Six weeks into the legislative session, area legislators had no shortage of items to discuss Friday in their first appearance in a legislative luncheon. The Senate and House had each passed its respective deadlines for legislation and passed it to the other side of the Capitol as the process of making laws continues.
Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, began the afternoon with a discussion on what is taking place in education. A bill was approved by the House on the Reading Sufficiency Act with a revision that would use a team that includes a parent and school officials to determine if a child can move forward from the third grade with the necessary reading skills. A bill was also approved that would increase expenditures in education spending per child based on a formula that involved the general revenue. Should the general revenue increase by one percent, $57.5 million additional funding would be postmarked for education. Spending could increase up to $575 million.
“Funding education is important,” Ownbey said. “It’s what we do with the money that is also important.”
Common Core was also discussed as efforts have succeeded in the House to slow down implementation and assure the state determines educational standards. The move also allows the state to continue and receive funding for the initiative.
Ownbey also highlighted House approval allowing for a one-time bond increase for schools that want a safety room or storm shelter. The move allows communities rather than the state to determine if such an action is desirable.
Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, talked about efforts to prevent youth access to e-cigarettes. Simpson and Ownbey have worked on legislation, although Simpson said his bill gave way to one authored by Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Yukon, which will include language preventing youth access.
Medicaid was also discussed at length as Simpson highlighted the rising costs of the program.
“We spend more but have less to pay for it,” he said.
Simpson said he was in support of a bill which will develop a pilot program to study reform, but urged caution, noting other states have struggled with consistent success in reform efforts. He agreed with Ownbey regarding slowing down implementation of Common Core.
“We need to make sure we are acting in the best interests of the children,” he said.
Simpson said although a state income tax bill calling for a reduction was approved, he did not believe anyone’s heart was in it because there remain several other needs for funding. Simpson also spoke out against giving $40 million to the Native American Cultural Center.
Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, spoke about the need to pay state workers more in view of pension reform, discussing the disparity in pay compared to other states and the need to become more competitive. He also spoke against a Memorandum of Understanding between Oklahoma and Texas, which allows Texas to remove water from an already-low Lake Texoma.
“When you grant water permits, you need to take drought conditions into consideration,” he said. “The area has already been hurt by the Pointe Vista disaster, and now low water levels can further hurt tourism.”
There was also discussion on a bond for $160 million to fund repairs at the State Capitol. Both Ownbey and Simpson cited the need for the bond, with aging infrastructure in dire need of repair. Hardin said although repairs should be made, the burden of funding should have been shared through both the Rainy Day Fund and bonding.