Have a Great Fourth of July

By Rep. Mike Sanders

On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. The Fourth of July is the most American of holidays, a time we celebrate the unique path our nation took and the sacrifice and efforts of countless individuals to earn the freedoms we enjoy today.

According to the U.S. Census web site, there were an estimated 2.5 million people in the United States in July 1776. Today, there is more than 300 million people in the U.S. Our country inspired millions of immigrants over the years to make long voyages to taste the way of life and freedom created in the U.S. Our nation’s growth made us the deciding factor in both World Wars. From that point forward, our nation has been heavily involved in world affairs, helping to resolve conflicts abroad and eliminating threats to our national security.

Right now, our troops are striving to stabilize the region in which terrorists are bred. Their efforts will lead not only to our protection but to the protection of future generations of Americans.

Not only has our nation grown on courage and conviction, but on the sure judgment our Founding Fathers had in writing our constitution and in creating a check-and-balance system of government. Many men who were devoted to forming a better nation strove to write unparalleled ideals into the way this country operates. Leaders throughout our nation’s history have worked to improve our government’s respect for its citizens and to lead them through difficult times.

On this July 4th weekend, I would ask that we all take time to ponder the freedoms that we have and thank and remember those who have contributed to or who continue to contribute to our security and liberty today. We are a nation of free thinkers and courageous freedom lovers and enjoy the protection of a robust military force. For that we should all celebrate.

Take care and have a safe July 4th weekend with family and friends.

I will regularly tell you about the goings-on at the state throughout the summer. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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District 59 Road Projects, Part 2

By Rep. Mike Sanders

Last week, I discussed several current and future road and bridge projects in the district. There are a few more future projects I would like to tell you about this week. My intent is to continue to emphasize the importance of transportation funding in our state as it is a frequent target in budget negotiations.

First, numerous projects in the district will add shoulders and increase the safety of our local roads. Shoulders will be added to State Highway 33 east out of Kingfisher to State Highway 74. Shoulders will also be added to State Highway 51 east out of Hennessey. A project was also added last year to do the same, but to the west out of Hennessey on State Highway 51 to State Highway 132. It is not fully funded, but the right-of-way and utilities are in the 2023 plan. These projects are on the eight-year road and bridge plan and in time will be scheduled and completed.

Secondly, the Kingfisher Creek Bridge north of Kingfisher will be replaced and the northbound lanes of US-81 will be reconstructed with shoulders while the southbound lanes will be rehabilitated between Kingfisher and Okarche. Both of these projects are scheduled to start in 2016 and 2017.

Thirdly, I also want to tell you about where we are at the state level. Our state has one of the largest transportation systems in the nation. We are ranked 17th nationally – right between New York and Florida. The state highway system encompasses 12,264 centerline miles and contains more than 6,800 bridges.

Oklahoma’s transportation system was severely underfunded from 1985 to 2005. More than 1,500 of our highway bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. There were 137 structures that could not bear a legally loaded truck.

In 2005, legislators began to reverse this trend and for 20 years now we have been making great progress, even during tough budget years. Of those 1,500 bridges that were structurally deficient, we’ve replaced many, but as we repair old ones, other bridges fall into structurally deficient status or are simply determined to fail to meet increasing traffic needs. There are only about 300 left of those original deficient bridges. With that moving number, it’s always a struggle to make up for the underfunding of the past, but we are getting there. We also have about 4,600 miles of highways that need shoulders to increase safety.

Despite our progress, the point is that we must continue to treat transportation as a core service in the budget. Maintenance and repair for such a vast system as we have in Oklahoma takes a lot of focus to stay on top of. Even a year’s worth of funding decreases can set us back significantly.

Back in the day, politics played a role in where a bridge or road was constructed. That no longer happens at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Unsafe roads and unsafe bridges are marked and dealt with based on needs only. As the chair of the budget subcommittee on transportation, I have heard of a desire to politicize those decisions again. I can assure you that as chair I will vehemently oppose any such effort to reinsert politics in the process. It simply isn’t appropriate when we are talking about the life-saving necessity of repairing our worst roads and bridges first.

I will regularly tell you about the goings-on at the state throughout the summer. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Session Accomplishments, Part 2

By Rep. Mike Sanders

In addition to passing a budget and legislation to improve the long-term fiscal management practices of the state this year, the Oklahoma Legislature also reduced state-level education mandates and enhanced the pursuit of public safety in Oklahoma.

Of the bills I had signed into law this year, I am most proud of my bill to curb drunk driving in Oklahoma. House Bill 3146 requires all impaired driving cases to go to district court, or a municipal court of record. Previously, drunk drivers were flying under the radar through multiple offenses because of prosecution in municipal courts that only sometimes passed on that information to the district courts for the purposes of catching and prosecuting repeat offenders.

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

Of all the bills passed during my tenure at the Oklahoma Legislature, the new drunk driving law has the greatest potential to save lives. It’s the most pivotal public safety law passed in decades. It goes into effect November 1.

I also co-authored two bills that are now signed into law. House Bill 2398 clarifies the criminal law regarding forcible sodomy. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the law did not justify a conviction in the case of a man who committed forcible sodomy on an unconscious victim. It was incredibly upsetting to see this individual get away with the crime, but we have now fixed the problem so that there will not be another case like it. A second bill, Senate Bill 1491, broadens the definition of domestic violence. Current statute defines it as a pattern involving three or more incidents of abuse. This new law will make it two or more and remove a stipulation that it occur within a 12-month period.

I was also pleased with another bill to improve the prosecution of serial killers and other murderers. Senate Bill 1214 modified the “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea to push out those individuals with antisocial personality disorder that is common among some of the most heinous, but cold-blooded killers. Those individuals would now fall under a “guilty with mental defect” that would require them to get both treatment, but still serve a full sentence in a corrections facility. They would be subject to intense evaluation before release, again, after serving a full sentence.

On the education front, too much testing has long been a problem in Oklahoma. While the goal of accountability is appropriate, the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated state testing, went too far. Now that some of those federal policies have been scaled back, we quickly took the opportunity to reduce state tests. House Bill 3218 eliminates nine state tests, including three end-of-instruction tests in the upcoming school year. It further gives the state education department the authority to try and consolidate the remaining high school assessments into some broad assessment like the ACT or SAT in future years.

We also scaled back some of the test-based evaluations of teachers, while leaving in place qualitative evaluations. House Bill 2957 modifies the Teacher Leader Effectiveness Evaluation System to create evidence-based and researched professional development plans for every Oklahoma educator. Basically, schools can continue to use any kind of evaluation, but will not be required to do test-based evaluations, especially when we are moving away from the current testing model.

Legislators also enacted legislation that emerged from the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Teacher Shortage Task Force. House Bill 2371 eliminates the requirement that a mentor teacher be employed by the school district and allows a former or retired classroom teacher to volunteer or serve part-time in that role at the discretion of the district. House Bill 2946 eases the ability of the state board to issue a teaching certificate to a person who has an out-of-state certificate. House Bill 2967 gives district boards of education the authority to enter into contracts with student teachers while they are still student teachers, provided that they cannot teach the next year until completing all certification requirements. House Bill 3025 expands the list of those who qualify to pursue a standard certificate through an alternative placement program. House Bill 3102 increases the maximum number of clock hours an adjunct teacher may teach.

Next week, I will tell you about district road projects. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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District 59 Road projects, part 1

By Rep. Mike Sanders

After fighting successfully again for transportation funding this year, I would like to emphasize the many local road and bridge projects completed, going on and planned for the future. I know that these projects are the source of some of my most frequent constituent calls. Hopefully, this will give everyone a feel for the good work being done in the district and the importance of road and bridge funding.

At the intersection of State Highway 4 and State Highway 3 in Piedmont, a project to overlay a rough spot and smooth it out has been completed. Another project is complete on the Okarche portion of State Highway 81 and State Highway 3. Surfacing work is finished and striping was completed this last week.

There is an ongoing project on US-270 between Woodward and Seiling. This is a grade, drain, surface and bridge project. It was a $19.77 million project. Cummins Construction Company is constructing two new eastbound lanes and making improvements to the existing two lanes to construct a four lane divided highway. This project was awarded back in September 2015 and work began on December 15, 2015. We anticipate completion in the fall of 2017.

Another $2.5 million current project in Blaine County on State Highway 3 east of Watonga will replace a structurally deficient bridge. That means that the existing bridge has one or more structural elements that have deteriorated to a rating of 4 on a scale from 1-9 (9 being the best). This project will be completed in the fall of 2016. 

Another $8 million current project in Dewey County is on US-270, from 1.7 miles southeast of the SH-51W junction in Seiling and extends southeast 3.92 miles and this project will surface the parallel lane and be completed in the summer of 2016. The turning lanes at the SH-51E junction (the Canton turnoff) were completed this spring.

Upcoming 2016 projects include a $2.8 million concrete overlay on State Highway 51 east of Canton, a $6.1 million bridge project over the South Canadian River on US-183 north of Taloga, and a $9 million project on US-270 beginning 1.7 miles southeast of the junction of SH-51 in Seiling to rehabilitate the existing lanes and make this section fully functional as a four-lane divided highway. 

In 2017, there are two asphalt overlay projects on US-183 between Putnam and Taloga at a total cost of $4.4 million, a $10.86 million project on US-270 near the SH-51E junction (the Canton turnoff) to make that a four-lane divided highway and a couple of bridge projects on SH-8 south of Okeene at Spring Creek and Salt Creek totaling $3.2 million.

In 2018, there is a bridge project scheduled over the North Canadian River on State Highway 51 east of Canton at a cost of $5.46 million.

All of these projects in Northwest Oklahoma would not be completed without the eight-year transportation plan being protected and funded properly. Having safe roads is a smart investment for industry to locate to our state, but, more importantly, safe roads are a key component of public safety. We cannot turn back now. We owe it to the people of Oklahoma. I can assure you as chairman on the subcommittee that oversees the transportation budget, I will ensure the eight-year plan is funded throughout my tenure here. I am proud to stand with state transportation officials and county government in ensuring this basic need.

In next week’s column, I will tell you about other future road and bridge projects in the district. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Session Accomplishments, Part 1

By Rep. Mike Sanders

While a budget that protected core services and the eight-year road and bridge plan was our most critical accomplishment this year, the Oklahoma Legislature made policy changes that were intended to have greater long-term effects on our fiscal health.

Although many constituents were worried about the upcoming budget, the midyear revenue failure had a more immediate and painful effect. Although we had “rainy day” money set aside to help decrease that midyear cut, there were also limits on how much we could responsibly take when we could face future years with a revenue shortfall. Basically, it was clear that we needed to store more away for such difficult years.

For that reason, we enacted House Bill 2763 this year. The new law creates the Revenue Stabilization Fund, which is tied more directly to volatile revenue streams such as the gross production taxes on oil and gas and corporate income tax. Under the law, the state will save any revenue above a five-year average calculation to save for the years when we fall below that average. We will be able to use a quarter of the money in that fund to address a revenue failure and potential midyear cut or half to fill a budget shortfall for an upcoming year. The Rainy Day Fund works similarly, with rules about how money can be pulled out of it, which ensures it is used for its intended purpose.

A bad budget idea that showed up in the last week of session was to consolidate or dismantle the Council on Firefighter Training, which identifies the training needs for firefighters in Oklahoma, both volunteer and career. This organization has a huge positive impact on fire departments across Oklahoma through its efforts on training, health and safety. The plan was to move them under the state fire marshal, but without any funding to support their function. Fortunately, we were able to successfully defeat this idea.

Long-term health care funding was another issue that we worked on this year. While we do not think it is prudent to accept additional federal monies, we know that we must have a conservative approach to ensuring health care access in our rural communities. We enacted House Bill 2549 and Senate Bill 1149 to stabilize the funding and management of nursing homes and municipal hospitals. We also approved House Bill 2547, which removes a telemedicine requirement to ensure it can be more broadly used and therefore help to reduce some of the operating costs of the health care industry in rural areas.

Finally, there’s a false claim being made that we increased legislative pay or our operating budget. We decreased the Oklahoma House of Representatives by 25 percent. This reduction reflected the fact that we are moving constitutionally-mandated salaries and benefits to the Oklahoma Legislative Service Bureau. Legislative salaries are set by a nonpartisan commission. We do not set our own salaries and the commission has not approved a raise since the 1990s, nor do they plan to do so in the near future. With 101 legislators, the fixed salaries and costs of our chamber were a larger percentage than in most agencies. Moving those costs out of the House allows us to better manage and reduce operating costs in the future.

In my next column, I will highlight education and criminal justice policy changes enacted in the 2016session. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

 

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Remembering Sacrifice

By Rep. Mike Sanders

In our American Idol culture, it seems the focus of Memorial Day has gotten misplaced.

Memorial Day is a day of solemn remembrance of those men and women who gave their lives defending our nation by serving in the armed forces. This is a debt the rest of us can never repay, even as we enjoy the reward of freedom reaped by this sacrifice.

While some may treat this holiday as just another day off work or a good chance to grill a burger, I know many of my friends in Western Oklahoma will start the day at the local cemetery, placing flags or flowers on the graves of friends and loved ones who served in our nation’s military.

We’ll stand alongside the well-weathered men and women in their Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion caps. We’ll bow our heads as they offer a prayer and involuntarily flinch as they fire off their salutes to honor their fallen friends.

The flags we place will be small and won’t weigh much physically, but in spirit they will bear the weight of gratitude and tears shed from knowing we didn’t have to make this sacrifice. We get to go home later this day and enjoy time with our spouses and children, with family and friends. After these moments of grief shared, we get to laugh and enjoy just being alive.

When we leave the gravesides of the veterans to whom we’re indebted, our peace will come from knowing they are in a better place – one of eternal joy and rest, where every tear is dried and every wound suffered is made whole.

I’m praying that on this day we walk a little slower in true remembrance of all of our blessings. I pray we walk a little taller, willing to bear the responsibility of keeping liberty for the next generation. I pray we walk a little straighter, more sure of our God-given purpose in this one life on earth that we have to live. I pray we walk a little more humble, thankful now more than ever for the sacrifice of others that keeps us free.

God bless all this Memorial Day who have suffered the loss of a loved one in defense of our nation’s freedom. Thank you for your sacrifice. I do not take it for granted.

In my next column I will discuss our state’s budget plan, but for this column I wanted to take the time to acknowledge our veterans and their families on Memorial Day.

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Agreeing to a Budget

By Rep. Mike Sanders

This session, I have spent a great deal of time fighting to ensure we did not balance our budget by cutting road and bridge funding. Now, a budget agreement has been reached and I am proud to say that eight-year road plan will remain intact in addition to other core services.

The $6.78 billion budget, which is only the portion of state spending under direct legislative control, shields public schools, the prison system, the eight-year road plan and health care from further cuts during this oil and gas downturn.

The agreement closed just under $1 billion of the $1.3 billion shortfall we faced at the beginning of session. The upcoming budget is 5 percent smaller than the current year budget, before the midyear cut took place, or 1 percent smaller than the current budget after the midyear cut.

We combined a $200 million transportation bond, $144.4 million from the “rainy day” fund and many other strategies with the $5.85 billion in certified revenue to reach the $6.78 billion figure. For example, we passed legislation this year that will make the Cash Flow Reserve Fund part of certified revenue, which resulted in $132 million. We also reduced the time period by which certain entities can apply for tax refunds from three years to two years. With a shorter window, it is estimated we will have fewer refund applications and save approximately $9.1 million.

Those efforts led to us sparing core services from cuts. In particular, we avoided the Oklahoma Health Care Authority’s projection that they would have to cut provider rates by 25 percent, which would have closed nursing homes and hospitals throughout rural Oklahoma. This is a big win for Western Oklahoma.

The agreement maintains existing funding at the Department of Corrections by annualizing the department’s current year funding and making no further changes. It also protects critical safety net programs by providing a $16.3 million, or 2.6 percent, appropriation increase to the Department of Human Services that fully funds the Pinnacle Plan and helps maintain other important services.

The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services received a $6.9 million increase to offset reductions caused by the midyear revenue failure.

One of the deeper cuts went to higher education. As I pointed out in a previous column, while we value higher education, there is quite a bit of wasteful spending that goes on in our university system. Our intent is for them to tighten their belt without raising tuition or deviating from their core service.

If I was the only voice up here, the budget might look different. In particular, I disliked and voted against the elimination of the earned income tax credit and other tax increases. However, for being only one of 149 legislators, I am fortunate to have been a budget subcommittee chairman and had a larger opportunity than most to influence the final agreement.

All in all, this was a good budget under the circumstances. This was one of the toughest sessions in recent years. We kept our word on maintaining funding for core services and have made changes to our budgetary system that will help us in future years.

I want to thank the transportation department and our county commissioners for helping come up with this plan and a fix to the budget. Once again, our transportation partners have stepped up to save our state government.

In my next several columns, I hope to highlight some of the policy accomplishments of the 2016 session. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or mike.sanders@okhouse.gov.

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Rep. Sanders Comments on Obama Administration Top-Down Transgender Bathroom Directive

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher) issued the following statement in response to the Obama Administration directive to public schools Friday that threatens the federal funding of schools that do not allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their preferred gender identity:

“The federal overreach under this administration is simply disgraceful. Even setting the philosophical question aside, it is incredibly impractical to demand that every school make some sort of policy change, when most do not even include a single transgender individual. Does he not realize that the primary purpose of a school is to educate students? Instead of supporting that purpose, the federal government has been spending our tax dollars to use schools as a way to promote a liberal social agenda. The last thing a parent wants to worry about is having their child molested in a school bathroom as a result of a federal mandate on blurred gender lines when each person should have the right for peace and privacy in any bathroom they use.”

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Committee Votes to Reduce K-12 Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going into Overtime

By Rep. Mike Sanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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