Woodward, Okla. —
Following Case's review of the foundation's eventful 2012, the state legislators from Northwest Oklahoma were invited to share a brief update on events at the state capitol this session.
State Reps. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne; Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher; and Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, each addressed the crowd. Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, who was delayed by a budget hearing, spoke with The News following the meeting.
The legislators focused on 3 main areas: worker's comp reform, tax reductions, and public safety issues.
All of the legislators said that Oklahomans should "keep your eye on worker's comp" as they expect to see some major changes get approved this year.
"This session we have a 356-page bill that we'll be reading this weekend, because we just got it in the house this morning, that fundamentally changes our worker's compensation system from a judicial system to an administrative system," Blackwell said.
While there are some amendments that may need to be made to that bill, the Laverne Representative said that should the worker's comp bill pass, it will "change the landscape of Oklahoma."
"It will help us overcome a major roadblock that's been keeping businesses from coming to Oklahoma," he said.
Sanders agreed that the worker's comp reform "will be a game changer in the state."
"It's all about business, attracting businesses and retaining businesses," he said.
But it isn't the only area the legislature is examining in an effort to promote business recruitment in the state.
Sanders said there is also discussion of eliminating the franchise tax and "going even further and eliminating corporate taxes."
"It's not a lot of money, but a lot of perception," he said about the impact of eliminating those taxes.
But business taxes aren't the only ones being considered for reduction. Both sides of the legislature have also proposed cuts to the state income tax.
Sanders said the House has proposed reducing the 5.25 percent income tax to 5 percent, with the reduction "based off growth revenue."
Marlatt said the Senate has proposed a half-percent tax cut, which would lower the rate to 4.75 percent, and "is paid for in reforms in the tax code, so it's revenue neutral."
And while there's still work to be done to "work out the differences" between both tax cut proposals, the Senator said, "I think we will be successful as far as getting something done as far as tax cuts this session."
He as well as the area Representatives also feel "confident" about the success of some comprehensive workers comp reform.
While Hickman agreed that workers comp reform and tax cuts are important issues before the legislature this year, he chose to focus his comments on the area of public safety, and the Department of Corrections in particular.
"I'm very concerned about the situation in corrections," Hickman said. "We're really facing a crisis in corrections. If we don't act and act now, we're not very far away from having the federal government come in to take over corrections in Oklahoma."
The Fairview Representative then spoke about 2 major deficits being faced by DOC. The first being a deficit in budget since Oklahoma prisons are at 100 percent capacity and the state is having to pay private prisons and county jails to house those inmates for whom there is just no room at state facilities, he said.
The second deficit facing state prisons is the lack of correctional officers. In particular, Hickman spoke about William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply, which he said is at it's full capacity of 1,087 inmates, but no where near full staff of officers.
"William S. Key is authorized to have 88 officers and funded to have 68, but only has 44," he said.
The issue he said is that "we're not paying people enough to have them want to apply. It's an $11 an hour job and you can make that down at your local convenience store and not have to deal with a lot of knuckleheads."
The lack of correctional officers presents a variety of problems, Hickman said.
"It's not right this situation we're putting corrections employees in, because it's dangerous," he said.
Beyond that, he said it has an impact on the overall economy.
"Look here's 20 some jobs available we could have people working at and contributing to the economy, but we don't have," Hickman said.