Area legislators offered a quick session review Friday during a legislative luncheon at the Ardmore Convention Center.
U.S. Senator James Lankford, R-Oklahoma’s 5th District, kicked off the event with a quick review of national issues before handing off the podium to area legislators.
On the home front, Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, praised completed and ongoing efforts to address criminal justice reform, mental health and substance abuse, education and accountability.
“We had a very successful legislative year. The trick to that is to actually have revenues to spend on things,” Simpson said. “Of the nine sessions that I’ve had, seven of those involved not actually budgeting, but looking at cutting expenditures and trying to figure out where you cut without causing any more pain than possible.”
With the last three years having significant budget cuts, legislators entered into 2019 with a surplus, along with the added pressure of restoring funding for core government functions that were severely limited due to the long-standing budget issues.
“We live or die by the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma,” Simpson said. “Oil and gas have been doing real well, so Oklahoma is doing real well.”
The increased revenues from the rebound in energy production combined with the ongoing economic success at the national level and a rare statewide tax increase from a year ago created a revenue surplus heading into this legislative session. The surplus resulted in Oklahoma’s largest ever allocated budget at $8.1 billion, allowing for an additional $200 million to be squirreled away into the state’s rainy day fund.
Simpson said a major undertaking for the Legislature in 2019 was criminal justice reform. Recent passage of State Question 780, 781 and 788 created logistic issues at the local level prompting legislators to be proactive in dealing with the results.
“We filed maybe 50 bills that had something to do with criminal justice reform and they had probably twice that many filed in the House,” Simpson said. “You’ve heard of this ‘pay for success.’ The objective was to encourage meaningful, innovative ideas and partnerships to help the state provide services without raising and risking tax dollars on the program.”
Simpson said the state invested $20.1 million to reform district attorney’s offices, $10 million on Smart on Crime initiatives addressing mental health and substance abuse issues, $1.8 million for diversion programs for women, $1.7 million to expand drug court programs.
“We lead the nation per capita in the number of females incarcerated in the Department of Corrections, and that was something we were concerned with and wanted to take a look at,” Simpson said. “Many of the ladies that are in DOC have children, so what we have done is take a mother out of a home that probably didn’t have a father in the home anyway and we’ve made these children wards of the state. Our goal through the diversion program is (to allow) women convicted of non-violent drug offenses an opportunity to do something other than be committed into DOC.”
Simpson said the program would allow families to remain intact while providing resources for treatment with the goal of providing a pathway for individuals to become productive members of society.
“The drug court program has been extremely successful,” Simpson said. “It offers people a chance to do rehabilitation without going to prison. These are for nonviolent offenders. Expanding that (drug court) is an opportunity to defer a lot of these people that would be going to DOC into diversion and rehabilitation programs.”
Simpson said drug court programs were not free passes for offenders, adding that if a participant failed to comply with the requirements of the court, they could face the consequences of their original sentence.
“It’s not a one time and you’re out, I’ve talked to some of the people that have successfully completed (drug court), and they make some mistakes,” Simpson said. “But if not for those second chances, they would have probably failed and been in DOC.”
District Attorney Craig Ladd said the local drug court has a success rate of 55%.
“Drug court costs us about $5,000 a year for a person to go through,” Simpson said. “If we send that person to DOC it costs taxpayers $20,000 a year for that same individual. The cost-benefit is significant if we can keep people from becoming residents at DOC.”
Simpson also praised the Legislature’s efforts on restoring funding to the state’s education system. The legislative body passed its second consecutive pay raise for teachers in 2019, while providing an additional $74 million in funding for in-class spending, about $130 million less than the Senate’s original goal, according to Simpson.
Simpson said the rate of pay increase would vary by teacher, with longer tenured educators seeing a higher rate than first-year teachers, which Simpson said he believed would help keep experienced teachers in the classroom past their earliest retirement date.