000 bridge and approaches project over Foreman Creek on SH-33.
I believe transportation funding is a priority in the state because of its effects on our economy and public safety. Old, unsafe roads are a hazards just waiting to rear their ugly heads and they are also an eyesore that keeps business away from the state, especially in rural areas. They benefit every taxpayer they serve and are therefore a core state government service.
In the coming weeks and future columns, I will be discussing interim studies that are on-going here at the Oklahoma State Capitol as well as the 2017 budget. I also want to discuss other priorities for the 2016 session.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
I had the great honor of talking to Lomega Elementary School students on Constitution Day, which was September 17. I was so impressed by these young students who were extremely well-behaved and thoughtful in the questions they posed to me. They are a testament to their parents and educators.
This year marked the 228th birthday of the U.S. Constitution. The document was created in about 100 days during the Constitutional Convention that started in May of 1787. The Continental Congress invited all 13 colonies to send representatives to draft it, but Rhode Island failed to send delegates. George Washington led the delegates, half of which were veterans of the American Revolutionary War.
I talked to the Lomega students about the importance of the Constitution and how it protects our free speech, free practice of faith and right to bear arms. I noted that it was a testament to its enduring qualities that it has only been amended 17 times in 228 years.
I received a variety of intelligent questions. First through third grade questions included:
- What kind of things does the Constitution allow kids to do? I told them that examples include free speech and freedom of religion. Of course, these rights refer to restrictions on the government. Of course, parents still have the final word on their children’s behavior.
- How did the first president get elected? I told them that electors were selected by the individual states, and each cast one vote for Washington.
- Who’s your favorite president? I said President Ronald Reagan.
Questions from the fourth through sixth grades included:
- When was the Declaration of Independence started? In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to began work on what would become the Declaration of Independence.
- Have you ever seen the actual Constitution? Yes, during my time in Washington, D.C., during the President George W. Bush Administration, I visited the National Archives, where it is on display.
- What was your job at the White House? I was the Director of White House Interns.
- What age do you have to be to run for president? I told them thirty-five. The kids seemed crushed by this.
I received several invites this year to speak on Constitution Day. Thank you for the kind invites and I apologize if I could not make it this year. I will make a point of making Constitution Day visits to those of you I missed in years to come.
The U.S. Constitution has endured, and through it, so has our country. We must always respect and honor this precious document. It is a contract between all Americans that clearly states our rights, freedoms and liberties. It has served as an example to the world.
As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted at (405) 557-7407.