By Rep. Mike Sanders
The recent storms and flooding is a reminder to us all about how important public safety is in Oklahoma. Many brave firefighters and law enforcement individuals have risked their lives to save the lives and property of others. We appreciate the safety that they provide us. Public safety has always been a priority for me. This year was no different.
One of the biggest headlines this year was our passage of a stricter ban on driving while texting. Oklahoma already had a driving while texting law, but it was weak enough that there wasn’t much teeth to it. House Bill 1965 makes driving while texting a primary offense carrying a penalty of $100. A primary offense means that an officer can pull you over for it.
Because we were worried about unintended consequences, we wrote exceptions into the law to account for emergency situations and voice-activated use of devices. There were some reluctance about making the law a primary offense, but ultimately the desire we had for safe communities won out. The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year. Nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.
Oklahoma’s law enforcement officers deserve respect and legal protections. Unfortunately, criminals have become more emboldened and do sometimes pursue law enforcement officers. I authored House Bill 1318, which is now law, will ensure that criminals receive a felony when they assault an officer. The way in which the law was written previously created a number of loopholes that could result in a misdemeanor charge. When we deter the assault of officers, we increase their authority so they can better serve us. I was very proud of this legislation.
I have worked over the years to support our volunteer firefighters in my district and throughout the state. I was also proud to author an important bill that will increase the pool of potential volunteer firefighters. Many constituents have told me that they would like to serve but that an limit on how old a new volunteer firefighter can be was preventing their service. I looked into it and it turned out that our pension system could not support new recruits starting at a later age. House Bill 2005 removed the age limit, but with the stipulation that they would not receive state firefighter pensions. Those constituents I talked to already had pensions and money from other careers, so this was the best solution to a complex problem. The new law takes effect in November.
Prescription drug abuse is rampant in Oklahoma. It has been a difficult conversation, because we want to limit access to abusers and dealers, but not overly burden health care providers or the general public. House Bill 1948 is a good, nuanced bill that requires doctors to check a database of patient prescriptions, but not on every visit. An initial database check is required for the first time a doctor writes a prescription for certain opiate painkillers, anti-anxiety medicines and muscle relaxers. Afterwards, the doctor is only required to check the database once every 180 days.
Another public safety issue involved prisoner transfers from county jails to state prisons. House Bill 1630 requires counties to transmit sentencing documents to the state within three days of their availability. The new law requires the state corrections agency to pay county jails a per diem fee for the day of an inmate’s sentencing. The intent of the legislation was to save the state money while also making sure our county law enforcement officials are receiving fair compensation for their housing of inmates.
My final column will focus on the fiscal policy enacted this year.