Area legislators updated current progress at the state Capitol Friday during the first Ardmore Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon of the 2019 session.
Though the session began with a projected budget surplus, Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, said most of that money is already spoken for.
“One of our challenges this session has been the budget,” Simpson said. “We have revenues this year that we haven’t had the past three or four years. We have the budget request from all these state agencies totaling about $3.4 billion and we’ve only got about $546 million extra revenues this year, and about $200 million is already taken up.”
Simpson urged caution with budget expectations, citing current projections as indicators only in relation to oil prices.
“As volatile as the energy sector is, our budget outlook can change overnight. It’s a vital part of our economy… But so goes energy prices, so goes our economy,” Simpson said. “We are working very diligently to diversify our economy and really focusing on expanding the aerospace industry. It has been one of the fastest growing sectors in our economy.”
Another issue to resurface early in the session involves increasing teacher pay.
“The governor campaigned on teacher pay raises. It’s kind of easy to make campaign promises, but quite another to make that same promise when reality has surfaced,” Simpson said. “I’m not an advocate of teacher pay raises this year. Among my colleagues in Senate, there is not much appetite for teacher pay raises. Our focus on the Senate side is getting more money in the classrooms and looking at teacher pay raises maybe next year or the year after.”
Simpson said some educators have expressed concerns of feeling embarrassed by getting another pay raise while classroom funding goes unaddressed.
He called a bill to provide a tax credit for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies a gimmick, saying the bill amounted to an effort “to make it look like we are doing something.”
“We need to devote those resources to where we are going to get the most bang for their buck,” Simpson said. “That is directly in the classroom.”
Legislators are also working on restoring the state’s rainy day fund.
“I think it had about $1.76 left in it at one time,” Simpson said.
Legislators have begin to address a cost of living adjustment for retired teachers and firefighters.
“They have not had any cost of living raise in almost 11 years,” Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore said.
Regulation efforts on the state’s charter schools are also on the agenda this session.
“We passed a transparency (bill) for the virtual and charter schools,” Townley said. “We felt it very necessary for our virtual and charter schools to follow the same guidelines that our public schools fall under.”
Bills would allow public oversight of spending and would prevent schools from awarding contracts to sitting virtual and charter school board members.
Legislators have also taken up the challenge of funding for rural nursing homes.
“These nursing homes are having a hard time keeping their heads above water,” Simpson said. “The provider rate over the last couple of years has been cut to the point where they are bleeding money daily.”
A bill authored by Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, would allow counties to enact burn bans in the event that temperatures reach in excess of 100 degrees for three consecutive days.
“The firefighter, during a normal day, their heart rate is about 105. When you throw in the extreme temperatures, their heart rates jump to about 152,” Hardin said. “Their chances of cardiovascular episode greatly increases. It’s crucial for the volunteers, unlike the cities, they don’t have crews they can rotate in.”
Hardin also expressed frustrations with early budget efforts.
“It just didn’t seem like we had a real goal in the House of what budget we were working on,” Hardin said. “The governor’s budget increased (spending) by about $258 million, which I thought was a great goal to obtain.”
Hardin said some of the 81 bills passed during the first two weeks of the session didn’t include figures.
“Some would increase revenues, but we didn’t know how much. Some would decrease revenues, but we didn’t know how much,” Hardin said. “That was pretty frustrating. You can’t make decisions on stuff when you don’t have real numbers on them.”
Hardin said the bills that included real numbers would increase spending by more than $400 million.
Questions from the audience presented potential issues the state may soon face including: Taxes on plastic grocery bags, decreased resources for area FFA and 4-H programs, efforts to make State Question 780 retroactive, supplemental education for constitutional carry, ongoing efforts to address a gross production tax on sand and gravel and the expansion of Medicaid.