The Woodward News

February 8, 2013

Legislators dedicated to protecting resources

Rowynn Ricks
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — While not really a legislative issue, one of the big topics of discussion during Friday's Eggs & Issues legislative forum was the recent water draw at Canton Lake.

Area legislators State Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward; State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne; State Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview; and State Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, all commented on the Canton Lake issue.

The legislators said the Jan. 30 release of some 30,000 acre-feet of water from Canton Lake to replenish low levels at Lake Hefner was morally questionable.

"The argument is not can they take the water, they have a contract giving them rights to the water," Marlatt said.  "The argument I have is just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

Sanders, who had joined Marlatt prior to the Jan. 30 water draw to request a delay in the water release until after spring rains could help both lakes, said, "we may have lost this battle, but we will not lose the war."

He was speaking of the commitment he and his colleagues from Northwest Oklahoma have to trying to make sure Oklahoma City develops better water conservation practices so that area lakes won't continue to be threatened.

For example, Blackwell said he is considering drafting a bill that would say in the case where the state has been in a drought for 2 years or more, then metropolitan areas would have to reduce their water usage by 10 percent before they can request making water draws from other state lakes.

The area legislators' dedication to protecting the resources of Northwest Oklahoma extends beyond natural resources.

Because, they said it is not only water that the metropolitan areas want to take from the more rural parts of the state.  Educational funding is also threatened.

Blackwell said changes have been proposed to the state funding formula for schools which would mean "tak(ing) more money from our schools."

"A guy on the floor said he was tired of funding our rural schools," he said, but noted "the average of Western Oklahoma schools get half of what it takes to fund students' education."

That's because the state funding is reduced when schools benefit from ad valorem tax payments from energy companies in their area.

"Where does the other half go? To metropolitan schools because of the weighted average they get from the school formula," Blackwell said.  "So we're actually paying for them."

Instead of changing the formula, which he said "works pretty well" right now, the Laverne Representative agreed with Shattuck Public Schools Superintendent Randy Holley who said, "if you want to make the formula better, put more money into it."

"We've had 3 years with education remaining stagnant," Blackwell said.  "With the bit of surplus in this year's budget, I think we should pump $70 million to $100 million straight into with no strings attached so that schools can spend it as they need it."

However, Marlatt said that since there is a budget increase this year, a lot of different groups are going to want a piece of the pie.

"Obviously the budget is going to be something that's interesting," he said.  "We're in a better state budget-wise than we have been in the past few years.  But it's a little easier when you're having to tell every agency that we all have to share in tightening our belts.  When you get a little extra like we have now, everyone wants to be restored back, which makes for an interesting appropriations process."

Hickman said one of his funding priorities will be law enforcement since his is chair of the Appropriations and Budget Public Safety Subcommittee.  He said both the Department of Corrections and Oklahoma Highway Patrol are facing "critical staffing levels" right now and "it's going to take some money" to address the problem and create more competitive salary levels for jobs in both agencies.

The area legislators also used Friday's Eggs & Issues forum to talk about how they hope to see continued progress on several items this legislative session, including worker's comp reform, tax reform, and improving state infrastructure, meaning both roads and bridges as well as state buildings and namely the crumbling state capitol.