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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
During our busy weeks of policy and budget work, state lawmakers must also regularly meet and make organizational decisions. The current leader of the House, the Speaker, is leaving due to term limits. In order to have a smooth transition, we elected the individual we want to replace him at the end of the year.
I was pleased to see the House Republican caucus elect my good friend Rep. Charles McCall as the Speaker-designate for the 56th Legislature beginning in February 2017. McCall, an Atoka banker, will be a friend to Western Oklahoma, even though he hails from the Southeast. He was first elected in 2012, after serving as Mayor of Atoka from 2005 to 2012. He understands rural districts and I look forward to working with him and having him out to our district.
A very important criminal justice bill was signed into law on May 9. Since the creation of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea, it has been used repeatedly to get criminals off the hook for the crimes they commit. While I do believe there are valid cases in which an individual may be in a state in which they cannot make a moral decision, I think these are few and far between. In particular, serial killers may have a clinically-defined antisocial personality disorder, which could be used to argue for a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” It’s a black mark on justice in our state.
The new law will replace the plea with two new pleas – “guilty but with mental defect” and “not guilty by reason of mental illness.” Serial killers, or more specifically, individuals with an antisocial personality disorder, would receive normal sentencing under the “guilty but with mental defect” plea, but would have the additional stipulation that they be examined by the state mental health agency and a treatment would be recommended that would be a conditional part of any probation.
The idea was proposed by Pottawatomie County District Attorney, Richard Smothermon, following a 2012 high profile murder case. East Central University student Jerrod Murray planned and kidnapped fellow classmate, Generro Sanchez, and shot him multiple times. He later confessed that he wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone. Under Oklahoma law, Murray was charged with murder but found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is now held at the Oklahoma Forensic Center, the largest inpatient behavioral health facility in the state system until a psychiatrist or other mental health professional deems it appropriate to let him out. This is simply unacceptable and will not be the kind of outcome we will see under the new law.
Another criminal justic bill was signed into law that will criminalize revenge porn – the unauthorized dissemination of intimate photos or video usually after a relationship has ended. The new law defines the crime as being of a sexual act or of a nude individual disseminated with an intent to harass, intimidate, or coerce and the knowledge that the dissemination was nonconsensual. Someone convicted of the crime can be sentenced to up to one year in a county jail, and a fine. Revenge porn is a disgusting crime and I am proud to be among those who supported its criminalization.
The budget is getting close, but there are still many issues up in the air. Transportation funding, funding for the Rural Fire Defense program and volunteer fire departments through the Oklahoma Department of Agiculture, rural common education funding, hospitals and nursing home funding are still priorities to me and I will continue to fight for them in budget negotiations.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
Already the Oklahoma Legislature and Governor Mary Fallin have completed action on a number of policy issues. I told you last week about sending my repeat DUI bill to the governor. Now, I am proud to report that it has been signed into law.
House Bill 3146 creates the Impaired Driving Elimination Act (IDEA) and prohibits municipal prosecution of driving under the influence, unless a municipality has a municipal court of record. Any municipality with a population of 60,000 or more would have the option to create a court of record. Arresting municipalities would still receive a portion of the fines.
Another important measure signed into law will broaden the definition of domestic violence, giving law enforcement and prosecutors a greater ability to go after abusers. Current statute defines domestic violence as a pattern involving three or more incidents of abuse within a 12-month period. Senate Bill 1491 removes the 12-month stipulation and reduces the required incidents of abuse to two or more. I worked hard to get this passed in the House. I have no tolerance for men who would hit their spouses and most Oklahomans agree.
While many bills are being signed into law, there is a separate route for policy questions that still have kinks to work out. This period of the legislative session is known as the conference process. Bills with amendments or title stricken can be rejected and sent to conference, where a committee of House and Senate members will agree on final language and send it back to a vote in both chambers. Low-priority legislation that goes to conference often dies there, while high-priority items get the most focus.
Right now, one of those high priority bills in conference is a bill to reduce the number of state tests. House Bill 1622 would eliminate all K-12 common education tests not required by the federal government. There are currently 26 standardized tests for K-12 instruction in Oklahoma. This measure would end nine of those tests. The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Conference Committee on Common Education.
Budget negotiations are intense right now. We continue to fight for core services, but, ironically, some of the biggest fights are over services with the least cost. Every year, the Oklahoma Legislature appropriates money for rural firefighters through the Rural Firefighter Defense Fund. This money is administered by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, but with the express intent of being used for fire departments. However, Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese continues to raid that money to balance his agency budget and could eliminate that funding stream this year with the cuts he will be trying to absorb. This is incredibly inappropriate and reckless when he has yet to eliminate any administrative staff position. Basically, he is choosing to keep the fat at the top, while eliminating a critical public safety service. It seems like every year, there are individuals who want to balance our budget on the back of either transportation or public safety. This is entirely unacceptable, and I will oppose it and help defeat it.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The Oklahoma House of Representatives has completed another deadline and all proposed laws have now either been signed, sent to the governor or amended. Amended legislation returns to the chamber of origin, where amendments can be accepted or the bill can be sent to conference committee to work out disagreements over the language of the bill.
I am proud to report that a bill I authored to get repeat drunk drivers off the road is among those headed to the desk of Gov. Mary Fallin and could be signed in the next week. House Bill 3146 creates the Impaired Driving Elimination Act (IDEA) and prohibits municipal prosecution of driving under the influence, unless a municipality has a municipal court of record. Any municipality with a population of 60,000 or more would have the option to create a court of record. Arresting municipalities would still receive a portion of the fines.
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.’
Numbers are relevant, but being hit by a drunk driver brings the issue closer to home. My wife was hit by a drunk driver. Although she was fortunately not seriously injured, I learned that the individual who hit her was a repeat offender and it led me to look deeper into the process of repeat DUI prosecutions. What I found was a gaping hole in the number of DUIs being actually reported at the state level. No one had yet championed a solution to this critical problem through the legislative process. I was more than happy to become that legislator. This bill will protect the lives of Oklahomans. This bill is 100 percent about public safety and not money.
My drunk driving legislation was not the only public safety success this session. The House sent a domestic violence bill to the governor that has now been signed into law. Senate Bill 1491 broadens the definition of domestic violence. Current statute defines it as a pattern involving three or more incidents of abuse. This measure would make it two or more and remove a stipulation that it occur within a 12-month period.
As a rural legislator, I’m keenly aware of how vulnerable farmers and ranchers are to crime because of the isolation of large country properties. The House Rural Caucus pushed for a bill this session to deter cattle rustling, a crime that has huge negative economic consequences for its victims. House Bill 2504 also awaits the governor’s signature to become law. It increases the fine for theft of livestock and implements of husbandry to three times the value of animals and machinery, not to exceed $500,000. It also gives district attorneys more options when prosecuting cattle rustlers.
I also know that most of my constituents feel strongly about the sanctity of life, so I also want to mention the progress of a bill to outlaw abortions intended to kill children who have a genetic abnormality such as Down’s syndrome. House Bill 3128 was approved by the Senate, but with the title stricken, so it now returns to the House and will have to go through the conference committee process. I support this bill. Every life is a precious gift from God.
Budget talks continue between the House, Senate and governor’s office. A final agreement is being discussed and vetted as we speak. These talks started late last summer and are a top priority of this Legislature. Stay tuned to more information on this as we near the end of session.
The conference committee process is often slow, so my next column will likely highlight bills being signed into law. My door is open to you. Call me at (405) 557-7407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
There was some good news this week in an otherwise gloomy revenue year. General Revenue Fund collections in March exceeded the estimate for the first time since July 2015. As the state’s main operating fund, it is the key indicator of state government’s fiscal status. It also means that it is less likely that we will see any more revenue failures in the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends in June.
March collections of $394.2 million were $3.1 million, or 0.8 percent, above the official estimate upon which this year’s budget was based. We did estimate a shortfall, so those collections are still $30.1 million, or 7.1 percent, below prior year collections. Total collections for the first nine months of FY 2016 were $3.7 billion, which is $323.8 million, or 8 percent, below the official estimate and $386.6 million, or 9.4 percent, below prior year collections.
I know that some constituents have been concerned about the increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma. While most are minor, some have caused damage to households. The Oklahoma Legislature has now sent Governor Mary Fallin a bill intended to clarify and increase the authority of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to respond to emergency situations that could have an environmental or public safety impact. House Bill 3158 allows the commission to take whatever action is necessary, without notice and hearing, to respond to an emergency. This follows on the heels of actions the governor took to increase funding to the commission and other agencies working on the earthquake problem.
The governor has signed several important bills into law. House Bill 3102 expands the number of hours an adjunct teacher can teach in Oklahoma classrooms from 90 to 270. These are teachers that have not gone through the teaching certification process, but are a necessary tool for school districts facing a teacher shortage.
Another measure signed into law was Senate Bill 1342, which modifies the Taxpayer Transparency Act. The change allows Oklahomans to see all federal funds received by state agencies and track how the monies are used.
We passed a measure on the House floor that authorizes a municipality to enter into agreements for used equipment that has been tested and certified as safe with a volunteer fire department. The measure exempts the municipality from liability for any damage caused by the use of such equipment.
Another important House bill approved by the Senate contains a budget reform. House Bill 3058 provides a process for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to reconcile all state agency revolving funds. This is an attempt to ensure excess funds to not remain in agency accounts when they might be needed in the budget process.
Finally, I always try to track child welfare reform bills. Another House Bill close to being signed into law is House Bill 2963. It provides that court approval of the affidavit disclosing all monies expended by an adoptive family during the process of adoption does not exempt a person, attorney or child placing agency from prosecution if it was fraudulent or false and specifies what constitutes reasonable fees of a child placing agency.