By Rep. Mike Sanders
This is column two in a series on the 2017 budget process.
Contrary to what you might have read recently in the state’s largest newspaper, we had more successes this legislative session than not.
Many of our triumphs involved education. Despite facing an almost $900 million hole coming into session, we were able to hold the appropriation for education flat when compared to last year’s appropriation. We also completely made up for mid-year revenue declines that affected schools. In addition, we fully funded the flexible benefits allowance for teachers and support staff that helps pay co-pays and other medical expenses that otherwise would be part of out-of-pocket deductibles.
We also were able to pass several different funding mechanisms for education. One transparency bill requires school districts that pay below the state minimum salary schedule to notify their teachers in writing that they are following this procedure. Another bill gives full transparency on how the state calculates the per-pupil expenditure. This bill clearly defines all funding sources included in the formula and all that are not, such as adult and community education, facilities acquisition and construction services, debt services, property, and other expenditures not related to day-to-day operations. We also passed a bill that would allow school districts the ability to give teachers retention pay outside of the salary schedule; and we passed a bill that took the $18,000 cap off of pay for retired teachers who go back to the classroom to teach, allowing districts to make the determination on pay.
In addition to education, rural healthcare was protected in this year’s budget. We fully funded Medicaid provider rates, ensuring rural health care providers stay in the market to treat our area residents. We also ensured rural hospitals and nursing homes, and places like the Center of Family Love in Okarche, get to keep their federal matching funds. This is so important to helping keep the doors open on these facilities that allow our residents to get the care they need closer to home.
No budget is perfect. Going into the session, we were looking at potential cuts of at least 15 percent across the board if not more. This budget process was rough, but so is the process for refining a diamond.
In addition to the budget, there were other successes this legislative session. One was the passage of the REAL ID Act, which gives Oklahomans the option of keeping their current driver’s license or getting one that complies with federal law, allowing access to federal buildings and military bases and flight on commercial aircraft. If we had not passed this act, Oklahomans would have been forced to carry a second form of ID for air travel or access to the facilities mentioned above.
Other successes this year include victims’ rights laws that give victims equal protections under the law that defendants receive; and a DUI bill that would force those suspected of driving under the influence to take a breathalyzer test or await the outcome of their criminal trial before continuing to drive. This is about protecting people from the terrible consequences of drunk driving.
I’ll talk about additional successes from this legislative session in my next column. In the meantime, remember to be careful what you read. The big city papers tell only the side of the story that will help them sell more newspapers. They’re long on criticism and short on solutions. I’m thankful for my district papers, which report the full facts and how they affect people closer to home.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be contacted at Mike.Sanders@OKHouse.Gov or (405) 557-7407.