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Friday, April 19, 2019

Republicans Blame Democrats for Failed Vote on Teacher Pay Raise

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Here Is Where the Blame Lies

On Wednesday night, March 14, the Oklahoma Senate Republicans once again offered a bill that would raise enough revenue to give every Oklahoma teacher a 12.7 percent ($5,000 average) pay raise, provide state employees a $2,500 raise, and restore the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). It was essentially the same revenue bill the Democrats in the Senate supported in November.

Wednesday night they voted against the bill.

Why?

As one Democratic Senator told me, “It doesn’t meet the ask.”

What is the ask?

Well, depending on who you talk with, the Dems want a revenue increase of as much as $1.5 billion. One Democratic Senator told me that they couldn’t support the bill because the Oklahoma Educators Association (OEA) doesn’t want them to. After all, the OEA is the one making the ask. This is the same OEA that joined House Republicans a couple months ago at a press conference to support essentially the same plan as being good for education.

So it seems that a $5,000 pay increase for teachers isn’t enough. They want $10,000, despite the fact that the 12.7% increase we have presented raises the average teacher salary higher than is found in any of the surrounding states, except Texas.

They want a billion-and-a-half dollars for education, or nothing.

That, despite the fact that over 50 percent of our appropriated dollars go to education, despite the fact that we have other pressing issues to deal with, like the fact that our prisons are at 113 percent capacity.  Despite the fact that other essential services are crying for funding, everything from senior nutrition to our medical schools.

But apparently if the OEA wants all or nothing, the Democrats march in lock step. And, of course, there is the politics. With state-wide elections coming up in November, it seems that the Democrats prefer to shut down good policy so they can have a campaign issue in the fall.

That is unfortunate for Oklahoma.

The bill, HB1033xx, has a decent chance of being passed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

There is an increase of the gross production tax (GPT) on all oil and gas wells to four percent, a $1.00 tax on cigarettes and a six cent excise tax increase on motor fuels. After 36 months, all wells increase to seven percent GPT. The motor fuel tax will still be lower than it is in surrounding states. Issues that lost votes in the House last time have been reduced or modified to pick up those votes.

I don’t think there was a Republican on the floor who voted for this tax increase who actually liked everything in the package. That includes me. However, if we want to meet some very real needs in this state, we need to increase revenue.

The revenue package we voted on Wednesday night is a reasonable way to get there. We lowered the ask on the cigarette tax by 50 cents from the last time we ran something like this, when it passed the Senate overwhelmingly. We changed the GPT increase from just new wells to all wells. We kept the motor fuels excise tax the same (more than 40 percent of which will be paid for by visitors to the state). That tax has not been increased in 31 years.

It seems that the Democrats were for this bill, before they were against it.

I guess it all depends on which way the political winds are blowing for them at a given moment. I, and the vast majority of my Republican colleagues in the Senate, many of whom will be hurt politically by their votes on this, prefer to pursue sound policy.

I welcome your questions and concerns, so please feel free to contact my office at the State Capitol if you would like to discuss a particular issue or problem.  Our office can be reached by phone at 405-521-5561 or by email at bergstrom@oksenate.gov.   If you visit the Capitol, we are located in Room 428B.

Fighting For You

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I’ve received more emails and phone calls in the past week or two from teachers in House District 50 than I have in a long time. Each conversation contains stories of educators who are just flat exhausted – they feel underappreciated and stretched thin. And they feel let down by lawmakers.

As much as I hate to see and hear the frustrated tone in the emails and phone calls, I have to admit I understand where the teachers are coming from. Please know, I stand with our educators.

House Republicans have voted on more than 20 revenue measures that could have helped fund – or funded entirely – a teacher pay raise. And that’s just since I’ve been in office. I’ve voted ‘yes’ each and every time. These revenue bills weren’t always the easiest measures to vote for or approve; as a conservative, I truly believe in protecting taxpayers from unnecessary taxation. But at a certain point, we must realize the path Oklahoma is on is not working out well. We need to adjust our policies and set our state on a better path.

I truly believe we can make changes that positively impact Oklahoma and provide for teacher pay raises. As lawmakers, we have a duty to put people above politics. We have a responsibility to think and make decisions bettering Oklahoma for the future, not just for today. Those decisions include ensuring we properly compensate teachers so our dedicated educators don’t flee the state. The time to act is now.

As for another pressing issue, most everyone has heard about the closure of Youth Services for Stephens County. I did not see this one coming, and I heard about it only after being contacted by a local news reporter. The closure is upsetting, and it will impact the many families who rely on services day in and day out.

Also, it is upsetting to me to blame the closure on budget cuts. I have learned the center received no cut from the Office of Juvenile Affairs this year. And again, nobody from the center contacted me alerting me of budget woes so severe they could prompt shutting the doors.

I’ve been in contact with folks at the Office of Juvenile Affairs, and we’re looking into exactly what happened at Youth Services. Their programs and services were valuable to our district, and I would love to see if there’s something we can do to reopen the center or replace services in another manner. I’ll keep you posted.

There’s a lot of news happening these days. Please trust that I think of the people in House District 50 every single day. Your worries and concerns are my worries and concerns. Your celebrations are mine, too. If you need anything, you know how to reach me. I’m at Marcus.McEntire@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7327. Thanks, and God bless.

From Senator Chris Kidd March 15 2018

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This week is the deadline for floor work on Senate bills.

I have five remaining bills (SB 1364, 1365, 1369, 1372 & 1488) that will be taken up by the full Senate this week. 

            Work is continuing on the FY’19 budget.  The Senate decided, in order to be as thorough as possible, to bring back the largest state agencies and a few others based on their budget requests for a second round of budget hearings in light of recent revenue updates.  Typically, budget hearings are held by appropriations subcommittees during the interim. A second round of hearings will allow the full Senate to learn more about the agencies’ spending practices and budgeting needs. 

            To date, we’ve heard from the Departments of Education, Mental Health and Human Services, CareerTech, the Ethics Commission, OHCA and the State Regents.  Their presentations are available on the Senate website under Committees and Appropriations. 

            The State Treasurer announced this past week that revenues are continuing to grow, which is great news but we must continue working to improve the budgeting system and strengthen our economy. 

            It is important we find new and reoccurring revenue so we may continue to fund core services. It’s equally important to find structural budget reforms.   This past week, the Senate approved a series of apportionment or “off-the-top” reforms.  This is money is taken out of the General Revenue Fund (GRF) and put directly towards certain programs.  Over time, this has been done to ensure a certain level of funding for these programs but it has tied the legislature’s hands during economic downturns.  Being that the funding is protected in statute, the legislature can’t just go in and move money when the state is experiencing extreme shortfalls like those experienced the last few years.   The legislature appropriates only 45 percent of the state’s total revenue.

These reforms will cap numerous apportionments streams at a three-year average and direct any money collected in excess of that be deposited into the GRF.

           A major milestone in criminal justice reform was reached this past week as well.  The governor, legislative leaders and district attorneys announced an agreement to advance six criminal justice reform measures this session, as well as develop a coordinating council to oversee future criminal justice reform efforts.  If approved, these measures will ensure more Oklahomans are productive, taxpaying citizens rather than costing the state through incarceration.  The bills will also help significantly slow the projected growth in corrections’ cost.  The savings can then be reinvested in education, health care and mental health programs that will yield further positive results for our citizens and our state.

Senate Republicans respect teachers and believe they deserve a pay raise. We have repeatedly passed revenue plans to fund a $5,000 teacher pay raise but they have failed in the House. The Senate will continue to work to find a solution. I’m confident we will find a way to pay our teachers what they deserve.

            We’ve been fortunate to have outstanding pages so far.  I want to thank Central senior Conner Kern and Walters senior Shalyn Bowles for taking time away from their studies to come help us at the state Capitol.

            At the State Senate, I can be reached by writing to Senator Chris Kidd, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 411A, Oklahoma City, OK 73105, emailing me at kidd@oksenate.gov, or by calling (405) 521-5563 and speaking to my assistant Suzanne Earnest.

From the Office of Rep. Marcus McEntire March 1 2018

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The 2018 legislative session is in full swing up at the Capitol, and we sure started off with a bang. Lawmakers voted on a revenue proposal, known as Step Up Oklahoma, on Feb. 12. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it failed to gain the necessary votes for passage.

The bill had good parts – everyone agrees some extra cash would help Oklahoma. The revenue would have provided teachers with a well-deserved and long-overdue raise. It would have stabilized rocky funding levels for health care workers across the state. It would have allowed lawmakers to focus on big-picture things instead of trying to hurriedly scrape together a bare-bones budget.

But the Step Up package also carried with it proposals I did not appreciate. In fact, in my dozens of conversations with colleagues, no one I spoke to loved everything the plan offered. Step Up was, in the truest sense, a compromise bill. That said, its failure should not dictate where we go from here.

Instead of letting yet another revenue bill’s failure sow anger and exhaustion, I’m choosing to lean into hope that lawmakers can work across party lines to better our state. Casting my ‘yes’ vote on Feb. 12 meant I was saying ‘yes’ to securing a future of which Oklahomans can be proud. Watching the vote fail means I’m recommitting myself to building coalitions of Oklahomans on issues we care about.

Here’s what I know: Oklahomans want better education. Our teachers are some of the brightest, hardworking people I have ever met. They deserve a raise, and House Republicans will continue to fight until educators are properly compensated. I’ll also lobby for local control. Teachers know how to teach their students best. We should encourage independent classroom control, and we should empower parents to be more involved in local schools.

Oklahomans also prioritize economic development. As our tax base grows, we should seek to diversify our economy. Any investor worth his or her salt would advise clients against putting all their eggs in one basket. To strengthen Oklahoma’s economic future, we must spread out our portfolio.

Thirdly, Oklahomans recognize the need for infrastructure improvement. Our state currently ranks third worst in the nation for structurally deficient bridges. The pattern of tapping into funding for roads and bridges needs to stop. We must properly fund our transportation department so we can prevent serious infrastructure problems before more bridges collapse.

These changes aren’t things that can happen with a flick of the wrist. They will take work. Lawmakers have fought for years on these issues, and I will continue to carry the torch with my colleagues. My hope is that you will join me in this effort. Future generations should be able to look back at this session as the year when Oklahomans said ‘yes’ to building a better state.

As always, you can reach me at Marcus.McEntire@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7327. Thanks, and God bless.

From the office of Senator Chris Kidd February 22 2018

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The third week of the regular session is underway. We have two more weeks of committee work on bills before we turn our attention to debate before the full Chamber.

This session, I filed nine Senate bills and three have already received committee approval.  SB 1364 authorizes the board of county commissioners to trade-in equipment to a vendor or on a statewide contract by acquiring used equipment values pursuant to state statute.

SB 1488 modifies the Wildlife Conservation Code to add a lifetime landowner hunting license for legal residents who have resided in the state for at least six months and intend to remain residents.  The price of the new lifetime license for 500 to 1,000 acres would be $50,000 and $75,000 for any tract of land over 1,000 acres.

SB 1492 relates to boiler inspectors and requires that deputy inspectors receive a valid National Board Commission within 24 months after appointment rather than 18.

In other legislative news, the Senate will be bringing back the state’s largest agencies for further budget hearings.  These agencies account for approximately 92 percent of the annual appropriated state budget.  Typically, only the appropriations subcommittees have budget hearings during the interim.  However, we thought that holding another round during session would allow more senators, the public and media to learn more about the various budgets and spending practices of the agencies. State revenues continue to rise, which is promising as we begin work for the upcoming budget.

This year, the Senate’s highest priority is the budget.  We must craft a responsible budget and seek reforms that provide budget stability and reduce reliance on one-time money.

Education and getting more dollars into the classroom will also be a priority.  We must find a way to fully fund a teacher salary increase, find efficiencies in our education system and also improve the funding formula.  This week, the State Aid Funding Formula Task Force will be meeting to discuss current and future legislation that may impact the formula.

The second special session is ongoing as well.  Last week was disappointing to say the least.  Once again, after the Step Up budget plan was approved by both the House and Senate Joint Committees on Appropriations and Budget, the plan failed to get super majority approval in the House.  The Senate never got a chance to vote on the measure even though we’ve already passed similar plans in the last few months.

Sadly, voting against the Step Up plan was a vote against raising teacher pay, funding for our health and human services, protecting our most vulnerable citizens and putting our state on a stable budget path forward.

Regardless of the plan’s failure, we are constitutionally mandated to balance the budget each year. This means we must move forward, and close the books on FY’18.

JCAB bills addressing the FY’18 cuts and necessary appropriations to help the health care agencies all passed last week and may be considered this week in the Senate.

At the State Senate, I can be reached by writing to Senator Chris Kidd, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 411A, Oklahoma City, OK 73105, emailing me at kidd@oksenate.gov, or by calling (405) 521-5563 and speaking to my assistant Suzanne Earnest.

AUDITOR: Let the Audit Speak for Itself

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At the State Auditor’s Office, we focus on two primary matters – accountability and transparency. To achieve these two objectives, our work must be beyond reproach and the entanglement of politics.

Ours is a constitutionally-created, independent office with the principal purpose to examine and inspect whether public officials properly expended public funds.

The constitution names the State Auditor before the Attorney General. We are not agents of the Attorney General and we do not work for the Attorney General.

Our audits examine public records. We look at how public funds are spent. A finding of probable fraud, waste, or abuse is only stated when fully supported by financial records and other evidence.

The Special Investigative Audit of the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust (LICRAT) was a review of public documents to determine if the LICRAT Board complied with state law in the expenditure of public funds. Special Audits differ from other types of audits because we are not required to conduct these audits in accordance with government auditing standards.

A Special Audit must be requested and conducted when financial mismanagement is believed to have occurred. The LICRAT Special Audit was initially sought by for U.S. Senator Tom Coburn. The only reason to involve the AG was because his office is one of five statutorily permitted ways to request a Special Audit. The audit was conducted on behalf of Oklahoma taxpayers.

The former attorney general acted improperly when he shared the contents of the audit report with the subject of the audit. The impropriety was further compounded when he refused to share the audit with the people who paid for it – the taxpayers of Oklahoma.

The LICRAT audit wasn’t about Scott Pruitt, left-wing environmentalists, Andy Lester, or politics. As the State Auditor, I have taken the position that the people of our state deserve to know why the LICRAT Board spent over $3.6 million on a project when the cost could have been less than $600,000.

If, as Mr. Pruitt’s spokesman stated, the audit was “shoddy,” then release it so the public can make that determination. If, as Mr. Lester stated, the audit report determined “no direct evidence of a conspiracy against the state,” then release the audit so the public can make that determination.

The State Auditor is the fact finder, not the prosecutor. The sole discretion to prosecute is always retained by the prosecutor.

The only issue here is when the prosecutor determines not to proceed – don’t cover up the issue by withholding a public document, paid for with public funds, and conducted on behalf of the public.

Audits are complicated. Many times, fraud and embezzlement are complicated. Often audits are confusing to prosecutors who aren’t confident they can sufficiently explain it to a jury in order to obtain a guilty verdict. As such, much white-collar crime goes unprosecuted.

I have confidence in the work product of our office, its people, and their professionalism. We stand by the courage of our convictions while others cast aspersions on the reputation and integrity of those who favor accountability and transparency.

Let the Audit Speak for itself.

NOTE: Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones doesn’t issue many news releases. As auditor, he has consistently taken the position that an audit should speak for itself. Since taking office in 2011, Gary has issued 15 news releases, of which, four were about a specific audit.

Senate bills filed for 2018 session

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The Senate has completed filing bills for the Second Session of the 56th Legislature. A total of 706 Senate bills were filed along with 23 Senate Joint Resolutions. In 2016, a total of 831 Senate bills and 46 Senate Joint Resolutions were filed.

The deadline does not apply to appropriations bills which can be filed throughout the session. In addition, substantive bills can be introduced during the session after the filing deadline. In order for this to occur, the Majority Floor Leader must assign it to a committee and the entire committee becomes the published author of the bill. Such bills must still be heard on the floor by March 22, the deadline for floor votes on legislation originating in the Senate. Measures not heard within that time frame will be considered dead and cannot be reconsidered.

The process of authoring bills by committee was first adopted by the Senate in 2015 to do away with shell bills, which were bills with no language used as vehicles for measures later in the session. The change was aimed at increasing transparency in the legislative process.

Legislation can be read and downloaded through the official State Senate website at www.oksenate.gov by following the link for Legislation at the top of the homepage. The Senate website also includes daily agendas, meeting notices, calendars, and other helpful information.

You can also follow the Oklahoma State Senate on Twitter at OKSENATEINFO.

The Senate offers streaming audio and video from the Senate Chamber, as well as from all committee rooms. Wireless Internet access is available to all Capitol visitors throughout the Senate gallery, rotunda, committee rooms, offices and press rooms.

The 2018 legislative session will reconvene on Monday, February 5.

The marathon continues

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We now have six weeks left in the first session of the 56th Legislature. My first session at the Capitol has flown by so far, and now is the time we really start getting into specifics with appropriations and budget bills.

 

Committee meetings wrapped up on April 13, so most bills that did not clear committee are dead for the remainder of the session. However, there is an exception for revenue-related legislation. The Appropriations & Budget Committee’s deadline is April 20, but there is some flexibility on that deadline as well, and it is not unusual to see additional bills pop up after that date.

 

I’m sure many of you are aware of the budget proposals that are being floated. The governor has her plan; the Democrats in the House proposed one of their own; even the state auditor has come up with a tax proposal. I’m sure you are wondering where we Republicans are in our budget process.

 

There are many items still up in the air, but House Republicans are about to start proposing several building blocks for a balanced budget. Leadership has a plan in place, and we will begin taking up revenue-raising measures as well as other possible solutions in the next couple of weeks. Chances are there will be a number of tax credits, exemptions and deductions on the table before we see anything like a tax increase. I plan on reviewing every proposal carefully as we seek to close the $878 million projected shortfall in next year’s budget. As those bills come up, I will be sure to update you with any major developments.

 

Even though budget work has yet to be finalized, the Judiciary – Criminal Justice & Corrections Committee and the Public Safety Committee passed some significant criminal justice reform measures last week. These bills were part of Gov. Mary Fallin’s justice reform package and are meant to better Oklahoma’s corrections system. I’m not in either committee, but I was glad to hear the bills are progressing, and I look forward to voting on them when the measures come before the House floor.

 

If you remember, we are currently hearing Senate bills in the House. The third-reading deadline for those Senate bills is April 27, meaning all of those measures will have to receive a hearing by that date to stay alive. At that point, the House will review any amendments senators added to our legislation. If we approve those changes, the bills can progress to the governor’s desk. If we do not approve the amendment, the bill can go to a conference committee to iron out any details.

 

As always, please feel free to reach out if you need anything. Being your state representative is one of the most gratifying jobs I have ever had, and I want to do as much good as I can. You can call my Capitol office at (405) 557-7327 or email me at Marcus.McEntire@okhouse.gov. Thank you, and God bless.

From the State Senate

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It was an honor to have served the people of District 31 in my first session with the Oklahoma State Senate.  People who have worked in or around the Capitol for the last several decades said that this was by far the most difficult budget year they’ve seen.  As the state continues its way out of three years of revenue shortfalls, the legislature had the task of closing a nearly $1 billion revenue shortfall.  Past legislatures had depended strongly on the use of one-time monies to avoid having to raise revenues, but we took the difficult stance of strengthening our state’s budget and ensuring future stability by creating new sources of revenue.

After much debate and compromise, the legislature finally approved a $6.8 billion budget.  I’m proud of my Senate colleagues for their willingness to do what was best for our more than 60 state agencies so that they can continue to provide vital state services.  Constituents often call me to discuss budgetary matters, focusing on one state agency.  However, I have found one of the most challenging parts of serving in the Senate is not having the luxury of meeting the budgetary needs and requests of one or two agencies. We’re responsible for appropriating funds to all 67 of our state agencies, and this year we had very little to give.

At the beginning of session, budget leaders warned agencies that to fill the budget hole cuts of 15-20 percent might be required; and you have to remember that some agencies have already been cut up to 50 percent in the last decade.

I’m pleased to say that the budget protects our schools, public health, human services, and safety as well as corrections.  We were able to provide additional funding to common education by running a trailer bill (HB 2360), which provided an additional $18 million from the Rainy Day Fund and held education flat.  This bill was an agreement between the Senate and House to keep the school funding formula at the same level as FY ‘17 in spite of the nearly $1 billion shortfall.  The remaining state agencies received on average of a less than five percent cut to their budgets.

Progress was made to correct structural problems that have existed for years in the budget.  The Senate approved several measures that will provide new revenue for our state for years to come.  Among other measures, we created $95 million by raising the Gross Production Tax (GPT) on “1 percent” wells to 4 percent; $46 million by eliminating oil and gas GPT rebates; $15 million from increased tax enforcement; and $9 million from changes approved for long-lateral drilling.  We also will save the state millions of dollars in future budget years by accelerating the sunset date of the wind tax credit.

We approved a tobacco cessation program with the intent of saving lives and improving the health of Oklahomans by encouraging people to quit smoking, especially children.  The program will be funded by a $1.50 per pack fee for cigarettes that’s expected to generate around $215 million. This will also help lower our state’s healthcare costs significantly of which tobacco contributes billions in unnecessary expenses to taxpayers annually.

This is a responsible, practical plan that generates new revenue for this year and beyond, protects education, DOC and DHS while also implementing reforms to address chronic budget shortfalls.
Besides working on the budget, we approved legislation to strengthen the state’s education system, protect the health and safety of our youth, provide further assistance to our veterans, strengthen our criminal justice system and ensure that Oklahoma IDs meet federal REAL ID requirements.  I’ll discuss these areas in the coming weeks.
In closing, I was honored to carry the nomination of Ervin Randle of Lawton to the Oklahoma Motor Vehicle Commission succeeding Dan Mullins.

We want to thank Cache junior, Dalton McDonald, for serving as a page during the next to last week of session.  This month has been extremely busy so his assistance was greatly appreciated and we hope he learned a lot about his state government and the legislative process.
We also want to thank everyone from the district who made the trip to Oklahoma City this year and stopped by to visit with us.  We truly appreciate your support and input and for sharing your successes and special events with us.

At the State Senate, I can be reached by writing to Senator Chris Kidd, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 411A, Oklahoma City, OK 73105, emailing me at kidd@oksenate.gov, or by calling (405) 521-5563 and speaking to my assistant Suzanne Earnest.

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