By Rep. Mike Sanders
The 56th Legislature starts Monday, Feb. 6. The House convenes at noon, and the governor will give her State of the State address shortly after.
This year again will be a challenging session. Budget talks will likely take up a good portion of our time at the Capitol. As a member of the House Appropriations & Budget Committee, I’m proud of the work already begun on this pressing issue. Before session, we asked five of the state agencies that receive nearly 80 percent of state appropriated dollars to appear before the committee, opening the doors to all representatives and anyone interested from the public. The agencies presented their next fiscal year budgets as well as gave us an overview of projects and programs and a glimpse into their decision-making process of what constitutes a valid use of state money. We heard from the state Education Department, the Oklahoma Transportation Department, the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education, the Department of Human Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. As the session progresses, we’ll be diving into the budgets of other state-appropriated agencies as well.
You’ll hear a lot this year from sources on both sides of the budget issue – those saying the state still has a spending problem, and those saying we’re cut to the bone and now we must consider we have a revenue problem. The truth is we have both. The state has been through a protracted recession as a result of our dependence on oil and gas revenue. We know we must diversify, and we’ve worked to do that. But, to attract businesses from other sectors, past Legislatures have voted in a number of tax incentives and credits, which now we must examine to see the true benefit of our investment. We’ve been doing that now through the state’s Incentive Evaluation Commission. That work will continue, and I will keep you apprised of the commission’s recommendations. One piece of good news is that most sources agree oil and gas revenues are trending up. On the spending side, I know there is still waste in state government. To think otherwise is simply to be naïve. While some agencies have been cut to the proverbial bone, I know that as we delve into the line items on budgets we will be able to find areas that can at least be held for a more profitable year.
There are several pieces of legislation that are already getting a lot of talk for the coming session. First, I’m confident we will pass a REAL ID piece of legislation that will comply with federal regulations but will protect the private information of Oklahomans. I also think there is a legitimate opportunity to pass a teacher pay raise this year. House Bill 1114 proposes a $6,000 pay raise over three years, which I feel is a reasonable approach given the state’s current economic picture. The big question, of course, will be how to pay for this raise. I know there already are several plans underway to tackle this. I believe we will find a way.
As always, this year I will be particularly attuned to legislation that affects our rural way of living. I will continue to support rural firefighters, law enforcement officials, county governments, highway and county transportation funding, rural schools and other issues that affect those who live in my district.
In closing, keep in mind, that more than 2,200 bills and resolutions were filed by the Legislature this year. If historical precedent holds true, only about 400 of those will make it into law by the end of thesession. That means we legislators have our work cut out for us to decide what will best serve the needs of the people of our state and what can be left on the editing room floor.
I’m proud to serve Oklahoma House District 59. As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.