By Rep. Mike Sanders
Last week, I told you about some of the major reforms approved by the session midpoint. This week, I want to talk about the budget and also highlight some additional legislation that we sent to the Senate.
First, budget discussions continue to include multiple scenarios and solutions, but at least one idea that has emerged and is worth mentioning is the idea of a transportation funding bond. Basically, road and bridge funding has been on the chopping block in the past several budget discussions. In order to get it off the block, we have begun discussing using a bond to fund it. With a more than $1 billion budget shortfall, a reasonable bond is one way to account for this anomaly year without sacrificing long-term transportation goals. This is still in discussion, but a plan is in the works. Transportation is a core service of government and should be treated as such.
Education is a top priority for all legislators and while we may not be able to hold it harmless, we have been working to reduce mandates and oppose ideas such as the school vouchers in such a tough budget time. Last week’s supplemental funding agreement was a first step in shoring up education funding due to the revenue failures. Hopefully, we can get more accomplished and set schools on a path to get through this oil and gas downturn. In two of the last three years, we have increased common education funding and held it harmless last year. The Senate has sent us a bill to eliminate End of Instruction exams. Senate Bill 1170 authorizes each school district to certify that graduating high school students had mastered the curriculum requirements. The state board of education, higher education and CareerTech will create a list of approved assessments that would comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act and measure mastery of the state’s subject matter standards. The state would pay for the exams.
Second, I want to tell you about another bond. We have committed to the idea of restoring the Oklahoma State Capitol, as it is the people’s building and putting off needed repairs would just make it a more costly project in the future. House Bill 3168 would allow the state to issue up to $125 million in bonds to complete the Capitol Restoration Project, which is scheduled for a 2022 completion date. The bond would be funded by tobacco tax revenues.
Third, we approved House Bill 2962 to require coverage of autism by a wide bipartisan vote last week. I think we must balance the need for accessible health care with reigning in insurance costs. This legislation did both. It requires health-benefit plans to provide coverage for autism, but limits the yearly maximum benefit to $25,000. It does not however limit the number of visits, as the cost is the important point.
Finally, I want to talk to you about a law enforcement bill approved last week. House Bill 2864 will place the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Department of Public Safety under one Commissioner of Public Safety. The legislation is intended to make it easier for the public to know where the buck stops in public safety and have one individual to deal with on any issues that arise. The individual law enforcement units will continue to function as in the past, but a single leader will help with the coordination and accountability that should be a part of any government agency. The title is off this bill, which means it needs to be tweaked more as it moves through the Senate. I will keep you posted on its progress.
In my next column, I will begin to tell you about some of the Senate bills coming through my committees and about the progress of House bills in the Senate. As always, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 email@example.com.