Woodward, Okla. —
\Area legislators used baseball metaphors to describe the recent legislative session as they spoke to Woodward Chamber of Commerce members during their monthly Chamber luncheon Monday.
"As I look back at the session I would say rural Oklahoma hit a grand slam," State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, said.
Blackwell said big part of that was the success of Senate Bill 965, co-written by Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward.
Blackwell and Marlatt explained that SB 965 gave rural Oklahoma more representation on the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) by changing the composition of the water board membership. Instead of members being appointed based on population areas, the members now represent different geographic areas, so that every area of the state is represented.
"The Panhandle now has its own representative and Northwest Oklahoma has its own," Blackwell said. "Southeast Oklahoma and Southwest Oklahoma have their own as well."
Previously he said Tulsa alone had 2 representatives and another 3 OWRB members lived within 30 minutes of the Oklahoma City metro area, because those are the highest population areas. But this didn't leave much room on the board for rural representation.
For instance, State Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said that Southeast Oklahoma previously didn't have any representation on the board even though that is where the majority of Oklahoma's water is located. And the panhandle didn't have a representative even though those 3 counties use more water than other regions in the state, largely due to the high agricultural production in those counties, Marlatt said.
However, those in the urban areas tried to make it a population issue, Blackwell said, noting they argued against giving "8 percent of the population, 20 percent of the vote."
But "water is a regional issue," Sanders said.
This is because water is used differently in different areas of the state, from agriculture in the Panhandle to watering lawns in the urban areas. That's why the area legislators felt, as Blackwell put it, that SB 965 was a "huge victory for rural Oklahoma," because it allows those in the different regions have a say in what's best for their region rather than Tulsa and Oklahoma City representatives controlling everything.
"In the past Oklahoma City and Tulsa were driving the train and rural Oklahoma was just along for the ride trying to get whatever crumbs we could from the table," Blackwell said.
But thanks to leadership from rural legislators, including Marlatt, "this time rural Oklahoma drove the train."
MORE LEGISLATIVE SUCCESSES
The area legislators said the water board issue wasn't the only homerun for the 2013 session.
Blackwell said he felt the session's other successes included the passage of the horse slaughter bill; the decision to budget funds to repair the state capitol building instead of seeking a $200 million bond; giving $34 million to DHS to "continue to reform the agency;" pension reform for state firefighters; and the modernization of the state government, including the elimination of "over 50 different boards and agencies," many of which had duplicate roles as other agencies.
For Sanders this "historic session," also included successes in the form of adding $91 million to the common education budget, passing of a workers comp reform bill, and approving a state income tax cut.
He spoke about how the workers comp reform "changes the system as a whole from a judicial system to an administrative system, which means that it speeds things up so that we can get injured workers back to work as soon as possible and back to contributing to the economy."
In addition to providing for a quicker turn around on claims, the Kingfisher representative said the workers comp bill (SB 1062) also seeks to reduce the legal and medical costs associated with injury claims.
This in turn reduces costs for the companies providing workers comp insurance, he said, which is a benefit to business owners and encourages them to do business in the state.
Marlatt agreed, saying that passage of the workers comp reform "sends a message that we're trying to make Oklahoma as business friendly as we can."
As for the tax cut issue, Sanders described it as "tax relief for all Oklahomans."
The bill that was passed would cut the state income tax from its current 5.25 percent to 5.0 percent in 2015, and then if the state's revenues remain strong and/or improve, hitting certain benchmarks, then the rate will drop to 4.85 percent in 2016.
"It's based on the revenue in the state, so that if we don't hit the marks, it won't drop to that lower rate," Sanders said.
However, for State Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, that wasn't enough of a protection for ensuring that the state could afford the tax cut.
"My concern is that it doesn't take effect for a couple of years and we can barely see into what revenues will do next year, let alone 2 years from now," he said.
That's why he voted against the tax measure, especially considering how the state could soon be facing a $400 million bill if it loses the lawsuit that has been filed over the capitol gains exemption.
"It's hard enough to know what the economy will be like in 12 months, so to have a tax cut go into effect when you have a major lawsuit on the books like that is risky," Hickman said.
MORE WORK TO BE DONE
But he wasn't the only one disappointed with how some things went during this year's session.
Returning to the baseball metaphor, Blackwell said, "like when you play baseball, you sometimes leave runners on base."
The Laverne representative said 2 big issues he wished had been better addressed in the 2013 session included the switch to common core curriculum in education the cost and scope of which is still to be determined, and a much needed pay raise for Department of Corrections employees.
Hickman agreed that "it's disappointing we didn't address public safety issues," such as pay increases for DOC officers as well as OHP troopers.
"It's difficult to convince people to spend more money on prisons. It's a lot easier to sell schools and children and easier to sell roads and bridges," he said.
But taking on that challenge is important because "we're over 100 percent capacity in our prisons across the state and on average just 60 percent staffed," Hickman said.
That makes for an "incredibly dangerous" combination, especially during hot Oklahoma summers when "many of our prisons are not air conditioned," he said.
But with a starting pay of a little over $11 an hour, you can't find people willing to take on that risk, which is why finding a way to increase pay for these brave corrections officers is important, Hickman said.
The same is true for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, he said, especially when there is competition from other law enforcement agencies able to pay officers more.
"You can make more now as a Woodward Police officer than you do as a state trooper," he said.
Other things that will have to be addressed during next year's session includes tort reform, Sanders said.
"The Supreme Court (of Oklahoma) through the tort reform law we passed a couple of years ago out," he said. "It's a little frustrating because we think it's purely political. If you look at some of the comments by the justices you can see there's a political bent."
However, with tort reform being right up there with workers comp reform in the importance of creating a business friendly environment in the state, he said legislators will be quick to readdress the issue.
"I assure you that next year, whether it takes 5 bills or 50, tort reform will be the number one issue," Sanders said.
But Marlatt thinks the issue may be bigger than that and perhaps should be addressed sooner.
"I think it's going to take about 90 bills to get everything done that needs to be accomplished," the state senator said, adding that he is "in full support of the governor calling for a special session this year to address those 90 or so bills."