By Rep. Mike Sanders
I’ve talked to many teachers throughout my district in the past few weeks about the potential of a walkout as they fight for additional pay.
I want to assure teachers and parents I am working night and day to find a solution that will increase pay for our educators and keep them in the classroom. At the same time, I’m seeking additional pay for state workers.
In 1990, teachers walked out of classrooms, resulting in House Bill 1017, which contained a number of education reforms and more money for schools. Teachers celebrated that success, but the public – mad about new taxes – responded by raising enough signatures on an initiative petition to place State Question 640 on the ballot. That question requires any revenue-raising measure be passed by a three-fourths majority in both legislative chambers. In the House, that’s 76 votes. With extremes on both side voting against each revenue-raising measure posed to the House over the last regular session and two special sessions, it is clear other methods of funding a teacher pay raise must be employed.
There is cause for hope. The House has passed a bill to cap itemized income tax deductions, exempting charitable giving. The bill, which would result in a savings of $106 million per year, now awaits a vote in the Senate. An additional measure would allow the modernization of tribal gaming, resulting in an additional $22 million a year. Additional measures are making their way quickly through the House and Senate with the aim of saving the state additional money that could be redirected to teacher and state employee pay raises. I am hopeful a resolution will occur.
In the meantime, a bill designating a 2 percent stipend for state retirees, including teachers, police, fire and all former state employees, passed the House on Monday. This bill passed 90-5 in a bipartisan manner. It’s responsible and affordable and a key step in helping provide relief for our retirees for the first time since 2008.
On a final note, I’m happy to report a number of reform measures aimed at placing agency directors under the authority of the office of the governor passed in the House this week. In the past, many of our state agency directors reported to unelected boards that answered to no one in particular. As evidenced in the recent misspending scandal at the state Department of Health, better oversight of our state’s largest agencies is needed.
This is deadline week for all House bills to be passed out of the House. I will keep you updated on additional measures as they make their way through the Senate.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The governor on Tuesday released an executive order requiring those receiving state Medicaid benefits to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week unless they are exempted for age, medical or mental health reasons. The House passed a bill the same day accomplishing the same thing as the governor’s directive.
The objective is to provide a path out of poverty for those who are able to work. It mirrors legislation of those receiving food purchase assistance. Those who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid can transition to the state’s Insure Oklahoma plan and still be insured. All who can work should work. We should not have barriers that keep people on government assistance.
In other business, this week and next are incredibly busy as many of the bills passed out of committee are being heard on the House floor. Bills and resolutions must pass from their chamber of origin by March 15. That means all House bills must be passed to the Senate and all Senate bills to the House by that date. We then have until April 26 for measures to be passed by the opposite chamber. If legislation is amended, it returns to the chamber of origin to get a final vote. If it is accepted as is, it goes to the governor for her signature to become law.
A lot of work happens in the background in the meantime. A bill’s author, for instance, is talking to constituents, those most affected by a bill, and the author in the opposite chamber to make sure the bill’s language and intent is exactly as it should be before it comes to a final vote. The author also talks to other legislators to ensure bills are understood and questions answered before they are brought for a vote.
Here’s a look at a few of the bills that passed the House this week:
House Bill 2910 would consolidate the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. These two agencies often work together now. This bill would get rid of duplicative services and has the potential to save the state some money.
House Bill 2632 would extend Oklahoma’s stand-your-ground protections to places of worship, granting immunity to churches that wish to allow parishioners to carry weapons for purposes of defense.
House Bill 2913 would create the Oklahoma Industrial Hemp Agricultural Pilot Program, allowing farmers in partnership with universities or colleges to grow hemp in order to study the environmental and economic impact of this crop. Hemp is non-narcotic. It has no THC, and people cannot get high from it. It is federally legal and regulated. Farmers say it would make a good rotation crop and could help them earn additional money. It’s worth studying.
At the same time lawmakers are working to get regular legislation passed, budget talks are continually ongoing. We have fewer bills this year than in the past, so that gives us more time to focus on the budget.
As always, I will keep you updated on legislation and the budget as the session progresses.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The governor this week signed the final budget for Fiscal Year 2018 budget. Agencies were able to retain more than 99 percent of their funding for the fiscal year. She also signed a bill that will protect many programs for the elderly, disabled and children that are administered by the Department of Human Services.
I’m glad that action is finally complete. Now we can turn our focus to reform and accountability measures that will help us ensure state agencies are spending taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible and in the manner intended to best serve the people of this state.
Several measures have been filed this session to increase accountability and oversight. These include:
- House Bills 3208 and 3209, which would allow the governor to appoint and remove directors at our largest state agencies. Right now many of these agencies are headed by directors hired by boards who are accountable to no one in particular.
- House Joint Resolution 1048 would amend the state Constitution to authorize the governor to appoint the offices of state treasurer, insurance commissioner, superintendent of public instruction and labor commissioner. This would allow for much more efficiency in state government with all leaders pulling toward the same end goal instead of in multiple directions.
- House Bill 3585 would create a Governmental Accountability Office within the Legislative Services Bureau. This is one of my favorite reforms. It would give us a team of dedicated professionals who focus on nothing but agency spending and ways to increase efficiency and find savings while scouring for waste and abuse. This vital arm of government has been missing, and has resulted in instances like the recent debacle at the state Health Department. This department would provide lawmakers substantial additional resources and staff to perform Constitutional duty of oversight of taxpayer dollars.
- House Bill 3597 would prohibit agency directors from serving in the governor’s cabinet. I think you can see why this is significant. You don’t want an agency head – like the director of the Health Department, for instance – who reports only to himself as the secretary of health and human services. This can lead to fraud and abuse.
- House Bills 3583 and 3584 would strengthen statutory qualifications for the director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services and members of the Oklahoma Department of Health Board of Directors.
- Numerous measures have been filed to limit pay for executive branch agency directors and officers and cabinet secretaries.
On a separate note, my House Bill 3329 passed out of committee this week and should be heard soon by the full House. This bill will allow firefighters retired from municipal fire departments to work for rural volunteer departments without having to be added to the state’s pension plan. This is an addition to my House Bill 2005, which became law in 2015. That eliminated the 45-year-old age limit for new firefighters by giving them the ability to join a department without the requirement of being added to the state’s pension plan. Many of these volunteers already have their own businesses, or they work in the oil field or in other lucrative careers. They were happy to volunteer without needing to receive a state pension. Since HB2005 was signed into law, we have added over 200 volunteer firefighters across the state. This is a win-win for Oklahoma.
One final suggestion: If you wish to contact me to invite me to events or meetings in your communities, please call my office at (405) 557-7407, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t always have time to track everything posted on social media, but I do check my phone and email many times a day.
As always, I’ll keep you updated as the legislative session continues.
OKLAHOMA CITY – A bill authored by State Rep. and House Majority Leader Mike Sanders that will protect Family Child Care Home children and workers from sexual predators passed with a vote of 87-0 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives today. The bill now is eligible to be heard by the state Senate.
House bill 3330 updates current state statute by adding family child care homes or home daycares to the Oklahoma Child Care Facilities Licensing Act. The act ensures sex offenders cannot move to within 2,000 feet of a family childcare home serving five children or less. These smaller daycare centers were inadvertently left out of the Act, when it was first written several years ago. The law already protects schools, licensed daycares, campsites and playgrounds.
“This will protects the nearly 2,000 home day cares in Oklahoma, from sexual predators,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “We’re making sure these home daycares have the same protections as schools, parks and other facilities already protected by the law. I know how hard it is for people in my district to find high quality childcare without being placed on a waiting list; they rely on these smaller home centers to help them care for their children. Yet, we’ve had some home daycares close because a sexual predator moved next door. This law will give these smaller child care centers the same protections as everyone else.”
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The Oklahoma Board of Equalization met this week to certify revenue available for the Fiscal Year 2019 state budget. The board projected we will have a $167 million gap between what was appropriated for FY18 and what will be available for FY19. That is so much better than the $800 million gap the governor predicted in November, and that amount can be made up by using cash already on hand. In addition, we still have several months before we must sign an appropriations bill for FY19, and that gives more time for revenue to continue to improve.
In January, we entered the second year of positive revenue growth for the state with gross receipts to the treasury up 12 of the past 13 months and up 15 percent for January and 7.5 percent for the year. Hiring continues to be up, and most sectors of the economy continue to show improvement.
This revenue picture gives us hope of accomplishing our continued push for a teacher pay raise.
This week, the House passed three bills in special session to help us close out the FY18 budget. We’ve been working on this budget for more than a year, and we simply had to complete it and more toward the future. The first bill appropriates money for state agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year, cutting less than 1 percent from all budgets. The second bill directs the Department of Human Services to fully fund the ADvantage Home Waiver and other home-bound health services for the elderly and disabled adults as well as senior nutrition programs and foster care. The third bill supplements federal funding cuts to our physicians’ training programs at the state’s medical colleges. Once these bills pass the Senate and are signed by the governor, we can end our second special session and focus solely on the regular session and the FY19 budget.
In other news, House Bill 3330, which I authored, passed the House with a vote of 87-0. This bill adds family home child care centers to the list of places protected from sexual predators. These people will now not be able to move within 2,000 square feet of these facilities. These smaller child care centers were inadvertently left off the list of protected places when the Oklahoma Child Care Facilities Licensing Act was signed into law several years ago. This new law will protect children and childcare workers.
I also co-authored House Bill 1340, which should be heard soon on the House floor. This bill will pay a stipend to our state retirees, including teachers, firemen, police, highway patrol troopers and others. This benefit will help our retirees with cost of living increases while maintaining the adequacy of their respective retirement funds. I appreciate the service of these dedicated retirees, and this bill is a way to show them support.
I’ll keep you updated on these and other measures as they move through the legislative process.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The Step Up Oklahoma plan was brought to a vote on the House floor on Monday. It failed to get the supermajority three-fourths vote required by the state Constitution to pass, ending with a vote of 63-35. It could be placed on a future state ballot for a vote of the people.
The plan would have raised revenue in a variety of ways to fund $5,000 teacher pay raises and to shore up state health care services for those most in need. A portion of the money would have gone towards roads and bridges.
While it was disappointing to some that the plan failed, I’ve explained in previous columns that there were concerns by many on both sides of the political aisle with the amount of revenue sought and the sources from which it would be derived. There are some portions of the plans that still have merit, and may be brought forward in the future. Several reform measures in the plan would give us greater oversight of agency spending; these need to pass, and I believe they will.
While this plan failed, there are several smaller revenue portions that are still being explored. These include increasing the tax on alcohol as our laws have changed to allow its sale in more venues in the future; and increasing the tax on gasoline and diesel. This hasn’t been done since the 1980s, and a small increase would still keep Oklahoma below the regional average. The money would be used to replenish transportation funds and help us build and maintain safe roads and bridges in rural Oklahoma. Portions of the money raised could go to increase pay for our teachers and to support rural health care – two issues of which I have been adamant in my support. Increasing the cigarette tax is still under consideration as well.
I want to remind everyone, we are only in the second week of the legislative session. I’m optimistic that reason, common sense and rational thought will prevail at the state Capitol. I’m not giving up, and neither should anyone else.
Next week, the Board of Equalization meets to give lawmakers a clearer look at fiscal year 2019 revenue. The numbers should be in line with the improved economic picture we’ve already seen for the past year. Last week’s state treasurer’s report showed 12 of 13 months of improved revenue, with January collections of $1.1 billion topping the same month in 2017 by 15 percent and up 7.5 percent for the past year. Unemployment is down, and economic activity in the state is increasing. These are all signs for hope.
Meanwhile, the House investigation of Health Department spending and other agency audits continues in an effort to root out all abuse and mismanagement and make sure we are running at top efficiency.
I will keep you posted about the status of the state budget and other bills as the legislative session continues. Please keep a positive attitude. There is much cause to be optimistic.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The governor this week gave her final State of the State address, officially starting the new legislative session. As expected, she touted the Step Up Oklahoma budget initiative promoted by business and industry leaders from across the state.
There are definitely some good ideas on reform in this plan such as the formation of a government accountability office to expose waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers’ dollars intended for core government services, as well as giving the next governor direct appointment power over the largest state agencies.
The plan also would pay for a $5,000 teacher pay raise, something I’m adamant about passing. I must ensure, however, that the plan gives all teachers in the state a raise, even those who work in school districts that don’t receive money through the state funding formula.
The plan still has some issues, and there is still room for negotiation. I’ll keep you posted as the bill progresses.
In the meantime, I’ve filed several pieces of legislation this year. I want to detail a few of those in this column, and will talk about others in the coming weeks.
House Bill 3330 would ensure sex offenders could not move to within 2,000 feet of a family childcare home serving five children or less. Previously, the law protected schools, licensed daycares, campsites and playgrounds but did not cover these smaller childcare facilities. This law closes that loophole and ensures our children will be better protected from predators.
House Bill 3329 is an addition to my House Bill 2005, which became law in 2015. The statute eliminated the 45-year-old age limit for new firefighters by giving them the ability to join a department without the requirement that they be added to the state’s pension plan. Many of these volunteers already have their own businesses, or they work in the oil field or in other lucrative careers. They were happy to volunteer without needing to receive a state pension.
Since the law’s passage, we’ve added more than 200 volunteer firefighters who protect our rural areas and are helping stem the shortage in Oklahoma. This measure is a great model to be used nationwide. One fix needs to be made, however. We need to allow paid firefighters retiring from municipal fire departments the ability to become volunteer firefighters under the pension exemption. This bill will allow local fire chiefs to determine hiring regardless of a current pension plan. This bill will add to our rural firefighter base and is a good extension to an already positive law.
Over the next few weeks, bills will be moving through the committee process. I’ll keep you updated on the progress of key legislation and the budget.
Thank you to everyone who has sent me back my annual survey. If you have not yet done this, please do so soon. I use your responses to help guide my decisions as I represent you.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
A group of business and civic leaders recently announced a combination of reforms and revenue measures they call the Step Up Oklahoma plan. Their hope is to eliminate abuse and waste in state government while raising revenue to pay for a $5,000 teacher pay raise and to fund what they consider to be core services for the state of Oklahoma.
The group behind this plan met with the governor and legislative leaders over the past several weeks. The group includes many corporate leaders as well as several large newspaper publishers as well as television and radio station owners. The plan is similar one released by the state chamber late last year.
The plan includes many reform measures, including these that I really like:
- Increase teacher pay by $5,000;
- Revise the state budget to reflect accurate numbers (all revenue sources and all expenditures – not just appropriated amounts under the purview of the Legislature);
- Establish a budget stabilization fund that would be structured similarly to an endowment where the income generated could be used to cushion the budget during economic downturns;
- Give the governor direct appointment power over the largest state agencies;
- Create an independent budget office to assist with eliminating waste.
Other suggested reforms:
- Modify term limits for lawmakers;
- Lower the supermajority required to raise revenue;
- Make the governor and lieutenant governor running mates;
- Change the process to fill Supreme Court vacancies;
- Allow voters to decide the structure of each county’s government – home rule.
Revenue-raising measures in this proposal:
- Raise the tax on cigarettes, little cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes;
- Raise gross production tax on oil and gas wells; impose a new tax on wind energy;
- Increase the price of motor fuels;
- Eliminate certain income tax deductions and loopholes and reform the tax code;
- Expand taxable gaming activities;
I want to express my appreciation and thanks to these community leaders for being willing to help Oklahoma come out of its recent recession and address budget reform. Their plan is certainly ambitious.
It must be noted that this plan could not proceed as one package deal. Several measures require constitutional changes and thereby a vote of the people through individual state questions. Another concern would be the state Supreme Court’s recent rulings on logrolling – legislation that contains more than one issue. Typically, appropriations bills are allowed to proceed under the one-topic rule, but combining revenue measures with reforms could pose a legal challenge.
I’ve talked to many lawmakers and they have concerns with measures such as the ones that remove income tax exemptions or that would raise personal income tax rates. Redoing county and municipal government under a home rule structure also brings concerns.
Oklahoma has 101 duly elected representatives and 48 senators in our state Legislature. Each represents a varied body of constituents. There has to be room for negotiation and give and take. We certainly will be reviewing this plan over the next few weeks. I’ll keep you posted on our work.
By Rep. Mike Sanders
The latest revenue reports for the state contain some very good news. Collections are up, and companies are hiring. All signs are positive for the economy.
According to the latest state treasurer’s report, December collections to the state treasury were $1 billion – up $107.9 million, or 12 percent – compared to receipts from December 2016. During 2017, gross receipts were $11.45 billion – 6.2 percent, or $667.6 million – above 2016 collections.
The state showed across-the-board growth in every major revenue stream – income tax, gross production tax, sales tax, motor vehicle taxes and other sources. Monthly receipts were up 11 out of the past 12 months.
Allocations to the state’s General Revenue Fund also are improving. November GRF allocations exceed the estimate by 14.1 percent. Fiscal-year-to-date collections are ahead of the estimate by 9.4 percent. The General Revenue Fund is used by the Legislature to appropriate money for core government services such as transportation, public safety, health care and education. So this is good news for our roads and bridges, our police and fire departments, our rural hospitals and nursing homes and our schools.
The Tax Commission attributes $24.2 million in December to new revenue resulting from legislation enacted during the last regular session. The additional revenue comes primarily from changes in sales tax exemptions and gross production incentive tax rates. The new revenue accounts for 22.4 percent of the growth in December collections compared to the prior year.
In addition, the state’s unemployment rate is down, and state jobless numbers have improved. Many companies report they are hiring. The Oklahoma Business Conditions Index shows anticipated economic growth during the next three to six months. Oil and gas prices are up as are active rig counts – important for a state still heavily reliant on energy to fund many services for our citizens. New wind projects are in the works. Retailers are reporting positive sales over Christmas.
After several years of recession and budget decline leaving gaps in funding from one budget year to the next, this sustained positive revenue and job growth is terrific news. If revenue growth continues, we could end the fiscal year with no budget hole. This is so different from the doom and gloom diet we’ve all been fed for the past year.
The Legislature will still need to consider how to pay for teacher pay raises as well as restore funding to transportation, public safety and health care. But, I can assure you that any revenue proposals put before the Legislature this year will be attached to specific reforms and will come with accountability measures for our state agencies.
I want to address the narrative that the Legislature for too long has relied on one-time funding sources to balance the state budget. It is true, that during the recent recession we relied on using our Rainy Day Fund or the state’s Special Cash Fund or some of the state’s 1,100 revolving funds to fund core services. This is not unlike a family, though, who puts money aside for emergencies. Would they rather spend that money on a new car or a family vacation? You bet, but if they need to use it to buy groceries or pay bills during an illness or a stint of unemployment, they’ll do that before they consider asking someone else to bail them out.
More work still needs to be done, but these indicators are positive and this is great news for our state.
On a final note, be on the lookout for my annual citizen opinion survey, which should reach you in the next week or two. This gives you the opportunity to tell me what issues are most important to you. Please take a few moments to fill this out when you receive it and get it back to me. I really do rely on your input to help me represent you.