Monday, December 31, 2007
While this form of abuse is still present in the legislature, I am confident in predicting that the window on legislative earmarks is shrinking. Those of us who are fighting to put an end to earmarks face the likelihood of success, due in part to the fact that there are many new legislators who have taken office in the past few years. Many of these individuals have not been corrupted by the political process. Unlike some of their predecessors, they are not career politicians. Oklahoma's term limit law allows all representatives and senators to serve only twelve years in the legislature. After that, they are under a lifetime ban from holding office in the legislature again. I believe this new generation of representatives and senators are fulfilling one of the important visions of our nation's founding fathers - the vision in which an average citizen dedicates a few years of life to representing the people as a citizen-statesman. At the end of the term of office, the legislator returns to the normal world to live under the very laws he or she helped to create. This helps ensure legislators will be more representative of the people instead of becoming a class of political elite.
As a result of the term limits law, the legislature is very different from just a few years ago. Gone are many of the old guard power bosses who tightly maintained the status-quo. These politicians could have stayed in office almost indefinitely and they held powerful committee chairmanships where they would bottle up reform-minded legislation. They have been replaced by a group of energetic professionals, many of whom wish to enact pro-growth policies (such as cutting taxes) to change Oklahoma for the better. And, should some succumb to the temptation to become part of the status-quo, they will inevitably be replaced by term limits.
However, State Senator Mary Easily recently announced that she will file a resolution as part of an effort to repeal term limits. If the Senator is successful, starting in 2010, members of the legislature would no longer be limited on how long they could serve.
In response, Senator Owen Lauglin released the following statement. "Thanks to term limits, the Oklahoma Legislature has attracted new legislators who have experience in the 'real world.' There is a different mindset because the newer legislators have come here to serve for a finite time and to make a difference. They don't want to make a career of being in the legislature."
I agree with Senator Lauglin's point of view. I think all Oklahomans should take pride in the fact that Oklahoma was the first state to pass a term limits law. As your Representative, I will continue to defend this important reform.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
One of the most offensive mechanisms used to raid the treasury and redistribute money is that of "earmarking." This is the process through which an influential politician essentially cuts a check from the treasury for some pet program or organization.
US Senator Tom Coburn has experienced increasing success in exposing this policy in federal government. By doing so, he is turning up the heat on politicians and making it uncomfortable for them to continue maintaining the big government status-quo. In state government, politicians will insert an earmark into an appropriations bill with just a few days left in the legislative session. This earmark is then voted on as part of a bigger appropriations bill that is not allowed to be amended. If a legislator dares to vote against the bill, then that legislator may face controversy for appearing to vote against justifiable appropriations in the same bill.
One of the vehicles legislators have used for this policy in the past has been an appropriations bill for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Certain Department of Commerce appropriations would be earmarked to pass through the Department of Commerce to a second government entity, such as one of the regional government councils. The director of the regional government council would than receive a call from the House of Representatives or the Senate. The caller would instruct the director on how he should spend that money. Sometimes the instructions might be for the money to pass to another government entity, or even to a non-government entity. In this way, money took a variety of twists and turns that made it almost impossible for the public to track. Even many legislators had little opportunity to know the purpose for which money was spent. This allowed powerful committee chairs and high ranking legislators to have a tremendous amount of control over dispensing government largess. In some years, the amount of special projects money in the Department of Commerce alone amounted to millions of dollars. It was the discovery of these abuses which led to the federal scrutiny of some former legislators, after it was realized they may have personally profited from this spending.
Earlier this year, the legislature passed and the Governor signed House Bill 1278. On the surface, HB 1278 was just an appropriations bill for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism. But with research, it became obvious that Senate budget negotiators had loaded up the bill with thousands of dollars of pork earmarks, or "pass through" spending. Pass through spending does not really go to the appropriated entity, but is "PASSED THROUGH" to an outside organization. One of the most controversial provisions was an appropriation of $200,000 for a line item known only as "A Pocket Full of Hope." As one Commissioner of the Tourism Department pointed out, there will be little if any opportunity for us to audit these expenditures and see how the money is really spent. Lt. Governor Mary Fallin, who used to be a member of the tourism board, also used her position to call on legislators to reform the system. Sadly, that call appears to have gone unheeded.
I believe it is wrong for politicians to forcefully take people's hard earned money and use it to cut checks for the privileged few. Senator Coburn's courage in standing against earmarks is contagious, and it is my belief that more and more elected officials will begin to take a position against this abuse
Monday, December 17, 2007
During recent weeks, State Representatives have been required to meet several deadlines regarding submission of new legislation. This is a time of opportunity for us to advocate for legislative efforts important to our constituents.
One issue I campaigned for and about which I feel strongly, is requiring state government to televise its proceedings so people can see what is really going on. I have observed that without televised proceedings, it is more difficult for citizens to view legislative events in their proper context. The number of procedural votes and other complicating issues create a cloud of confusion that sometimes allow politicians to take public positions on controversial issues that they in actuality are voting to sabotage.
If proceedings were televised, people would be able to see not only how their elected Representatives voted, but they would have full access to the debate and procedural votes as well. That way, a Representative would have to answer to a more informed electorate when he returned home.
Televising government proceedings has always been an issue I advocated. Nine years ago I decided to become more informed and involved in civic affairs. Following that desire, I attended a number of City Council meetings in both Guthrie and Edmond. The thing I noticed about the Guthrie meetings was that rarely were members of the public in attendance. I concluded that with all the demands faced by Oklahoma's working families, it is difficult for people to set aside time to keep track of government. And,...a government not monitored by the people will certainly face an increased risk of failing to be responsible to the people. I am strongly convinced that when government is televised, just one elected official brave enough to ask tough questions can hold the government responsible, and the people can see what is really transpiring.
In 2001, I campaigned for the Guthrie City Council on a platform of televising Council proceedings. The other City Council members supported this proposal and because of the fantastic dedication of city staff, the Guthrie government channel telecast is now one of the best in the state. If you have not viewed these proceedings, I would suggest you visit cityofguthrie.com and click on the "current city council meeting" link on the front page. This fall, the Guthrie television cameras were rolling as House Speaker Lance Cargill visited Guthrie as part of a town hall meeting. Cargill's visit demonstrated the exciting possibilities of televised government and was an important step in securing the support of House leadership for the proposal to televise state government.
With the assistance of the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) we have refined what I believe is a strong proposal. If enacted, it will broadcast both House and Senate proceedings. If the proposal passes this spring, broadcasting would likely begin with the next legislative session.
It is an honor to work at providing better access to government. Hopefully, the effort will meet with success this legislative session.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Monday, December 10, 2007
One concern I recently heard about from District 31 has been that of the attempt to reverse last year's successes in implementing immigration reform.
When the Governor signed House Bill 1804 earlier this year, it appeared as if most of the debate surrounding illegal immigration would come to a close. However, in the last few weeks, it has become obvious that this is not the case and the issue will again be significant in the upcoming legislative session.
Known as the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizens Act, HB 1804 provided a clear series of reforms to the illegal immigration problem and made Oklahoma the leader in the application of immigration reform.
Key elements of the bill focused on determining work eligibility and encouraging employers to verify legal work status. The bill contained provisions to ensure taxpayer-supported benefits are made available to American citizens and legal immigrants only and gave state and local law enforcement officials the power to enforce federal immigration law – as well as restricting access by illegal aliens to driver’s licenses and ID cards.
The author of the bill, Randy Terrill, has indicated he will follow up 1804 with a bill he is calling the "son of HB 1804.” It would make English the official language in Oklahoma, document how many illegal immigrants attend taxpayer funded schools and provide disincentive for those who come to the United States illegally in order to insure citizenship for their children. Terrill would like to see the state able to refuse to issue birth certificates for these individuals, instead forcing them to request them from the consulate of the parents' nation of origin. The "son of 1804" would provide financial incentives to local law enforcement agencies to send officers to federal immigration training. Terrill also wants a bill that would reverse the recent creation of a permanent and unconditional expansion of the welfare system by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which voted to approve emergency rules granting taxpayer-subsidized medical coverage to pregnant illegal aliens on the theory that the new child will be a U.S. citizen. Up until now, illegal aliens were prohibited from Medicaid prenatal services.
Those who have come to depend on illegal immigrant employees have made it clear that they intend not only to oppose new reforms but to try to reverse some of them.
There is no doubt that advocates who wish to stop reform and maintain the current status quo have deep pockets and will be willing to spend large amounts of money to get their way.
Even so, I am confident there are enough members of the House of Representatives committed to defeating attempts to roll back reforms already passed into law. I am hopeful that future common sense reforms will also be passed and am especially committed to the reform of making English the official language of the State of Oklahoma.
If you would like to visit with Rep. Terrill in person, you will soon have that opportunity. He has agreed to attend one of the House District 31 upcoming "Town Hall" meetings. For more information about these meetings, please visit www.housedistrict31.com or you may call my office at 557-7350.
Monday, December 3, 2007
One of my most enjoyable jobs as State Representative has been providing those I represent with a weekly update on events occurring in State Government. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to respond to feedback from these updates.
Some of the most pronounced and decisive feedback received has been response to the inappropriately high level of compensation received by Oklahoma legislators. In a recent column, I wrote about a controversial decision by the legislative compensation board to give Oklahoma's part time legislators the same medical benefits as Oklahoma state employees. This results in an approximate increase of twelve thousand dollars per year for Oklahoma legislators (although it is important to note that legislators without family dependants will be unable to leverage that amount of money). This is in addition to the third highest pay in the nation for a part time legislature, a large per diem expense reimbursement for some legislators, and a retirement system that is paying some retired elected officials more than they made while holding office.
The feedback I have received on this issue has come from people representing a wide range of professions and walks of life who are outraged at paying a high level of taxes inappropriately spent in this manner.
While I agree and sympathize 100% with this outrage, I believe it is important to communicate some good news and acknowledge that there are efforts to bring change to the system.
One of these efforts was launched this year by Edmond State Representatives Ken Miller and Marion Cooksey. Miller and Cooksey proposed a bill that would enable legislators to opt out of the state insurance program, presumably to be covered by their own employment plans. This would save taxpayers thousands of dollars. The bill passed the House but was inexplicably tied up in the Senate.
An effort by Representative Trebor Worthen to deny retirement benefits to legislators who commit a felony was successfully voted into law. This common sense legislation was necessitated by the revelation that former Senator Gene Stipe was still eligible for thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds.
Earlier this year I submitted legislation that would lower the pay of Oklahoma legislators to the average salary of Oklahomans and keep it indexed to that average. I believe this would provide the important free market concept of incentive to Oklahoma legislators to support pro-growth policies, such as elimination of the state income tax. However, because this proposal requires a large upfront cut in legislative salaries, it faces an uphill battle.
As always, I am committed to supporting common sense reforms regarding how your taxpayer dollars are spent.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The bill, which I carried on the Senate floor, was a tax incentive benefiting companies that drill deep gas wells. These are the very gas wells being drilled all across the Senate district I represent and much of southeastern Oklahoma. These wells might not have been drilled except for the incentives I support and these activists oppose.
Monday, November 26, 2007
I believe the property tax to be the most unfair form of taxation. This tax punishes a person for simply daring to own something and taxes them over and over again for the same property.
In 2007, I co-authored a bill by Oklahoma City State Representative Guy Liebmann which would have decreased the 5% assessment increase cap to 3% or the increase in the consumer price index, whichever is lower. Liebmann's bill passed in the House but, unfortunately, has been held up in the Senate. It is my hope that the Senate will take action on the bill this year, as it is clear that people are getting more and more frustrated with the increases they are experiencing. As property taxes continue to rise, more citizens are being priced into buying a house beneath what they could otherwise afford. Others are faced with the dilemma of whether to sell their property or pay the high tax rate. The challenges faced by individuals with fixed incomes is forcing the legislature to make exceptions to the number of people who have to pay increased rates. These exceptions place the burden of paying property tax onto a shrinking base of property owners.
While the average property tax bill has shot skyward, the homestead exemption which allows homeowners to pay a lower bill has not increased over the years. Logan County Commissioner Mark Sharpton has requested that I propose legislation which would increase homestead exemption. I also plan to propose indexing homestead exemption to the consumer price index so that over time, the exemption will continue to grow with inflation.
The passage of these two pieces of legislation would be a good start to slowing the increase of property taxes. However, in order to have true reform and property tax reduction, we must address the problem at its source. Approximately 85% of property taxes go to Oklahoma's education system. This money is in addition to the approximate amount of 3.5 billion dollars that we appropriate for common and higher ed. A report by the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs demonstrates that Oklahoma taxpayers probably spend about $12,000 per year for each student we educate.
Oklahoma should offer a $4,000 tax credit to those parents who choose to educate their children in the private sector where they can receive a more cost-effective education. This would empower parents with the ability to determine where their children receive an education (one of the most important choices a parent will make) and would save taxpayers about two-thirds of the cost we are now paying. This common sense move would allow for dramatic reduction in property taxation and significantly shrink the size of state government. Smaller state government means the government will have less influence over our lives, an important value I believe most Oklahomans share. This is one of the reforms I am committed to supporting as your State Representative.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Just like Deena and me, my parents were told they could never have children. All that changed on Thanksgiving Weekend 1963, and this story is one that gave Deena and me hope during our struggle to become parents.
Bear in mind that this happened when medical science was not as advanced as it is today. My parents had been married for three years, and mom taught home economics at Calera High School.
Doctors told my mother she could not bear children. Despite every effort known to medical science at the time, Mom was given the same prognosis Deena and I once heard: "You cannot have children."
In early 1963, my mother started feeling unwell. Countless trips to doctors followed and several series of tests were inflicted upon her. Specialists in Dallas and Oklahoma City were stumped.
Mom thought she might be expecting, but every test available at the time came back "negative."
Monday, November 19, 2007
The decision reminded me of when I was in grade school and our principal told us the story of how at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin spoke in opposition to paying a salary to the President. Franklin stated, "There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it." My principal felt that Franklin's point of view was correct and his story instilled in me the belief that is important for public service to be a sacrifice and not an occupation.
I believe another important principle felt by our founding fathers is that of the "citizen legislature." Instead of having a government that is run by professionally paid politicians, the government should be overseen by a group of citizens who are "sacrificing" a few years of their lives to do their duty as citizens. Once that duty is performed, those citizens will return to the populace to live under the same laws they helped to make.
There is little doubt that Oklahoma's legislators currently make enough at their jobs for their work to be considered an occupation. Oklahoma possess the third highest paid part time legislature in the nation and it appears that when cost of living is factored in, they are the highest paid part-time legislators in the nation. Oklahoma's elected officials have fantastic retirement benefits. An Oklahoma elected official who stays in some sort of state position for 25 years will likely make a higher salary in retirement than he or she made in office. And now, Oklahoma's part-time elected officials will share the same benefits plan that full-time state employees have.
There are those who will state that in order for us to attract top talent to Oklahoma's legislature, we should pay a high salary. I respond to these arguments by pointing out that although Oklahoma has had one of the highest paid legislatures for many years, the state still appears to trail other states in many of the key indicators of economic health. Conversely, a state like Texas, which pays its legislators approximately 1/7th of the salary Oklahoma pays, fares much better economically. This seems to suggest that strong economic prosperity correlates better with low legislative pay.
Others will suggest that a highly paid legislature is less susceptible to bribery. In response I simply point out Oklahoma's history of legislative corruption, including the ongoing fallout from the federal prosecution of former Senator Gene Stipe and his legislative allies. It seems to me that a significant legislative stipend only wets the appetite of Oklahoma's leaders for more money.
I believe as did Franklin that public service should be a major sacrifice for those seeking it. I am committed to supporting legislation that would bring Oklahoma closer to this goal.
Monday, November 12, 2007
As a member of the House of Representative's Transportation Committee I was able to closely observe one of the most controversial issues of the past legislative session. At issue is Oklahoma's membership in a group known as the North America SuperCorridor Coalition (NASCO), the desire of big corporations to enhance the movement of Chinese-manufactured goods throughout North America, the possible privatization of new state and federal highways, NASCO's desire to deploy sophisticated tracking devices along I-35 and clear attempts towards the creation of a closer economic and political union between Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The depth of this subject matter is nearly overwhelming and because of it's complexity I only have time to talk about a small segment of it in this update. I take the duty of informing my constituents of these events very seriously and thus look forward to continuing to update you on these issues in the future.
In last week's update I talked about what I feel is the inappropriate and frightening alliance of big business with big government. Nowhere is this abuse more clear than when big companies buy long term leases of public roads. You can only imagine how your power as a citizen is minimized when a big (and likely foreign owned) corporation has complete control over a public road on which you depend in order to get where you need to go.
The issue of private ownership of public roads is in its infancy in Oklahoma but growing after Texas has planned out the construction of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) network over the next 50 years to be financed by Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, S.A., (Cintra) a foreign investment consortium based in Spain. Cintra will own the leasing and operating rights on TTC highways for 50 years after the construction is complete.
The TTC initiative begun in 2002 focused on building a superhighway parallel to Interstate 35. It seems that proponents of this privately owned super transit corridor intend on linking Mexican ports through Oklahoma to an inland port to be located in Kansas City and from there to various distribution points throughout North America.
A communist Chinese owned company known as Hutchison Ports Holdings is paying billions to deepen the Mexican ports of Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas in anticipation of the arrival of container mega-ships capable of holding up to 12,500 containers currently being built for Chinese shipping lines. These ports would likely serve as a starting point for Chinese goods that would be distributed into the United States along the super highway corridor.
The aforementioned group, NASCO, is not only advocating for an I-35 trade corridor but is also pushing for the creation of a tracking system known as NAFTRACS to be put in place along I-35. This technology would be developed in part by a joint venture owned by Hutchison Ports Holdings. NAFTRACS has been described by NASCO as a program that provides management tools for mitigating or minimizing traffic congestion and collecting the status of certain items in transit. The data generated by these sensors would be shared with the joint venture although it is not clear if the data would be shared with the Chinese government owners of the joint interest. In May of this year, NASCO requested that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation sign a letter stating that ODOT was looking forward to participating in the tracking program.
During the last legislative session it was discovered that Oklahoma is a dues paying member of NASCO. In other words your taxpayer dollars are helping finance this organization. In the next few weeks Senator Randy Brogden (R-Owasso) will be filing a bill which I intend to co-sponsor that will remove Oklahoma from theNASCO coalition. And, as your Representative I am committed to opposing any attempts to allow private ownership of public roads.
Monday, November 5, 2007
I have always articulated the common sense belief that the best way to reduce the size of government is through reducing the level of taxation. With less money, the government will naturally tend to prioritize the limited number of functions it should be involved in and leave the rest to the free market. I have also observed that groups who oppose tax relief are probably afraid of having a pet program of their own de-funded by this prioritization process.
It has become clear that the leadership of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce understands this viewpoint all too well. And, shockingly, they appear to fear that if state government continues to cut taxes, one of their pet programs may not be funded to their level of satisfaction.
The pet program is known as the Oklahoma Opportunity Fund. It is funded with $45 million of our taxpayer dollars. Most of that money has already been spent. Because the manner in which the fund was created has been ruled unconstitutional, the sole discretion for how the money is spent appears to have been left to Governor Brad Henry. Henry recently approved spending $10 million out of the fund on improvements benefiting a privately owned airline.
In opposing the continuation of tax relief for Oklahomans, the economic development director of the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce said, "I would take the Opportunity Fund over future tax cuts in a heartbeat."
I do not believe it is right for the government to take money away from taxpayers and give it to targeted businesses. I certainly do not think it is right that politicians are given the power to play God when it comes to deciding who the winners are in the business world. The process of government subsidizing business operations is completely contrary to the important free market principles that empower consumers to decide who will be successful, based on which business is providing the best product at the best price.
I do not believe it is appropriate for chambers of commerce to advocate for a fund that benefits such a small number of business. This is at the expense of all the hard working business owners across Oklahoma who are forced to pay high taxes which inhibit their ability to grow their own businesses.
And, I do not think it is right or fair for Opportunity Fund money to be used to entice new businesses to move to Oklahoma when they will be competing with businesses that are already in Oklahoma. Taxing one business and then giving money to a competitor is not right.
This latest position reflects one more step in what is becoming a disturbing trend. Big business is partnering with and being empowered by big government. I believe it is important for the small business members of the Chambers of Commerce across Oklahoma to reassert themselves and reclaim control of the organization that is supposed to represent all Oklahoma businessmen, not a select few.
This weekend, Americans will stop to honor the men and women who secure the freedom we enjoy as a birthright. Veterans Day is a special holiday, and while this is an addition to my regular "Senate Minute" blog, I wanted to share my Veterans Day Address from the 2006 Durant Veterans Day Ceremony with regular readers of the Oklahoma Legislators' Blog.
This is a weekend to honor and remember those who sacrifice so that we may be free. May God bless our veterans, and may God bless the United States of America.
Jay Paul Gumm
Senator, District 6
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The program includes an organized system for not only processing incoming constituent casework, but reaching out and generating opportunities for constituent concerns to be addressed. It also includes a network of constituent advisory committees, a weekly legislative update, an end of session report, a post-session door to door tour of the district, and targeting growth areas for new voter registration.
I have enjoyed implementing this program. It has allowed me to make a great number of new contacts, and most importantly, has kept me in contact with citizens. I feel that one of the ways special interest lobbyists have been able to have such a strong voice in state government has been because of a strong disconnect between the people and the "state capitol" environment. I think the proper focus for a state representative should be in his or her district, with the people, as opposed to lobbyist hosted events in Oklahoma City.
One of the most exciting aspects of the program is a series of town hall meetings I have scheduled in order to communicate with local residents on a number of issues. Other state and local officials plan to be present also. I encourage all who are interested to attend.
In September, the Guthrie Lions Club graciously hosted the first such meeting in Guthrie with Speaker of the House of Representatives, Lance Cargill. This meeting allowed attendees to share with Cargill their ideas for how Oklahoma government should look in the next century. These ideas are now posted online at 100ideasok.org.
On November 6th, at 7:00 pm, the second forum will be held at the Philadelphia Church of God field house at Bryant and Simmons Roads. The meeting will focus on road related issues and property tax reform. Attendees will include State Senator Patrick Anderson, Logan County Commissioner Mark Sharpton and Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Casey Shell.
On December 4th, at 7:00 pm, the third forum will occur at Woodcrest Fire Station at Douglas and Charter Oak Roads. This meeting will also focus on road related issues. County Commissioner Kevin Leech will be attending.
On January 15th, at 7:00 pm, the fourth forum will be be held at Pioneer Telephone in Crescent. The meeting will focus on the upcoming legislative session and all issues of relevance to Northern Logan County residents. State Senator Patrick Anderson will be in attendance. County Commissioner Monty Piercy may also be present.
On January 22nd, at 7:00 pm, the fifth forum will occur at Waterloo Road Baptist Church. The meeting will focus on tax reform issues. Attending will be Representative Randy Terrill, who as Chairman of the House Revenue and Tax Committee, is a leader in the fight for tax reform.
I look forward to these meetings and the opportunity to communicate with Logan and Oklahoma County residents on the issues important to them.
Monday, October 22, 2007
When designing the new house committee system, house leadership structured the system so that members of the committees could really focus on specialized areas of committee work. They did this by giving the committees both appropriation and policy oversight in their respective areas. It has been exciting to serve as Vice-Chairman of a committee where I could specialize in an area in which there is a core purpose for government involvement.
In this role, I recently joined Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Robert Doke and a delegation of state government and firefighting officials in visiting the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There we met with FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison. Administrator Paulson was complimentary of the manner in which Oklahoma officials have handled past emergencies and is supportive of the efforts made in developing additional emergency readiness.
One of the reasons for meeting with Paulison related to developing a truly interoperable 800mhz statewide emergency communications system to allow officials in different agencies to communicate with one another. This issue was perhaps the most controversial that our committee considered in the past year.
The development of the 800mhz system took on added importance after the 2006 Oklahoma wildfires. During this emergency, responders had enormous difficulty communicating and organizing an effective response because there is no statewide system through which responders from one county or region can communicate with another. Law enforcement would also greatly benefit from a system that would allow the highway patrol to communicate with local officers when responding to incidents.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has provided nearly $30 million to Oklahoma in federal funds to set up an 800mhz system along the Interstate 44 corridor which would cover the state's most populous areas. However, the state would need $130 million more in order to cover the entire state. While millions have been spent on the current system, it appears as if the usage of that system is still limited to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. This defeats the obvious purpose of the 800mhz system, which should be to allow all police and fire entities to talk to each other. It is difficult to justify why so many millions of dollars have been spent on a project that does not accomplish the main purpose for which it should be intended.
I believe that new options should be considered for a more cost-effective, internet-based communications system similar to OneNet, the system the State Regents for Higher Education use to provide high-speed communications to Oklahoma entities such as public schools, colleges, universities and local, tribal, state and federal governments. OneNet utilizes fiber optics and wireless technologies to transmit video, voice and data throughout Oklahoma.
This year I co-sponsored a bill authored by Representative Charles Key that would have begun the process of developing an internet based system. While the Key Bill is still pending in committee, it is clear that more state officials are beginning to get on board with the plan to develop a less expensive, but truly interoperable system. This important reform can't happen soon enough, as I believe millions of taxpayer dollars would be saved.
As your State Representative I remain committed to working for the enactment of these types common sense reforms.
Monday, October 15, 2007
A board of unelected state officials recently shocked some of us in the legislature by taking action to approve a proposal to spend taxpayer dollars in the creation of a permanent and unconditional expansion of the welfare system. This was in violation of the clear legislative intent expressed in this year's illegal immigration reform bill.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which administers Oklahoma's Medicaid program, voted to approve emergency rules granting taxpayer-subsidized medical coverage to pregnant illegal aliens on the theory that the new child will be a U.S. citizen upon birth. As it is now, illegal aliens are prohibited from Medicaid prenatal services.
This is being done despite the fact that federal law dictates this action may occur only after a state's legislature has given approval. The Oklahoma Legislature has not authorized any expansion of Medicaid for illegal aliens.
Making matters worse, Governor Brad Henry indicated he will sign off on this expansion of the welfare system. In taking this action, the OHCA board and Governor Henry seem to be saying that the taxpayers of Oklahoma should be forced to act as a welfare state for the rest of the world. Oklahoma will join only 12 other states across the nation who have a program like this.
The financial impact of this decision will be about $3 million a year, with $1.19 million coming directly from state funds and the rest from our federal tax dollars. The Oklahoma Health Care Authority reports it is delivering 2,767 babies each year to illegal parents, which costs state taxpayers in excess of $8 million.
This action is likely to provide additional enticement for illegal immigration into the United States. If an illegal alien can give birth to in America, the child automatically becomes an American citizen. When the child turns 18, he or she can in turn sponsor relatives for permanent U.S. residency. By using taxpayer dollars to fund this process, state government is directly enabling those who wish to bypass immigration laws.
It is my strong belief that this is yet another example of how harmful situations are produced by big government. As citizens, we have allowed government to take so much money from us in the form of massive taxation that it has become almost impossible to hold government responsible for their decisions on how the money is spent.
I also question the timing of the emergency rule approval. I do not feel it is a coincidence that the "emergency" occurred just days before House Bill 1804, the Illegal Immigration Reform Bill, takes effect.
It appears the Health Care Authority unsuccessfully attempted to extend prenatal coverage to illegal aliens through the Legislature for the past two years. Now, however, the recent vote seems to be an end-run around the clear will of the people's elected officials.
I believe we will be successful in reversing the decision during the next session of the legislature. I will certainly support the effort to keep your tax dollars from being misused in regard to this issue.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Hello again, everybody! In some cases, it takes years of effort to get a good idea all the way through the Legislature. The back-to-school sales tax holiday was one of those good ideas.
Now, a new battle is looming: the effort to remove state sales taxes on groceries. It is morally wrong to tax food for families. It is even more wrong given the fact that the sales tax on groceries puts a heavier burden on middle- and lower-income families than on anyone else.
The wealthy and the not-so-wealthy all have to pay the same dollar amount on the food they need to keep their family alive. The reason the grocery tax is unfair to middle- and lower-income Oklahomans is because paying the tax costs them a greater percentage of their income.
Middle- and lower-income families also spend a greater percentage of their income on necessities like groceries than the wealthy. That creates for most Oklahoma families a “double-whammy.”
Removing the state’s sales tax on groceries will help level the playing field, ensuring no one is asked to carry more than their share of the burden of funding state government. For me, it is a matter of simple fairness.
This ought to be the most popular of tax cuts – one you see whenever you buy food for your family; but it faces an uncertain future. A strange alliance doomed it in years past; that alliance will again join forces to keep you paying the state sales tax on bread and milk.
There are some who don’t think we should cut any tax at all. Naturally, they oppose removing the state sales tax on groceries. Still, there aren’t enough of them to kill it by themselves.
They team up with those who believe the first tax we should reduce or repeal is the income tax. Reducing the income tax alone is not a bad idea – until you look at the numbers.
The wealthiest among us would unfairly benefit more by reducing the state income tax. Here’s how reducing the income tax instead of the sales tax on groceries will widen the divide between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy.
Reducing the state income tax by one percent would cut taxes by $10,000 for someone making a million dollars a year. A family getting by on $20,000 would save only $200. That’s terribly unfair.
Now, let’s look at the grocery tax. Say a family has to spend $500 a month at the grocery store. Over the course of a year, every family – wealthy or not-so-wealthy – would save $270. That’s fair, and helps those who need it most.
If we are going to cut taxes, let’s cut one that will make a real difference in the budgets of real families. The state grocery tax needs to end, and it needs to end now.
Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.
Monday, October 8, 2007
This fall the House will impanel what I believe to be one of the most important studies of the legislative interim. Representative Ken Miller from Edmond, Vice-Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, will lead a study into consolidating state government agencies.
Last week in my constituent update, I wrote that in order for Oklahoma to compete with Texas for economic development, I believe we must eliminate the state income tax. Eliminating this tax can occur in much faster order if we also do the right thing and cut the size of state government.
Miller's committee is charged with making recommendations to do just that. Speaker of the House Lance Cargill has indicated he is determined to incorporate the findings of Miller's committee into legislation next year.
In order to lay the groundwork for the consolidation study, Speaker Cargill commissioned the House Staff to compare the size of Oklahoma government to the government in surrounding states.
This was not the easiest job, because believe it or not, no official count of the number of state agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) is even kept by state government. Can you imagine what would happen to a private business in the free market if it could not provide an official accounting of its organizational structure?
In fact, the size of Oklahoma government is so big that the only way to count the number of Oklahoma state agencies is to use a publication of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries which lists contact information for state officials.
The house study returned some shocking results. When Oklahoma was compared with 5 other states of similar size, it was determined that Oklahoma had 515 ABCs, while the other five states of Kentucky, Arkansas, Iowa, Oregon and Kansas averaged 210 ABCs each. The number of ABCs in Oklahoma is almost two and one half times the size of comparable states.
Not surprisingly, the study found that Oklahoma's ABCs have grown at a steady pace over time. In 1957 there were 115 ABCs, in 1977 there were 215 and in 1997 there were 470.
Since 1928 there have been no less than seven statewide studies that recommended reorganization of state government and a reduction of ABCs. Yet there is little record that any action was taken on those reports.
It is my hope that Representative Miller's study will be the first such study to be acted on in a significant manner. I believe it is our duty as legislators to honor the desire of Oklahomans for smaller government. I am committed to helping Miller and Cargill make this desire become reality.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
One of the issues I have long advocated is the need for state government to eliminate the progressive state income tax. I think it is bad policy for the government to tax someone for earning money. I believe this takes away incentive for individuals to work hard and be productive, especially when the benefits of relying on welfare are so substantial. I also believe it is difficult for Oklahoma to compete with Texas for economic growth when there is no income tax in Texas.
This year the legislature cut the uppermost income tax percentage to 5.5%. However, this number was far short of the effort launched by the Chairman of the House Revenue and Tax Committee, Representative Randy Terrill of Moore. Terrill, who has been one of the foremost advocates for eliminating the income tax originally sought to lower the top tax rate to 4.65% by 2009. While the Terrill effort was approved by the House Revenue and Tax Committee, it was later sidelined in favor of the 5.5% rate.Terrill is continuing the effort to reduce the income tax by holding a series of hearings with his committee.
During one of the recent hearings, Phil Kerpen, the national policy director for Americans for Prosperity told the committee that Oklahoma cannot afford to stop the effort to lower the income tax if Oklahoma wants to continue to attract new citizens and businesses. He explained that Oklahoma is not just competing with other states, but is competing in a global economy. There is a 6% corporate tax rate in Oklahoma on top of a 35% federal rate, for a combined 41% corporate tax rate. When the state franchise tax is added in, there is a 43% effective tax rate on companies that do business in Oklahoma - all this before their officers even have to consider paying personal income tax.
Kerpen said that in Europe the average corporate tax is about 25%. In some Asian countries it is even lower. The idea that people can be taxed at whatever rate the government wants and continue to stay and pay high taxes is an antiquated one. People are very mobile and capital is even more mobile. If Oklahoma is going to compete in the global economy and succeed, we need a much lower tax rate.
Between 1980 and 2006, Oklahoma’s real Gross Domestic Product growth lagged behind all neighboring states, according to figures referenced by Kerpen. Oklahoma’s real GDP growth during that period was less than half the rate experienced in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado. Private job growth in Oklahoma lagged far behind Texas, New Mexico and Colorado from 1990 to 2006 as well.
Kerpen also stated that the individual income tax rate is one of the real drivers that determine where people decide to live, how many hours they work and how many businesses they start. It has an incentive effect on all sorts of economic activity. The more you tax people, the less reward they have for working, saving and investing. The result is that they do less in all of those areas. Legislators claim to understand the link between taxes and behavior when it comes to things like cigarette taxes, which are touted as a way to reduce smoking. But for some reason, many lawmakers ignore the fact that taxes on income have the same effect.
The House Revenue and Taxation Subcommittee is expected to conduct several more meetings on the tax issue through November and hear from other national experts. Hopefully, these hearings will continue to bring attention to the need for true state tax reform.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Hello again, everybody! Over the next several weeks, the celebration of Oklahoma’s Centennial will be in full swing.
Compared to most of our neighboring states, Oklahoma is young. In fact, most communities in my Senate district are older than Oklahoma. As young as Oklahoma is, it is remarkable what we have achieved.
During my recent tour of area schools, one question almost always came up. “What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Oklahoma?”
For me, the answer is simple. Our biggest challenge is simply believing in ourselves and our state. For much of our short history, Oklahomans have been convinced that our state cannot compete and win – except on the football field.
That thinking has its roots in the dark days of the Dust Bowl, when thousands of Oklahomans were forced off the land and had to make their way to what they hoped would be greener pastures in other states. Our struggles dampened our spirit, and that was difficult to overcome.
In fact, a recent governor spent a great deal of time and effort telling everything that was wrong with our state, both in travels around Oklahoma and across the nation. I see our state as being kind of like a family; you don’t air your dirty laundry where everyone can see it.
Certainly, our state has challenges; we can do better in so many areas. But, to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive has a troubling affect.
Our achievements as a state can get overshadowed by efforts at partisan politics – and neither side is completely innocent in that effort. Sometimes in politics, the trick is to make the other side look so bad that your side gets the votes by default. While that sometimes might be a good political strategy, it is a poor foundation on which to base a state’s future.
More important than the political fortunes of either party is the futures of the children who will live most, if not all, of their lives in Oklahoma’s second century. We all have a responsibility to fight for policies we believe will give that new generation of Oklahomans more opportunity and a better chance to become everything God intended for them to become.
This is an unusual “Senate Minute”; I am not writing about any specific issue, nor am I taking a stand on any particular subject. My point is this: as we debate how best to build a bright future, I believe we have a responsibility to conduct those debates in an environment that moves us forward as much as the policies we consider.
While that may be a tall order, I believe a state that accomplished as much as we have in only 100 years is more than up to the challenge.
Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.
Monday, September 24, 2007
In 2002, while campaigning for Governor, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry campaigned on a platform of financing Oklahoma public education through creation of the Oklahoma lottery. The lottery concept appears to have been presented to Oklahomans as a magic bullet to cure Oklahoma's education challenges, not unlike the House Bill 1017 sales tax increase, which was also presented to Oklahoma voters as an education solution. The lottery was to provide $500 million to the education system.
It is in fact generating only about $70 million per year for public education. This represents about 14% of the money originally predicted. For instance, in fiscal year 2008 lottery revenue will make up only around 2% - 3% of the amount state government gives to the local school districts in Crescent, Guthrie and Edmond. Worse still, Oklahoma politicians, in their haste to spend the money, have incurred millions of dollars of long term debt that must be paid back out of those revenues.
Since the lottery is performing so badly, in a move to cut costs, the Oklahoma Lottery Commission has moved its offices upstairs, turned the first floor of their building into rental space and opted not to refill four vacant staff positions.
Director Jim Scroggins and other officials with the Lottery Commission have announced that in order to cope with these issues, they will ask lawmakers to cut education funding by diverting some of the lottery revenue from education. Commission officials want part of the money spent for administrative costs and promotional efforts instead of public schools. Commission officials have been arguing for the diversion since last March.
The plan has met with strong opposition from leadership in the House of Representatives. Representative Chris Benge from Tulsa, who chairs the Appropriations and Budget Committee stated that "The voters of Oklahoma were told lottery profits would go to our schools and any effort to divert that money is a violation of the voters' trust."
In explaining the shortfall, Scroggins said the Oklahoma lottery competes with Indian gaming for revenue. According to the Office of State Finance, gross revenue from casinos in fiscal year 2007 was $777 million, compared to the approximate gross of $215 million spent on the Oklahoma lottery (with $70 million being sent to education).
I appreciate and support the leadership shown by Chairman Benge in keeping our commitment to the voters.
I expect that the failure of the lottery will lead lottery proponents to continue to propose various forms of lottery expansion, such as the addition of video lottery, Keno and pull-tabs. I also believe an effort will be made for the State of Oklahoma to compete with the tribes by getting into the casino business through the operation of state owned casinos.
In my view, growth of state sponsored gambling, combined with tribal gambling, will encourage Oklahoma politicians to call for expanding the welfare safety net for the poor, the largest societal group negatively affected by gambling losses.
We saw the results of similar expansion this year as legislators increased Medicaid eligibility limits, spending millions of your tax dollars in the process. How much sense does it make for government to seek to enhance government revenue by growing a gambling system that takes money from the poor, while at the same time spending millions on an increasing welfare system?
It appears to me that the primary net result of this bizarre, circular chain of events is an increase of government spending and government influence over people's lives.
Rather than conniving new ways to make money for government, state leaders should focus on diminishing the size and influence of government. I believe we all win when government interference in our lives is lessened. I am committed to supporting policies that achieve this goal.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Monday, September 17, 2007
This week Logan County residents will have a chance to participate in an exciting centennial event. They also may be able to help shape the way Oklahoma state government operates for the next 100 years.
This Thursday night, September 20, at 7:00 pm, a forum will be held at Guthrie city hall in the city council chambers. Known as the "100 Ideas Program," the forum will be constituted to raise ideas and suggestions from attendees for changes to Oklahoma government.
The program is the idea of Speaker of the House Lance Cargill, from Harrah. Cargill has appointed former State Representative Thad Balkman to head the program and hold meetings all across Oklahoma in order to generate as many ideas for change as possible. Following these meetings a book will be published containing some of the ideas. The publication can then be used by the legislature for possible legislative action in the future.
Earlier this year, Speaker Cargill used the occasion of his opening address to the House of Representatives to announce the 100 Ideas Program and encouraged legislators to support and contribute to the program. The Speaker expressed his desire to ensure that all Oklahomans have an opportunity to provide their input on how they would like to see business conducted in Oklahoma during the next 100 years.
At the close of this year's legislative session, Representative Balkman asked State Representatives to facilitate a forum in their home districts. Speaker Cargill expressed his belief that there could not be a more appropriate place to have this centennial year event than in the county that hosted Oklahoma's first capitol.
The leadership of the Guthrie Lions' Club graciously agreed to host the event in conjunction with the Guthrie Chamber of Commerce. On behalf of the Lions' Club, Former State Representative Frank Davis and Wayne Elder have filled the important role of ensuring that the proper local support is provided to the 100 Ideas Organization.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the program is that a live telecast will be provided of the event on the City of Guthrie government channel (Channel 20 on Cox).
Representative Balkman has indicated that of all of the similar forums held across Oklahoma, this will be the first 100 Ideas Forum that will be televised in this manner.
I believe one of most important changes that can be applied to state government is opening up government proceedings to the people through C-SPAN for state government. In advocating for the creation of the state government telecast, I have pointed to the success of the local Guthrie government television channel. Having the 100 Ideas Program on local television is a demonstration of this success.
I encourage everyone to attend the 100 Ideas Program and to offer plenty of ideas for the reform of Oklahoma government.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
His California policies really are not in step with the concerns we have here in Oklahoma. He often has been a fiercely partisan member of his political party while describing his own politics as “post-partisan.”
Even so, this last week Governor Schwarzenegger gave a speech that got my attention, not only for what he said but where he said it. In a speech given to the California Republican Convention, he sent a message both parties should hear. “Our party,” he said, “has lost the middle and we will not regain true political power until we get it back.”
With that one sentence, the governor described one of the biggest problems with politics today. We see it in every level of politics, even in the presidential race. In the races for both the Democratic and Republican nominations, candidates try to appeal to the most extreme groups in their respective parties.
Those with extreme positions control the nomination process in both parties. The extremists are the most motivated, give the most money, and often work the hardest in primary races. Once the Democratic and Republican nominees are known and the party conventions conclude, the nominees move toward the political center to reach out to the rest of us.
Because of this polarization, it is no surprise to see the number of those registering “Independent” growing faster than ever. The two parties bend so much to the will of those with extreme positions that more and more people feel like the parties are leaving them with no place to turn.
Registering Independent is one way to protest, and we are seeing more relatively new voters take that step. That is even true in the Senate district I represent.
For example, 19 percent of the registered voters I represent in the 25- to 34-year old age group are registered as Independent. There are more registered Independents in that age group than there are registered Republicans. In fact, voters over the age of 65 are the only age group in which Independent registration is not growing.
An even more disturbing byproduct the polarization of both parties is that our voter turnout continues to shrink. Many disenchanted by the partisan divide do not even vote. Their voices are silenced because they are drowned out by those with extreme positions. Democracy suffers because of that.
When I was elected, I was elected to represent everyone in my district. For as long as you allow me to serve as your senator, I will fight for those issues that make our future brighter regardless of what the extremists may think. For me, that commitment is far more important than currying favor with extremists in either party.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Anyone who travels Waterloo Road as it crosses under Interstate 35 around 8 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. should be able to attest to the need for a solution to the gridlock created by the increased traffic burden at this intersection. In the morning westbound traffic backs up towards Pine and commuters are forced to wait for access to the southbound on-ramp. In the evenings the I-35 off-ramp backs up and those traveling home from work are forced to wait for access onto Waterloo road.
This traffic jam causes some drivers to avoid the intersection altogether by traveling county maintained side roads. This extra traffic places an additional burden on our county roadways.
As a candidate and an office holder I have been approached by residents of this area who have indicated that the problems created by the intersection have caused serious traffic-related concerns. Those who are forced to traverse this intersection have been clear in their desire for a solution to the problem.
I believe that the ultimate solution would be the creation of a new on and off ramp at Charter Oak Road and I-35. However, in the short term it has been made clear that the exchange at I-35 and Waterloo Road should be re-worked.
Earlier this year I asked ODOT officials to check into the situation. Based on their study of the problems created by traffic at the Waterloo Road/I-35 overpass they have recommended re-working the flow of traffic under the underpass. The recommendation includes the placement of two three-way stops on each side of the interstate. This solution would give those who are traveling from the east clear access to enter I-35 going south. It would also provide direct access to Waterloo Road for those exiting off of I-35.
Since receiving word of the ODOT recommendation I have requested the input of a number of individuals who commute through this intersection. Their feedback has been mixed. Some feel the addition of the new stop signs will simply slow traffic down and create more congestion. Others feel that the signage will allow quicker access and as such provide a solution.
On Monday the Transportation Commission officially approved the recommendation. Thus, the new signage should be in place shortly. I respectfully request your input and feedback on how you feel this solution affects the flow of traffic either positively or negatively. If the desired solution is not realized there are certainly other options that could be explored including the placement of traffic lights and possibly the widening of lanes.
I am always happy to assist constituents with traffic-related concerns. Please do not hesitate to inform me of other areas in Logan and Oklahoma counties where there is a need for a similar solution.