Monday, June 30, 2008

Failing to Pave County Roads

Earlier this year, I wrote to you about House Bill 3342 which purported to fix a problem with the way roads are funded in Oklahoma. Each year, about $447 million are collected in motor vehicle fees. These fees are then used for the state government's general fund. House Bill 3342 would have redirected $227 million of this money back to funding roads, where it belongs.

I have always strongly supported using all road-related user fees for the purpose of funding roads. A recent survey of House District 31 constituents found that an overwhelming number feel the same way.

It is important to note that many section line roads remain unpaved. For example, according to recently produced facts, approximately 16% of Logan county roads are hard surfaced. Of the 229 county-maintained bridges, 125 are structurally deficient and 8 are functionally obsolete. Only 30% of county roads in the entire state of Oklahoma are hard surfaced.

This problem is set to worsen, as the Legislature was unfortunately not willing to make the hard choice of redirecting the user fees back to their proper place. Instead, the Legislature took the financially irresponsible step of issuing new debt and approved a bond issue of $25 million. It appears that the $25 million will be set aside in a special fund available to County Commissioners who can borrow from it if their projects are approved by a majority of Commissioners within their regional Circuit Engineering Districts. Not only must this money be paid back, but it appears that it will not have a significant impact on paving roads. The fund is supposed to beavailable to Commissioners in time of emergency.

Remember that state government sits on its $500 million reserve fund which is supposed to be used in times of emergencies. I feel that it is nothing short of insanity to place the taxpayers in debt for the next 15 years in order to set up a second fund for emergencies. Imagine if as part of your personal budget you had a fund set aside for emergencies. Would you then go and borrow money to place in a second emergency fund? Of course not.

By indebting the taxpayers, the politicians are able to claim that they are working to solve the road problem. Many in the public will simply think that $25 million has been budgeted for roads, without realizing there will be little or no difference in actual road maintenance.

This has also allowed politicians to sidestep the tough challenge of reducing government spending from the general fund in order to stop the very inappropriate policy of misusing the motor vehicle user fees.

And now, because the government will be saddled with paying back this new unnecessary debt for the next 15 years, it will be harder than ever to force politicians to make the hard choices of exposing the government inefficiencies so that roads can be properly funded.

I believe that all new debt spending should be approved by the people. As the Legislature continues to incur more and more debt, it will be much harder for true government reform to occur in the future.

In the meantime, those of us who support the proper funding of roads have our work cut out for us. I look forward to the challenge.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Gumm Comments on SCOTUS Decision on Death Penalty for Child Rapists

OKLAHOMA CITY – Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, released the following statement after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Kennedy v. Louisiana. A 5-4 decision of the court overturned a Louisiana law that allowed the death penalty to be imposed on a man convicted of raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter.

Gumm was the chief legislative advocate of Oklahoma’s law – found in 2006’s SB 1800 – that provides the death penalty for child molesters on a second or subsequent offense.

“I am deeply disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court – on a razor-thin 5-4 vote – declared the Louisiana statute unconstitutional. Obviously, I believe the Court is wrong in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, which in essence, says the death penalty is not a proportionate penalty for child rape.

“The Justice is dead wrong. All one has to do is read the facts of this case and the harm done to the victim – which Justice Kennedy dutifully relates in his opinion – to see how heinous this crime was.

“As I said as we fought for passage of Oklahoma’s law, we allow the death penalty for someone who has murdered a person; we should allow it for someone who has killed a child’s soul.

“Further, I am troubled by the policy-related arguments in Justice Kennedy’s decision. He debated the policy issues that are independent of constitutional questions throughout his opinion. The Justice suggested that there was no national consensus to impose the death penalty on child rapists, and used that as a justification for his ill-advised decision.

“Yet he noted that several states – including Oklahoma – have enacted similar laws, which in my judgment shows a growing national consensus. Then, the Justice interjects his willingness to use the Court’s power to stop that growing consensus with this decision.

“Also, the Justice related a sobering statistic his decision inexplicably ignores. The rate of child rape is about twice that of murder since 2005. If there is a more eloquent argument for imposing the ultimate penalty on child rapists, I do not know what that is.

“This is a poor decision that will make America’s children less safe. Fortunately, we included the option of life without parole in the Oklahoma statute, which is – for now – allowed by the Court.

“Obviously, we will look at Oklahoma’s statute and do what we must to keep children as safe as possible. But our job was made harder today by a misguided majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Monday, June 23, 2008

Making Your Money Disappear

It was late on the night of the final day of the legislative session. Legislators were tired from a two-day marathon session in which over 10% of the session's votes had been held. Those who had been trying to keep up by reading bills as they were posted were more than likely exhausted from the effort. Most of the Representatives were eager to leave the building, and over 10% of them were leaving for the last time.

It was at this time that Senate Bill 1288 made its way to the floor. And those who were still reading their bills would have realized for the first time what was being planned for ten million dollars of the peoples' money.

Senate Bill 1288 was posted to the legislative calender at 8:40 p.m. By 9:20, it was being voted on. That 40 minutes was the only time legislators had to figure out why and where the $10M was being spent. During that time, several other legislative initiatives were also being voted on, so it was almost impossible to research the spending.

Six million dollars was being funneled through a third-party group to assist with the buyout of the former General Motors plant. This was being done even though Oklahoma County voters had already approved the buyout with local funds.

A key revelation of the series of recent federal prosecutions involving ex-Oklahoma Legislatures was the exposure of how the Legislature funneled money through third-party groups and into their own pet causes from which they sometimes received a direct personal benefit. Usually these are third-party groups with legitimate sounding names like "Development Association," that lead the public to think that the money is used being used for a good purpose. Based on these revelations, I feel the last thing the Legislature should be doing is using third-party groups to funnel expenditures.

Another expenditure in the bill was $1M for the Southwest Oklahoma Development Authority, a $500K payment to the Comanche County Industrial Development Authority for a contract with Delta airlines, and $2.5M for the Southern Oklahoma Development Association.

How, in only 40 minutes, are legislators supposed to determine if these are justifiable expenditures or just money being funneled to third-party groups to be used for inappropriate or illegal purposes like those in the past?

There is no doubt in my mind that this particular bill was deliberately posted at the last minute in order to avoid close scrutiny. It certainly creates the appearance of impropriety when Oklahoma's elected Representatives are given only 40 minutes to discover, analyze and consider how $10M of the people's money is being spent. This is not a small amount of money! To put this into perspective, $10M is nearly enough to run the City of Guthrie for a whole year.

Even though the bill was approved, it is my hope that the revelations of legislative abuse from recent federal prosecutions and the pending change in leadership in the Oklahoma Senate will lead to reform in the way future business of this type is conducted in the Legislature.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Three-Headed Legislative Monster

During a recent update, I wrote about some of the circumstances surrounding the close of the 2008 session.

During the last two days of session, there were 145 recorded votes. This accounts for more than 10% of the votes for this year's entire session. To make matters worse, a proposed piece of legislation is normally required to be posted for a certain number of hours in order to be reviewed properly. This requirement is suspended during the last two days of session, and as a result, many bills were brought to the floor without having sufficient time for review. You can imagine how challenging it is for legislators to read new bills while voting on other bills that have just been posted for review.

I wanted to explain my observations of some of the reasons why I this has occurred.

Part of the problem has been the equally divided partisan membership of the State Senate. This anomaly has essentially created a three-headed monster that transforms an already cumbersome two-party legislative process into a three-party affair that is very vulnerable to being the cause for delaying the consideration of legislation to the last minute. The process consists of the leadership of the House, and two leadership teams in the Senate, all of whom can pretty much determine if a bill lives or dies.

For instance, for the past two years, at least one of the groups in the Senate dragged their feet until the last minute when it was time to appoint members to conference committees that approve bills waiting for consideration. This meant that many bills were jammed up until the very end of the session because they could not be approved without having a conference committee named.

This year, a late session breakdown in negotiations on one of the key end-of-session issues led another Senate group to stop signing conference committee reports shortly before the end of session. Once again, this had the effect of delaying consideration of bills until it was too late to allow them proper review.

During the last week of session, the House simply stopped consideration of Senate bills. Why? Because the Senate was not hearing House bills fast enough. House leaders were obviously afraid that House bills would die simply because the Senate might adjourn without hearing them. As author of some House bills that were pending in the Senate, I can testify this was certainly a reason for concern. This action pushed a large number of pending Senate bills before the House into the last two days of session.

I do not believe this process is a conspiracy designed to allow mischief for mischief's sake. Some, if not all, of the above steps may have been very justifiable actions by the groups involved. However, there is no doubt that the door is wide open for bad legislation to sneak through the system, which is exactly what occurred this year. And the dynamics of the system must be reformed sooner, rather than later. Next week I will write about a bad bill I believe was intentionally timed to take advantage of the chaos with just minutes left in session.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Activist Judge Places Hold on Immigration Reform

Much has been said over the past four or five years about the immigration reform issue. As a candidate for office in 2004 and 2006, I can certainly attest first hand to the fact that immigration reform has been one of the top issues where people desire action. As an officeholder, I supported House Bill 1804 which provided for a series of immigration reforms.

One of the most important reforms was for a way to hold employers responsible for hiring those who are legally eligible to be hired. Probably the most important component of reform in HB 1804 was a part of the bill that encouraged employers to verify the legality of an applicant's social security number.

I think the sentiment of the people on this subject was expressed very well by Senator Patrick Anderson in a recent speech he gave at the Guthrie Lions Club. In his presentation, Anderson described how a small businessman approached and told him that he appreciated the reforms in HB 1804. The business owner explained that he had been at a competitive disadvantage because his competitors would hire illegal laborers while he was conscientious about following the law. The provision of HB 1804 that encouraged employers to verify social security numbers leveled the playing field between those who followed the spirit of the law and those who turned a blind eye to it.

Because of the passage of House Bill 1804, this verification process was set to start July 1st.

Unfortunately, a recent decision by an activist federal judge placed a hold on Oklahoma's ability to enforce this most important provision. The judge stated she was placing the hold because there was a likelihood that a lawsuit against this provision would be successful.

This ruling was made possible because of a lawsuit filed last February by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the State Chamber, the Oklahoma City and Tulsa Chambers of Commerce, and the Oklahoma Restaurant, Hotel and Lodging Associations, contending that it places unreasonable burdens on businesses.

If this judge's ruling is allowed to stand, it will greatly damage Oklahoma's attempt to provide a solution to the illegal immigration issues. Quite simply, the problem has been fueled by those who are turning a blind eye to the law when it comes time to hiring illegal labor.

As your State Representative, I remain committed to defending this important legal reform through the introduction of additional legislation if necessary and I am deeply disappointed by the actions of the Chambers of Commerce. I think they are attacking a law that is helping their most conscientious and law-abiding members.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

145 Votes In Two Days

During last week's column I talked about some of the challenges faced by legislators during the final two days of session.

During those last two days, important safeguards are suspended that allow enough time for the review of legislation. Normally, a proposed piece of legislation is required to be posted for a certain number of hours in order to be reviewed properly. This time requirement is suspended during the last two days of session and as a result, some bills are brought to the floor for a vote just minutes after being posted.

On Thursday morning (the second-to-last day of session), the House of Representatives started by 9:30 and held session until midnight. Session reconvened on Friday and legislators stayed in session until after 10 p.m. During these two days, there were 145 recorded votes. This accounts for more than 10% of the votes for the entire 2008 session, and included a vote on one bill that was 388 pages long.

I accepted the challenge of quickly and carefully going through the legislation in an effort to find those pieces that intended mischief, but I don't think it is very realistic for legislators to read and understand bills at the same time as they are listening to debate and voting on other bills.

Certainly most legislators will be less than enthusiastic about reading all the bills, giving careful consideration to their long-term effect, and taking the time to debate them if they are part of a 145-vote marathon legislative session in just two days' time. I can certainly speak to the fact that investing the energy to understand everything over that two-day period leaves one with the distinct sensation that they have just been run over by a large truck (both as a participant in the process and as a taxpayer -- more on that later).

I have learned to be especially suspicious of bills that create large new sections of law that have not yet been brought before the House for consideration.

For instance, one piece of legislation made significant changes in the makeup of a state board that oversees an important part of the Oklahoma economy. I was contacted by a constituent who explained the inside story about how the Legislature was taking action to reconstitute the board in an attempt to eliminate one side of an ongoing dispute. This was obviously done with little notice to most legislators, who likely had no knowledge of the hidden motive behind the bill. That bill passed by a wide margin, despite opposition from a few legislators.

Another piece of legislation took sides in a union dispute by allowing a bigger union to maintain its authority over a smaller group. I doubt there were very many legislators who had any knowledge that this was the actual intent of the bill.

There are any number of reasons why the 2008 session finished in this manner, one of which is because of complications arising from the Senate being evenly divided between the two parties. This results in complicated negotiations that were very time consuming. However, there is no doubt that in future years this system of governing must be reformed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Just Before a Big Storm..."

By Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant

Hello again, everybody. The 2008 session of the Oklahoma Legislature ended at 10:30 p.m., Friday, May 23 – a week before the date by which we must complete our session.

It was a strange session. The atmosphere at the Capitol was very much like that just before a big storm. Throughout the session, you could feel the storm coming but it had not arrived.

That “storm” will be the elections that will occur this year, determining the composition of the Legislature in 2009. Term limits, as much as Oklahomans’ votes, continue shaping the Legislature. In the Senate, there will be at least five new members replacing five who reached their service limit of 12 years.

Because this is an election year during which partisan control of the Legislature will be determined, neither side took many risks. Neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to make any mistakes that would come back to haunt them come election time.

There were few major battles. Even the budget was resolved with little creativity or squabbling.

My fight to end insurance discrimination against autistic children probably was the most watched battle. Despite the public attention to the fight, it came to an end in the proverbial “smoke-filled room” when House leaders refused to even allow a vote.

On that issue, you may rest assured that the families who fought alongside me and I will both be back to pick up the battle in 2009. Every child is precious, including those afflicted with autism, and they and their families deserve our help.

One measure I believe will have the greatest long-term impact was my bill to create an Oklahoma public umbilical cord blood bank. In time, this measure – which had to overcome many obstacles – will give every Oklahoma family the ability to bank umbilical cord blood resulting from the birth of a healthy baby.

Researchers tell us that many diseases can currently be treated with the adult stem cells in cord blood. This law will give us the means to treat more Oklahomans with these life-saving therapies, and open the door to every Oklahoma family rather than just those families who can afford the thousands of dollars it costs to privately bank cord blood.

Over the next several editions of “The Senate Minute,” I will review some of the accomplishments and disappointments of the 2008 session of the Oklahoma Legislature. There is much to discuss.

Despite the session being adjourned, the work of state government goes on. As always, if you have any comments, questions or concerns about any issue, feel free to contact me. You can reach my Capitol office at either (580) 924-2221 or (405) 521-5586. You can also reach me by email at You also can follow news on my website at

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute.” Have a great week and may God bless you all.