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Saturday, August 19th, 2017Last Update: Tuesday, August 1st, 2017 01:57:38 PM

Bills Move Through Oklahoma Legislature

By: Constitution Staff

With the close of the legislative session approaching on May 26, various bills are being considered by the Legislature. To still be in play in the current session, most bills had to be passed in the chamber of origin and be approved in the other chamber by April 27. Here is a review of the status of some of the bills being considered this year:

Wind Tax Credit

A bill changing the date that wind power facilities must be placed in service to qualify for a tax credit from January 1, 2021, to July 1, 2017 has been signed into law. House Bill 2298, authored by House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) and President Pro Tem Mike Schulz (R-Altus), passed the House 74-24 on March 9, and the Senate 40-3 on April 10. The bill was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin on April 17. Under current law an income tax credit is allowed based on the amount of electricity generated by a qualified zero-emission facility. The credit is fifty one-hundredths of one cent ($0.0050) for each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by zero-emission facilities and is available for a period of ten (10) years. Under the current law facilities had to be placed in service before January 1, 2021 to earn the credit. The legislation ends the tax credits three-and-a-half years earlier. The January 1, 2021, sunset for other zero-emissions projects, such as solar and geothermal, will remain in place. But, the vast majority of zero-emission energy production in the state comes from wind power and has been a growing drain on state tax dollars. Since the zero emission tax credit was created, its use has grown from $2.7 million in 2008 to over $88 million in 2016. With more wind farms coming online, it is projected to cost will be $134 million this year and nearly $254 million in 2018. Oklahoma now has over 2,800 wind turbines in operation placing Oklahoma in third place for wind power generation.

Sales Tax on Sports Tickets

House Bill 2350, by Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) and Sen. Kim David (R-Porter) would reinstate the state sales tax on professional athletic event tickets, which could increase state sales tax revenue by an estimated $1.8 million per year. Former Gov. Brad Henry and the Legislature agreed to remove the tax in 2007 as part of a deal to bring the New Orleans Hornets basketball team to Oklahoma City. The Hornets, now known as the Pelicans, were temporarily based in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina damaged the team’s home venue. The reinstatement of the tax would effectively raise the cost of a ticket by 4.5 percent, which is the state sales tax rate. Cities could also charge its municipal sales tax if they choose to do so. The tax would have the greatest impact on the Oklahoma City Thunder which was brought to Oklahoma City after the Hornets left, but any professional sports team, including ice hockey, baseball, basketball, football, arena football, and soccer would be impacted. The bill passed the House 86-3 on April 18 and was waiting for a vote in the Senate.

Elimination of Tax Cut Trigger

Senate Bill 170 by Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okema)and Rep. Earl Sears (R-Bartlesville) would repeal the tax cut trigger. A 2014 law linked cuts in state income tax rates to revenue growth so that as Oklahoma brought in more money, the rate would automatically fall. The next and final trigger would lower the tax rate to 4.85 percent for single-filers’ taxable income over $8,700 and joint filers’ income over $15,000. Under the bill, the cuts would not automatically come as state revenues improve. If the bill becomes law, the top tax rate will remain at 5 percent. It passed the Senate 39-6 on March 13, and the House 75-12 on April 19. It returned to the Senate for consideration of House Amendments.

OK Lottery Funds

House Bill 1837 by Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) and Sen. Kim David (R-Porter) would change the way the Oklahoma lottery funds education. The bill is designed to send more lottery revenue to education by letting the lottery offer larger payouts that improve lottery sales and ultimately send more money to public schools. The bill would set aside $50 million of annual net profits from lotto sales for education. Anything above $50 million would help fund Pre-K through third-grade reading initiatives or STEM programs. The current lottery-education funding system is based on a flat percentage. “Education gets more than $100 million in new lottery money if this legislation passes. This is by no means an end-all, be-all school funding solution, but it is an achievable way to get more money to schools even in a tough budget year,” said Osborn. The Oklahoma Lottery has sent more than $750 million to education since it began in 2005, but its performance has been declining – particularly in comparison to other state lotteries – because of an ineffective profit requirement that would be replaced under HB 1837. Oklahoma Lottery revenue to education peaked at $71.6 million in Fiscal Year 2008, but has declined since. If HB 1837 is not passed, the Oklahoma Lottery projects those declines will continue and that education will lose a combined $25 million in lottery funding over the next five years. The bill passed the House 70-25 on March 7 and the Senate 36-10 on April 25. It was sent to the Governor Fallin for consideration on April 26.

Oklahoma Science Education Act

Senate Bill 393 by Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate)and the late Rep. David Brumbaugh (R-Broken Arrow) prohibits “The State Board of Education, school district boards of education, school district superintendents and school principals shall endeavor to create an environment within public school districts that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.” No scientific topics are specifically identified, but this could include such theories as climate change or evolution. Opponents of the bill believe these things are “settled science” and nobody should be allowed to question or evaluate if such theories are valid. During debate in the bill in the House committee Rep. Brumbaugh said, “If science was settled, we’d still be thinking the Earth is flat.” The bill passed the Senate 34-10 on March 10. It received a Do Pass in a House committee on April 13. It was waiting for a vote in the full House.

Display Historic Documents

House Bill 2177 would allow cities, schools and municipalities to display “historical documents, monuments and writings” in public buildings and on public grounds. The documents that could be displayed include the Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, Oklahoma Constitution and the Ten Commandments. The measure authorizes the Oklahoma Attorney General to provide legal defense to a political subdivision in the event the display is challenged in a court of law. The bill, by Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) and Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair) passed the House 79-11 on March 21 It received a Do Pass in a Senate committee on April It was waiting for a vote in the full Senate.

Health Insurance Across State Lines

Senate Bill 478, by state Rep. Lewis Moore (R-Arcadia) and Sen. Bill Brown (R-Broken Arrow) of the Senate, will allow the Oklahoma Insurance Department to compact with other states in offering more affordable and better tailored individual health insurance policies across state lines. The plans would still have to be approved by each participating state legislature. The compact will allow individuals to find better coverage in some instances, such as for autism care that is better provided for by 46 other states than in Oklahoma. “The free market works every time,” said Moore. “This bill allows individuals to find more comprehensive or catastrophic coverage if that is what an individual desires, and it should reduce the cost of individual coverage.” Moore said this bill puts in place the mechanism for the insurance department to move forward on negotiating plans and forming a compact. The bill has protections for Oklahoma companies as they compete to match policies offered by other states. He added the National Association of Insurance Commissioners said they are against the federal government mandating such compacts, but they favor each state choosing participation for itself. The bill passed in the Senate 39-4 on March 23 and the House 80-0 on April 27. It returns to the Senate for consideration of the House amendments.

Ballot Access

Oklahoma’s next presidential ballot could have a few more names on it. Senate Bill 145 by Sen. Eddie Fields (R-Wynona ) and Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) would ease access for third-party candidates in presidential races. It would lower the threshold for required for petition names and create a filing fee mechanism that would bypass the petition process altogether. Third parties have been on the up for a few years in Oklahoma. The Legislature passed two bills over the past two years that make elections easier for candidates who are not running as Democrats or Republicans. The bill passed the Senate 41-2 on March 8 and the House 83-0 on April 27. It is on the way to the Governor’s desk for action.

Definition of Marijuana

On April 11, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill amending Oklahoma’s definition of marijuana. With House Bill 1559,by Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) and Sen. Ervin Yen (R-Oklahoma City), any federally approved cannabidiol drug or substance will not be considered marijuana. No cannabidiol drug has been approved yet by the Food and Drug Administration. Removing it from the definition of marijuana clarifies its difference from the illegal drug. It passed the House 80-7 on March 14 and the Senate 44-0 on April 10.

School Accountability System

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister praised the state Senate for approving a new accountability system for public schools. The accountability system fulfills mandates established by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind. Hofmeister said the bill repeals the current – and heavily criticized – school report card system with one that provides usable information for educators and gives parents and communities an accurate view of the important work of schools. House Bill 1693, authored by Rep. Scott Martin (R-Norman) and Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa), passed the House 76-20 on March 9 and the Senate 31-13 April 20. It was sent to the Governor’s office for her signature on April 24.

Four-day School Week

A recent study by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) casts doubt on the assumption that switching to a four-day school week saves money for districts. For the 2016-17 school year, the number of districts on a four-day school week nearly doubled from the previous year. Ninety-seven districts have made the switch, many citing cost savings as a primary reason amid continued budget shortfalls. The study, requested by Gov. Mary Fallin, analyzed expenditures of 16 school districts that have been on a four-day school week for six years. Results indicate that nine districts actually spent more money, on average, after the switch, while cost savings for the remainder were negligible.

House Bill 1684 by Rep. Harold Wright (R-Weatherford) and Sen. Eddie Fields (R-Wynona) would require districts considering a four-day school week to submit a plan to OSDE detailing the goals that the district hopes to accomplish by shortening the school week. Supporters of local control of education opposed the measure. The bill passed the House 53-38 on March 21and the Senate 28-13 on April 19. It returned to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

Pointing of Weapons

Senate Bill 40 by Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair) and Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Lexington )relates to the pointing of weapons. The measure allows armed security guards or armed private investigators licensed by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) pursuant to the Oklahoma Security Guard and Private Investigator Act to point their weapons in the performance of their duties. The measure also provides that a person pointing a weapon at a perpetrator in self-defense or in order to thwart, stop or deter a forcible felony or attempted forcible felony shall not be deemed guilty of committing a criminal act. The bill passed the Senate 36-5 on March 8 and the House 82-8 on April 25. It returned to the Senate for consideration of the House amendments.

Handgun Carry for Public Officials

Senate Bill 6, by Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate) and Jeff Coody (R-Grandfield) would allow the Governor, Lt. Governor, State Auditor and Inspector, Secretary of Sta te, Attorney General, State Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Labor, Insurance Commissioner, Corporation Commissioners, Oklahoma U.S. Senators, and Oklahoma U.S. House of Representative members to carry a firearm while in the pe rformance of their duties if the person has completed a handgun qualification course. It passed the Senate 39-4 on March 2 and the House 73-1 on April 27. It returned to the Senate for consideration of the House amendments.

Inmate Medical Parole

House Bill 1338 by state Rep. Greg Babinec (R-Cushing ) and Sen. Tom Duggar (R-Stillwater) permits an inmate who is 50 years of age or older and is medically frail to be considered for medical parole review. The inmate must be serving time for a nonviolent offense. The decision on early release will remain up to Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board. “The Legislature is fully aware of the prison crisis the state is currently facing,” said Babinec. “This bill could alleviate the overcrowding the Department of Corrections is in the throes of while lessening the agency’s medical bills as well.” Elderly inmates are often some of the most expensive to care for because of the medical conditions that come with increased age. For inmates between the ages of 50 and 69, the Department of Corrections spends an average of $1,353 per inmate every six months. This number climbs to a biannual cost of $7,879 per inmate who is above the age of 80. The bill passed the House 73-16 on March 14 and the Senate 34-5 on April 26. It returned to the Senate for consideration of the House amendments.

Blue Lives Matter

House Bill 1306 Rep. Casey Murdock (R-Felt ) and Sen. James Leewright (R-Depew) creates the Blue Lives Matter in Oklahoma Act of 2017. It provides that any person convicted of, or who pleads guilty or nolo contendere to murder in the first degree of a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or corrections employee while in the performance of their duties, shall be punished by death or life in prison without parole. “With this bill, I cannot make their job any safer, but I can give them and their loved ones the assurance that if they are murdered in the course of doing their jobs, their murderer will be brought to justice,” said Murdock. He was inspired to write this legislation after the tragic events that occurred in Dallas and around the country, where snipers were shooting at law enforcement officers. This bill, however, makes it harder to just get life in prison, said Murdock. Punishment would be either death or life without parole. The bill also requires that an overwhelming amount of mitigating evidence be shown for those convicted to just be given a life sentence. The bill passed the House 73-21 on March 8 and the Senate 46-1 on April 25. It was sent to Governor Fallin for consideration on April 26.

Clarity in Death Penalty Process

House Speaker Pro Tempore Harold Wright (R-Weatherford) and Sen. Anthony Sykes (R-Moore)has authored legislation to clarify how the Oklahoma Department of Corrections would choose the mode of execution in death penalty cases. House Bill 1679 would eliminate the electric chair as a mode of execution while also establishing a hierarchy of execution methods: Lethal Injection, followed by Nitrogen Hypoxia, then Firing Squad, and finally all other forms not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. “Essentially, we are getting rid of the electric chair due to costs and establishing a hierarchy for execution to provide clarity to our department of corrections officials,” said Wright. “This bill has little to do with the administration of the death penalty and more to do with the efficiency of government and our commitment to due process for both the inmate and the victim’s family.” The bill passed the House 74-22 on February 16 and the Senate 40-1 on April 26. It returned to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

Building Code Agency Consolidation

State Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore ) and Sen. James Leewright (R-Depew) would fold a state building code commission into the Oklahoma Construction Industries Board (CIB). House Bill 1168 would place the Oklahoma Uniform Building Code Commission (UBCC) under the CIB, where it originally was placed in 2009, and would eliminate its staff, which McBride said is unnecessary and redundant. The bill would also cut the UBCC fees it collects by at least 25 percent. The UBCC was created to provide statewide minimum building codes, which it adopts every three to four years, said McBride. The commission had a budget of $200,000 in 2009, but that has grown to $950,000. Today, the UBCC has five employees and a lobbyist said McBride. “There is absolutely no reason the functions of the UBCC cannot be assumed by the CIB, and there is certainly no reason this small commission needs a lobbyist, other than to get more taxpayer dollars. This is the way it is with government: the Legislature creates some obscure commission or board, and the next thing you know they have a dozen employees and an annual budget of $5 million. It’s crazy, and frankly, Oklahomans are sick of it.” While McBride and his family have been in the homebuilding business since 1972, he said the bill has nothing to do with being a homebuilder. He said the bill is about being good stewards of limited taxpayer dollars. The bill passed the House 81-5 on March 14, but failed to be reported out of committee in the Senate by the required deadline.

Verify Eligibility for Medicaid and SNAP

House Bill 1270 by Rep. Elise Hall (R-Oklahoma City) and Sen. James Leewright (R-Depew) is the Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone or the HOPE Act. The legislation directs the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) and Department of Human Services to verify, respectively, the initial eligibility of every applicant for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), and to require applicants to complete an identity authentication process. The agencies are also directed to review, on a quarterly basis, information concerning program recipients that may affect their continued eligibility. Further, DHS is prohibited from seeking any waiver of federal work requirements associated with the SNAP program and from establishing resource and income guidelines that exceed federal standards. It passed the House 63-25 on March 22 and the Senate 39-5 on April 26. It returned to the Senate for consideration of the Senate amendments.

Teacher Raises in Government Schools

House Bill 1114, by state Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Atoka) and Sen. Jason Smalley (R-Stroud) , chair of the House Common Education Committee, would include a $1,000 pay raise for teachers during the 2017-18 school year, another $2,000 raise during the 2018-19 school year and a final $3,000 raise during the 2019-20 school year. Rogers said the phased-in approach would allow the Legislature to manage the current revenue downturn while keeping its promise to boost pay for teachers. Every $1,000 increase in teacher pay would cost approximately $52.6 million, said Rogers. Oklahoma already has the third-highest statutory starting minimum teacher pay in the region. Rogers’ plan would raise Oklahoma teacher pay from 48th in the nation to 27th based on recent data from the National Education Association (NEA). When paired with the state’s low cost of living, the plan would move Oklahoma to 13th in the nation for average annual teacher pay at $56,804 (adjusted for cost of living). Oklahoma’s cost of living ranks behind only Mississippi for the lowest in the nation. The bill passed the House 92-7 on March 7. It received a Do Pass in the Senate committee on April 12.

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