By Johnny McMahan
Woodward, Okla. —
Area legislators made the trip to Woodward for Eggs and Issues Friday to visit with constituents and give an update on the initial days of the 2014 legislative session.
The big news early, in these parts for certain was Rep. Jeff Hickman's election as Speaker of the House.
Also at the forum, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, were Reps. Mike Sanders and Gus Blackwell and State Sen. Bryce Marlatt.
The added duties of Speaker will make an even busier session for Hickman, R-Fairview, but on Friday he was focused on a number of issues.
• a budget shortfall that might be more than the originally projected $170 million.
• better pay and increased staffing for the Department of Corrections. "We're at 100 percent capacity (prisoners) and 60 percent staffed in corrections," he said. "Starting pay is $11.83 an hour and you can make three times that in the oilfield. I am surprised that we're at 60 percent staffed, frankly."
• dealing with a shortage of highway patrol troopers, where pay is once again an issue.
• finding a compromise on the gross production tax.
• and fixing the state capitol either through a bond issue or other means.
In his presentation, Marlatt said the gross production tax is something they are working on - for horizontal drilling and vertical drilling. Currently the tax on horizontal wells is 1 percent and it is 7 percent on the companies that drill vertical wells.
"I think there's a happy medium we can come up with," Marlatt said. "What's the number and let's make impermanent. Make sure everyone is being treated appropriately and incentives in place."
Blackwell noted that with Hickman as Speaker and Mike Jackson of Enid as Speaker Pro Tem, the area has a tremendous amour of power at the capitol.
"We have a lot of challenges, but I expect some good things to come out of this session," he said.
Blackwell also cited the need to develop common sense solutions to education and the testing issues, like third grade reading and end of instruction tests.
Sanders brought up the proposed pension reform for state employees (changing from defined benefit to defined contribution along the lines of a 401K system) and said those bills would affect only new employees.
He also noted that progress continues to be made on the states roads and bridges.