Legislative Update – Knee-Jerk Protectionism Blocks Legitimate Reform

After years of doing things one way, some Oklahoma officeholders have been slow to warm to the reform measures the Republican-led Legislature are trying to enact.

Gov. Brad Henry’s recent veto of a lawsuit reform measure is the latest example of this trend. The legislation, which is carefully worded to target only frivolous lawsuits, simply requires that an expert sign off on the validity of a lawsuit before it is taken to court. The bill makes so much sense that the governor signed into law a similar measure in 2004 that targeted only medical malpractice lawsuits. The 2004 law was thrown out in 2006 for unconstitutionally applying to only one industry. This year’s law therefore was written to apply to all industries.

It is not unexpected to see this type of knee-jerk protectionism of old systems, but it is disappointing. Though there is nothing in either party’s platform that would place a lawmaker against lawsuit reform or government modernization efforts, the vote on those reforms has been divided along partisan lines. My belief is that it is rooted in a fear of changing the status quo, especially when that change comes from the opposite party.

Take for example the argument against tort reform. Trial lawyers have muddied the water by marching out truly rare cases of severe medical malpractice and trying to create a feeling that Oklahoma is rampant with bad doctors who are held at bay by the current system. Data has been gathered to show the true effects of changing the law will actually benefit people with legitimate cases, but the parade of sob stories and unfounded fear that some critical-but-unidentified right of average Oklahomans will be imperiled has caused the minority party to vote against the reform in the Legislature and the governor to veto legislation that he has acknowledged is needed.

A second example of how instinct is being used in place of information is in the significant opposition to government modernization. Republican lawmakers received debate and opposition on such common-sense measures as centralizing information technology services and allowing the state to renegotiate contracts.

The final example of this phenomenon is voter identification reform. The lawmaker who introduced this legislation pointed out states that had enacted similar reform and had seen record turnout in subsequent elections. It seemed like a good argument to deter the legitimate if protectionist concern that changing the system might disenfranchise voters. The legislation divided the Legislature again along party lines and was vetoed by the governor.

The changes that the Republican-led Legislature is trying to enact are meant to fix problems that have emerged over time in the status quo. Reform should be embraced by both parties, especially when the change is not nonpartisan in nature. Opponents of such measures should take a hard look at their positions and make sure they are not becoming roadblocks in the path to progress in Oklahoma.

Thank you for stopping by my office, Joy Rhodes of Watonga. I would also like to thank the Oklahoma FFA choir, who sang beautifully at the state Capitol recently. I am always excited to meet with visiting FFA members.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update – Pro-Life Measures Will Become Law

Pro-life advocates arrived at the Capitol this week to celebrate the first pro-life measure signed into law this year by Gov. Brad Henry. Oklahoma is the first state to sign into law a measure to allow mothers to use lethal force in defending an unborn child.

I am encouraged to see such high-spirited activism regarding the protection of human lives. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 240,000 pregnant women are subject to domestic violence each year and pregnant women face twice the risk of battery. This legislation is aimed at affording those women the right to defend themselves and their unborn children.

I attended The Americans United for Life press conference marking the event. Not only is the passage of the legislation important, but getting the word out is also important. It encourages those who believe in the right to life who may not have yet gotten involved in the movement, to consider getting involved.

Unfortunately, Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a measure banning embryonic stem cell research. The bill drew opposition from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa chambers of commerce and I believe that the governor was influenced by the misinformation they spread. For others who may have been mislead, let me make it clear that the numerous state representatives who voted for the ban are not opposed to the use of adult stem cells for medical research. They are also acutely aware of the fact that only adult stem cell research has led to both cures and medical advances while the use of stem cells created from human embryos have not produced a single cure or medical advance.

A Senate bill I sponsored in the House will increase the amount of a county purchasing agent can spend on the next highest bidder if the low bidder cannot meet the terms of a contract. It increases the amount that can be spent from $5,000 to $10,000. The House passed the legislation by a 63-28 vote and it will now return to the Senate before being sent to Gov. Brad Henry.

I would also like to note the House passage of a Senate bill that would increase the penalties for trespassing and theft or vandalism on farms and ranches. The measure was approved almost unanimously and protects Oklahoma’s agricultural providers from losses due to theft or damage to livestock and farm equipment that can be quite costly. I was a proud supporter of the measure.

Thank you for stopping by my office, Ernest and Flo Hellewege of Kingfisher. I would also like to thank Mark Huff, a fire marshal from Watonga for stopping in.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update – Fighting Domestic Violence, Government Waste

Public safety and the pro-life movement got a boost this week from House lawmakers who approved a bill to protect women and their unborn children from domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a problem in Oklahoma as it is nationally. There are men who attack their pregnant wife or girlfriend if their wife or girlfriend refuses to abort their child. According to the American Pregnant Association, 240,000 pregnant women are subject to domestic violence each year. The Senate bill passed by the House would give women the right to use lethal force to protect the life of their unborn babies.

Oklahoma is one of only four states without a centralized technology officer. House lawmakers voted to change that, approving legislation that would streamline and consolidate technology services across state agencies. By consolidating the technology purchases under a chief information officer, the state is estimated to save millions by improving Oklahoma’s purchasing power.

A bill I authored and that I’ve mentioned in past columns has now passed the state Senate with the help of state Sen. Bryce Marlatt. House Bill 1470, which would raise the amount of money that a county can use to reward anyone with information about the vandalism of county property. The bill will now head to the governor’s desk, and with his signature, become law.

The last item I will touch upon is a resolution passed by the House urging the federal government to encourage natural gas vehicle usage. House leadership has already been pushing through legislation to diversify Oklahoma’s energy production to help protect our local economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. One measure incentivized the purchase of a compressed natural gas vehicle. The resolution urges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to quickly revise and restructure its natural gas vehicle certification requirements.

Natural gas is a domestic fuel that is plentiful in Oklahoma and now composes the greater portion of the oil and gas industry in the state. Because current EPA regulations are hindering the natural gas vehicle market, we have asked them in the resolution to help make these conversions as safe and inexpensive as possible to give Oklahomans access to alternative fuel vehicles. The resolution also encourages the EPA to continue a natural gas vehicle research, development and demonstration funding program.

The ultimate goal would be to increase the number of natural gas vehicles on the market and on the road, which would allow industry and the public to more quickly decrease the dependency of the nation on imported petroleum.

I would like to thank Kingfisher residents Mr. and Mrs. John Gooden for stopping by the Capitol and meeting with me. As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update – Priorities: Roads, Public Safety and Education

Having recently met with Hardy Watkins, executive director for the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, I thought I would fill you in a bit on the progress of renovations to Watonga’s Roman Nose State Park and Lodge.

I attended the meeting along with state Sen. Ron Justice. According to Watkins, the renovation of the lodge is right on schedule.

Aside from its stunning natural beauty, the Roman Nose State Park is an important way in which tourism dollars are brought to Watonga and other nearby towns. In order to reach it and other parts of the district, it is of course important to fix and update our roads and bridges.

Which brings me to the topic of this weeks’ column – as the state budget gets tighter, what are the core responsibilities of our state government?

Both myself and members of the conservative majority in the state Senate and House would contend that public safety, transportation and public education are the core areas of state government that need attention.

Throughout Oklahoma, residents have called upon the Legislature to improve our roads and bridges that have been long-neglected. In recent sessions, the conservative majority responded by providing record funding for road and bridge projects. I cannot promise you that we will again provide record funding because of the budget shortfall we may be facing. Roads will continue to be a priority, however, and will not get short-changed in this year’s budget negotiations.

State government should always focus on public safety. For this reason, conservative lawmakers have continued to push for new legislation to aid law enforcement and to target specific problems. One such bill passed this year increases the penalties for bringing a cell phone into prisons from a misdemeanor to a felony. Another would outlaw membership in a criminal gang and increase the penalties for attracting underage members. Despite a large prison population, the conservative majority has also resisted efforts to reduce sentences while passing at least one bill intended to decrease recidivism rates.

Education is another area that has received record funding recently from conservative lawmakers. Legislators this year have also worked to pass several pieces of legislation allowing for more local control. By continuing to look for ways to streamline the state’s education services while continuing to ensure its funding is prioritized over services of lesser importance, conservatives will continue to protect public education in Oklahoma.

I would like to thank Kingfisher resident Anna Langdon for stopping by recently. As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Northwest Oklahoma State Representative, Chairman of Oklahoma House Budget Committee tour rural Oklahoma Conservation Infrastructure; Flood control needs, water quality work highlighted on tour.

Oklahoma City, March 27, 2009—In an effort to get a “first-hand look” at the conservation infrastructure needs of rural Oklahoma, State Representative Ken Miller,(R-Edmond) Chairman of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Appropriations and Budget Committee toured flood control dams, riparian areas, no-till fields and other conservation improvements in Kingfisher, Blaine and Canadian Counties. The tour was conducted on the invitation of Representative Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher), a former Senior Advisor to the Chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“I am so glad that Rep. Miller was able to come out and see some of the needs of Conservation in Rural Oklahoma,” Rep. Sanders said. “Ken has been a great supporter of natural resource conservation work in the past, but it always help to see this work first hand to really get a grasp of what we are doing to help protect the environment.”

Representative Sanders said that he first came up with the idea of having the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee come with him on a tour of Conservation improvements shortly after the start of the 2009 legislative session.

“I have a unique perspective after serving in Washington D.C.,” Sanders said. “I saw how folks who have little day to day experience with rural America sometimes miss the importance of the work farmers, ranchers and other landowners do to protect our natural resources. When I had a chance to visit with Chairman Miller about Conservation, I took the opportunity of inviting him to come out to my part of the world and see some of these needs first hand. Ken jumped at the chance to get out and see the actual work on the ground.”

A resident of Edmond and a suburban Representative, Representative Miller said that it was extremely helpful to see up close the work done by the funds he has helped appropriate to Conservation in Oklahoma.

“I have always supported natural resource work and the effort of those who protect our soil, water, air and wildlife habitats through voluntary means. That said, we don’t have many terraces, waterways or riparian buffer strips in the city limits of Edmond,” Rep. Miller said. “It’s easy to hear things like ‘our state has more flood control structures built under the USDA watershed program than any other state in the union,’ or ‘by implementing best management practices like no-till and riparian buffer restoration we can reduce nutrients and bacteria in our water,” but it is all pretty academic until you see these things up close. I really want to thank Representative Sanders for asking me out for this tour.”

The two House members toured flood control structures in Kingfisher and Canadian Counties and toured Blaine County land enrolled in the newly initiated clean water act section 319 water quality project on the North Canadian River between Canton Lake and Lake Hefner. The conservation improvements they viewed, while in rural areas, have a direct impact on urban and suburban areas of Oklahoma, according to Clay Pope, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

“The dams we toured with Representative Sanders and Chairman Miller protect areas around Guthrie and the west side of El Reno, suburban areas of the Oklahoma City Metro Area and the water quality work we saw in Blaine County helps protect the water on the North Canadian River, which provides Oklahoma City with a large portion of its drinking water,” Pope said. “I think these sights highlight the importance Conservation work in rural Oklahoma in protecting the environment for all Oklahomans. We really want to thank Representative Sanders for putting this tour together and we want Chairman Miller to know how excited we were to show him these needs first hand.”
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Legislative Update

I hosted a Northwest Oklahoma Conservation tour Friday, March 20, with former state Rep. Clay Pope. The idea was to educate urban legislators about the direct impacts from conservation efforts in rural Oklahoma. Appropriations Chair, Representative Ken Miller, of Edmond attended the tour. He was pleasantly surprised by the projects we visited. The tour was such a success that we are already planning stages of hosting another before the end of session.

I was also happy to see conservation folks up at the Capitol this week. In particular, I would like to recognize Blaine and Dewey counties. Blaine County stopped by the office and Dewey County hosted an informational booth in the rotunda. The more awareness we can raise about conservation efforts, the better.

In past columns, I mentioned a bill of mine that passed and would increase the amount of reimbursable funds for county road and bridge projects from $200,000 to $400,000. The legislation would streamline county projects by allowing them to finish larger projects before getting the money from the state. Well, I am also happy to carry a similar Senate bill, by state Sen. Mike Schulz. Having the two measures doubles the odds of getting one of them passed into law.

We are gearing up to hear a number of important Senate bills in the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. One bill would protect farms and ranches from frivolous lawsuits, allowing farms and ranches being pulled into the court to be reimbursed their legal expenses if the lawsuit is found to be frivolous. Another bill by state Sen. Ron Justice would increase the fertilizer inspection fee by 35 cents to help fund research into soil fertility to benefit all Oklahoma agricultural producers.

In the Energy and Utility Regulation Committee, I will be looking at Senate bills such as one that would allow municipalities to expand funds to help conserve electricity or natural gas and therefore cut down on the costs on running the municipality. Another Senate bill would ban the Corporation Commission from accepting agreements to drill, operate or plug wells from entities that have been found in violation of the commission’s rulings. There are close to 20 bills currently referred to the committee.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update

Before getting into current legislation, I would like to begin this column by reporting that Oklahoma’s education ranking has improved.

To our educators’ credit, we have jumped from a near-bottom ranking in education to 35th. The new ranking was part of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 15th edition of its Report Card on American Education. Not only has our ranking improved but we are now ahead of the curve in two areas – our teacher-to-pupil ratio and the graduation rate of our high school students. The report should make all Oklahomans proud.

It was the focus of legislators this week to make sure federal stimulus dollars were not going to be used in an inappropriate way by state agencies.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 13 was passed by both the state House and the state Senate. It requires state agencies that receive federal stimulus funds to submit a plan for the expenditure of such funds to the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees and the governor’s office.

The resolution also states that an agency cannot spend the federal funds without additional dollars being accounted for in the state agency’s budget limits put into law every legislative session. Each year, a budget limitation bill is passed for each agency to show legislative intent in the expenditure of appropriated funds.

It is my belief that we need as much oversight over these federal dollars as we can to ensure taxpayers are adequately protected.

Another important resolution states that the Oklahoma Legislature is opposed to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and believes that the Electoral College system is the best way to decide elections. Our Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College system in order to allow all states, no matter their populations, to have a say in who was elected. The bill is authored by a former history teacher and I believe it protects a system that was set up for a very good reason – namely that all regions of the country would have certain amount of sway as to who is elected to represent our country.

I was a proud supporter of the resolution, which passed despite 35 members who opposed it. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact was dreamed up by those who were not happy that George W. Bush was elected over Al Gore despite not having the majority of the popular vote. There will always be those who want to change our country’s laws because of some perceived wrong but I believe we must decide based on what is best for our country.

I would also like to mention a productive meeting I had with Mayor Wes Hardin, City Manager Tiffany Tillman and Curtis Turner, all of Hennessey, and Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Thompson. They all addressed questions I had about the wastewater system.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update

I have a special place in my heart for the men and women who defend our freedoms. As someone who witnessed firsthand the terrible tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, I thank them for their efforts on behalf of our country.

I am pleased to co-author a bill that passed unanimously to allow the families of fallen military servicemen and women to attend Oklahoma colleges and universities for free. The bipartisan bill would provide in-state tuition waivers to the dependents of Oklahoma military servicemen and women killed in the line of duty for up to 48 months.

On Friday, March 6, state Sen. Bryce Marlatt and I toured Dewey County to survey the damage caused by the wild fire. County officials led the tour of the thousands of acres of damage that were burned, causing the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to shut down U.S. Highway 183 between Putnam and Taloga because of the smoke. I was proud to hear of the efforts of local firefighters from several departments to contain the fire and would like to thank them on behalf of my constituents who benefitted from their protection.

I also recently met some young but very creative constituents from the Kingfisher Regional Hospital Student Governing Board. I was impressed by their approach in generating some new legislative ideas and will be looking for ways to implement those ideas. Hospital administrator Damon Benson and Rachel Cameron, School Nurse for Kingfisher Public Schools, led the group that included Robert Walker and Bryce Crawford of Kingfisher, Katie Beebe of Okarche and Nikki Bomhoff of Okarche, and Evan Shimanek and Callan Bregenzer of Hennessey.

Meanwhile, House legislators continue to pass a number of reforms meant to improve the quality of state government services in Oklahoma. One, which I believe is especially important, concerns Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services. The department has come under fire for not doing enough to keep Oklahoma families together. An extensive audit showed many ways to improve how the state handles child abuse and neglect reports. Following recommendations of the audit, the House passed a bill that would require law enforcement to consult with DHS before removing a child and would create a program to allow information about a child’s physical and behavioral health and education needs to be available electronically. The bill would also phase out public shelters and establish a centralized statewide hotline for reports of child abuse and neglect.

The loopholes that have allowed lawbreaking politicians to retain their taxpayer-funded benefits were addressed in the House this week. The legislation was passed with former state Sen. Gene Stipe in mind. The former legislator was allowed to keep his benefits despite having committed a felony because he did not get convicted while in office. I am proud to say that I voted with other legislators to close these loopholes.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update

I have a special place in my heart for the men and women who defend our freedoms. As someone who witnessed firsthand the terrible tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, I thank them for their efforts on behalf of our country.

I am pleased to co-author a bill that passed unanimously to allow the families of fallen military servicemen and women to attend Oklahoma colleges and universities for free. The bipartisan bill would provide in-state tuition waivers to the dependents of Oklahoma military servicemen and women killed in the line of duty for up to 48 months.

On Friday, March 6, state Sen. Bryce Marlatt and I toured Dewey County to survey the damage caused by the wild fire. County officials led the tour of the thousands of acres of damage that were burned, causing the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to shut down U.S. Highway 183 between Putnam and Taloga because of the smoke. I was proud to hear of the efforts of local firefighters from several departments to contain the fire and would like to thank them on behalf of my constituents who benefitted from their protection.

I also recently met some young but very creative constituents from the Kingfisher Regional Hospital Student Governing Board. I was impressed by their approach in generating some new legislative ideas and will be looking for ways to implement those ideas. Hospital administrator Damon Benson and Rachel Cameron, School Nurse for Kingfisher Public Schools, led the group that included Robert Walker and Bryce Crawford of Kingfisher, Katie Beebe of Okarche and Nikki Bomhoff of Okarche, and Evan Shimanek and Callan Bregenzer of Hennessey.

Meanwhile, House legislators continue to pass a number of reforms meant to improve the quality of state government services in Oklahoma. One, which I believe is especially important, concerns Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services. The department has come under fire for not doing enough to keep Oklahoma families together. An extensive audit showed many ways to improve how the state handles child abuse and neglect reports. Following recommendations of the audit, the House passed a bill that would require law enforcement to consult with DHS before removing a child and would create a program to allow information about a child’s physical and behavioral health and education needs to be available electronically. The bill would also phase out public shelters and establish a centralized statewide hotline for reports of child abuse and neglect.

The loopholes that have allowed lawbreaking politicians to retain their taxpayer-funded benefits were addressed in the House this week. The legislation was passed with former state Sen. Gene Stipe in mind. The former legislator was allowed to keep his benefits despite having committed a felony because he did not get convicted while in office. I am proud to say that I voted with other legislators to close these loopholes.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.
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Legislative Update

This week, I am happy to report that my colleagues have passed a number of pieces of legislation I authored.

The bill that I am most proud of is one that would make agricultural tracts of land that have been annexed into a city exempt from having to follow laws passed by that city. There is already an exemption of that kind in Oklahoma law but only for tracts of land annexed into a city on or before July 1, 2003. My bill takes into account the fact that there are tracts that were annexed before that 2003 date that should clearly enjoy the same exemption. This is a common-sense protection for landowners to ensure they do not lose the use of their property if the city arbitrarily annexes it.

My bill got quite a bit of debate as there are cities that feel threatened by it. But as there are a number of representatives from rural districts such as my own, I am happy to report to you that it passed 63-34 with support from most rural representatives, both Democrat and Republican.

Another of my bills would increase the amount county governments can reward an individual for providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of someone who has defaced county property. My bill gives the county the ability to reward an individual up to $1,000 and the authority to create a fund not to exceed $2,000 from which to draw the reward from. This bill was passed unanimously.

A bill I authored to support our American Legion Posts by giving them all tax-exempt status passed out of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee unanimously. American Legion Posts have long served our communities and I thought it only right that they be given a tax exemption status, like so many other groups in Oklahoma enjoy.

Another of my bills that passed out of committee is very important to the state’s continuing efforts to maintain and repair our roads and bridges. It increases the amount of reimbursable funds for road projects from $200,000 to $400,000. This allows counties to get the work done and then request to be reimbursed.

I have mentioned before my fondness for former President Ronald Reagan. It is my pleasure to announce that I was able to co-author a resolution celebrating “Ronald Reagan Day” that was passed by the House. I was also very proud to introduce my son, born on Reagan’s birthday, and my beautiful wife, Nellie, to the Legislature.

The House has also passed a piece of pro-life legislation that would prohibit doctors from performing an abortion if they know the abortion is being requested because of the unborn child’s gender. To request an abortion for the purpose of gender selection is heinous and I am pleased to note that only four legislators voted against it.

Several energy bills were passed this week as well. One would create training for green jobs and another would give tax credits to individuals and businesses that installed geothermal heating and air units in their commercial or residential buildings.

One last area of legislation that I would like to touch upon is a bill that would protect farmers from frivolous lawsuits. This bill adds agritourism as one of the areas of agriculture under which farmers would gain some immunity from liability.

As you can see, it has been a very productive week at the Legislature.

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