By Rep. Mike Sanders
Now that the legislative session is over, I want to look at some of the reforms passed this year that were signed into law by the governor that will have a positive affect for Oklahomans.
In addition to giving teachers a second pay raise in two years, the Legislature also approved a pay raise of up to $1,400 for state employees for the second year in a row. These people perform much work for the citizens of Oklahoma – building roads, keeping our courts functioning, renewing our licenses and so much more. We must keep their pay competitive so we don’t lose them to the private sector and make it more difficult for Oklahomans to receive the services they need.
Correctional workers also will get raises of $2 per hour. These people do incredibly hard jobs to keep the public safe and yet get paid very low to work in such stressful circumstances. This will help cut down on understaffing and high turnover in our state correctional facilities and lead to improved safety for the public, staff and those incarcerated. Overall, the appropriation to the Department of Corrections increased by about $38 million, or 7.4 percent, and now totals $555.5 million.
Lawmakers also approved measures that will allow the governor to name the director of five of the state’s largest agencies – the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services, the Department of Corrections and the Office of Juvenile Affairs. Up to now, the governor had very limited power over state agencies and their spending of taxpayer dollars. Instead, the power resided in the hands of unelected board members who oversee these agencies. Now, the governor will have more direct oversight so he can function like a true CEO for the state.
On the same line of better government accountability and efficiency, the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency also was signed into law by the governor. This office will increase transparency and accountability of the spending of taxpayer dollars by evaluating agency budgets to ensure efficiently and to cut waste and that programs and services offered to state residents are needed. This is similar to Congress’ Government Accountability Office. It is a legislative-level office, not an executive branch office, that will ensure lawmakers get accurate and timely information from the agencies so we can make better informed decisions for citizens.
The Legislature also wisely approved and the governor signed a measure that closes the gap between reimbursement rates for nursing homes and the actual cost of care. Under the bill, providers must increase staffing and provide additional training and show they have improved the quality of care for their residents. The coalition of elder-care advocates that pushed for this called it a “landmark reform” that will “dramatically increase the quality of care and quality of life” for nursing home residents. In addition, the governor signed a measure that will require informed consent by a nursing home resident or their legal guardian before they are prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the nation for nursing home residents taking an anti-psychotic drug without a psychiatric diagnosis. Instead they were often prescribed these powerful medications to modify their sleep or behavior. This bill will improve their lives.
Also signed into law was a measure to help us fully implement the new constitutional provisions of “Marsy’s Law” passed by Oklahoma voters in November 2018 as State Question 794. This law includes a new set of stronger constitutional rights for victims of crime, granting them more information and input during the criminal justice process. The House bill works to ensure these new rights are reflected in Oklahoma law and properly implemented. For instance, the bill clarifies a victim’s right to be notified of the release or escape of an accused perpetrator; it outlines the right of a victim, upon request, to confer with a district attorney; and it creates a requirement that law enforcement give victims written notification of all of their rights under the new law. Victims should have every right to be informed about the trial and the subsequent movement of their accused perpetrators. This will help.
In future columns, I will detail some of the legislation I was able to pass this year, and then I’ll give an update on area road and bridge projects.
Remember, I’m still at the Capitol and in our district even though the legislative session has adjourned for this year.
If I can help you in any way, I can be reached at (405) 557-7407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.