Monday, April 28, 2008
The Senate author of this bill, Senator James Williamson, described it as "a two-for-one deal. Two dollars of education for low-income students for every one dollar of effect on the sate budget."
As I have mentioned in my previous updates, as a member of the Human Services Committee, I see firsthand that there are now 19,000 children in state custody. As a member of the Corrections Committee, I know that Oklahoma prisons are filled to capacity. There are no easy solutions to these problems because the massive cost falls upon the taxpayers; but these challenges, if left unchecked, will eventually be too large for the government to handle and will continue to usurp more and more of your taxpayer dollars.
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. It is obvious that a key component of the crises that I described is the failure of the public education system in Oklahoma's impoverished inner city neighborhoods. The New Hope Scholarship Program was designed to recognize this failure and try to solve it. Most importantly, it was designed to save the lives of the children who are facing the tremendous challenges of trying to get an education in a crime-infested impoverished setting.
It is wrong to continue forcing children to attend public schools where crime is high and test scores are low. With the exception of the pro-life issue, I believe this is one of the most significant moral issues the Legislature has voted on since I have been a member.
The opposition to the New Hope Scholarship Program comes from many in the public education industry. For some inexplicable reason, rural schools are especially opposed to this idea. They seem to think that any steps taken to encourage private schooling will hurt their funding. Ironically enough, some of the education money that would be freed up by the program would have gone back into the state education fund formula where it would have been re-distributed to all schools, including rural schools. In other words, rural schools opposed this reform even though it would have provided them with more funding.
As a result, the vote on the issue demonstrated the rural vs. city divide. Many rural lawmakers opposed the reform, and metro lawmakers often supported the change. There were some exceptions, as some rural lawmakers supported the bill despite the possible negative consequences from back home, they were willing to take a stand and do the right thing to try and rescue the kids who are trapped in the cycle of failure.
I find it hard to understand how lawmakers can turn a blind eye to the plight faced by the children trapped in failing schools, and I am committed to continuing to support these types of reforms in the future. I am especially appreciative of Senator Williamson and Representative Tad Jones who have led a valiant effort for this bill. I also was very impressed by the courage of Representatives Jabar Shumate and Rebecca Hamilton who were the two Democrat Representatives who broke rank with their caucus and not only voted for the New Hope program, but aggressively debated for its passage.
But for now, thousands of Oklahoma kids will remain trapped in the cycle of failure. This is wrong!
Monday, April 21, 2008
I believe one of the key reasons for the exposure of these past abuses has been the dramatic shift in power in Oklahoma politics brought on by term limits. Those of us who are fighting to put an end to the abuses of the past face an increased likelihood of success, due in part to the fact that there are many new elected officials 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 is fulfilling one of the important visions of our nation’s founding fathers - the vision in which an average citizen dedicates a few years of his or her 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 to ensure that legislators will be more representative of the people instead of becoming a class of the 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 (i.e. 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 because of term limits.
I think all Oklahomans should take pride in the fact that Oklahoma was the first state to pass a legislative term limits law, and this week I was honored to vote for Senate Bill 1987. SB 1987 was sponsored by Representative Trebor Worthen. The bill would allow the people to vote on expanding Oklahoma's term to include statewide elected officials. Worthen has worked on this proposal for 4 years now. I was especially happy to see the bill pass the House this year, because Worthen has indicated that he will not be seeking re-election and I hope he has an opportunity to see this important contribution to reforming Oklahoma government go into law because of his bill.
I think it is important to note that Worthen originally proposed this bill in 1995. At that time the bill was narrowly defeated. Now, Worthen's bill passed the House with the support of another new wave of freshman representatives who have been elected because of term limits. I think this is a good sign for the future because it demonstrates the commitment of Oklahoma's new leaders to continued reform. It is also important to remember that none of this would have been possible without the people of Oklahoma taking the initiative to pass the first term limit proposal through the initiative petition process.
As your Representative, I will continue to defend this important reform, and consider it an honor to support Rep. Worthen in what I believe may have been the most important vote of the year.
Monday, April 14, 2008
There was strong debate over the bill; it passed in the committee by a vote of 11 to 5.
It is important to note that this proposal doesn't mean people can't learn or speak other languages; it simply means the official business of state government would have to be conducted in the English language.
The bill proposes to prevent the taxpayers from having to pay for services such as driver's license tests in other languages. The argument is that if a person is unable to comprehend driver's license tests, he/she probably poses a safety concern because he/she will be challenged to understand street signs, instructions from English-speaking police, etc. The passage of this bill would also allow taxpayers to avoid the cost of publishing state documents in other languages, or providing services in multiple languages by using translators.
The issue became of added importance after a recent complaint was filed against the Department of Public Safety. The complaint was filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and alleges that the department did not offer a graphics driver's test to individuals whose native language was Farsi.
Approximately thirty other states have already taken similar steps to ensure that English is the official language.
Hopefully the passage of the bill will in some small way address the problem facing our society of the large number of people coming to the United States to access our prosperity, some of whom obviously having no intention of adapting to our culture or learning the English language.
Even though the bill purports to make exceptions for Native American languages, the bill is opposed by Native American groups. I think it is unfortunate, however, that the bill makes an exception for these languages, because I do not feel that the taxpayers should ever be saddled with paying for the cost associated with printing materials in any language other than English.
When Senate Bill 163 is sent to the full House, I will be sure to vote for it.
If the bill is approved by both the House and the Senate, the voters will have the final say on this issue, because it is a constitutional amendment. All constitutional amendments must be approved by the people; your opportunity to vote on the proposal would be in November of this year.
If you would like to provide your feedback on this matter, please feel free to visit www.housedistrict31.com and complete my 2008 Constituent Survey. I am asking House District 31 constituents to weigh in on this and a number of other issues. According to the most recent tally, 91% of respondents are in favor of making English our official language.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
House Bill 3060 – written by Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, and Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City – would give Oklahoma families a way to donate umbilical cord blood. The blood is often discarded as medical waste following the birth of a healthy baby, but is rich in adult stem cells that can be used to treat a variety of ailments.
“I believe umbilical cord blood will be the next great medical success story,” Gumm said. “We have a responsibility to see that Oklahoma families have access to life-improving and life-saving therapies available from cord blood. This bill is a critical first step in that effort.”
Umbilical cord blood currently is used to treat cancer, leukemia and immune disorders. Researchers believe they can be used to treat many other ailments, as well.
Currently, an expensive private cord blood bank is the only option Oklahoma families have to preserve umbilical cord blood. The cost – well into the thousands of dollars – is far beyond the reach of most new parents.
“It is very expensive to preserve cord blood,” he said. “The partnerships we have proposed in our bill can give every Oklahoma family the opportunity to bank cord blood. This is about saving and improving lives, and it is good investment for the state and private donors to make.”
HB 3060 directs the state Health Department to create the cord blood bank, subject to the availability of money appropriated by the Legislature or given by private donors. In addition, doctors and hospitals treating pregnant women would be required to educate their patients about banking cord blood.
The measure also directs the state Health Commissioner to contact existing cord blood banks about the potential for establishing a collection site in Oklahoma. After gathering the information, the commissioner would report to lawmakers in 2009.
Gumm said the potential for umbilical cord blood is amazing. Recently, several network morning news shows reported the story of a two-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. After an infusion of his own stem cells during a clinical trial at Duke University, he is now showing fewer signs of the disorder; his parents had banked his umbilical cord blood.
“Every Oklahoma family deserves that same chance, and a public cord blood bank will provide that,” Gumm concluded. “There is no greater responsibility we have than to save lives and improve life for those we can; making a public cord blood bank available to Oklahoma families is a huge step in that direction.”
The bill was returned to the House of Representatives for consideration of Senate amendments. If the House approves the amendments, the bill will be sent to Gov. Brad Henry for his signature.
Monday, April 7, 2008
The bill is sure to spark a debate about the propriety of state government instituting the policy of welfare for millionaires in the name of job creation.
It appears that the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Act was initially developed in order to offer to rebate the first ten years of income tax collections from a new Oklahoma company's employees back to those same companies if they will relocate to Oklahoma. The act is supposed to entice new companies to move to Oklahoma that would not move to Oklahoma without the tax rebate.
Not content to settle for ten years of corporate welfare payments to the NBA, the proposed legislation would amend the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Act in order to grant the NBA a special exception and the life of their paybacks would be extended for the next 15 years.
I do not believe this is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. I feel that it is wrong for the state government to keep individual taxes high while building in a large number of corporate tax credit and refund loopholes into the law. Government should focus on driving down the tax rate across the board, and instituting a policy of less taxation without corporate welfare exceptions. And there is little doubt in my mind that most Oklahomans do not feel it is appropriate for the NBA to receive 15 years of corporate welfare payments.
The current policy of high taxes with targeted breaks for a special few is unfair to the average taxpayer who is forced to make up the difference.
This latest proposed amendment to the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Act proves an important point about this type of corporate welfare scheme. I believe the act is supposed to provide funding to those organizations that would not normally relocate to Oklahoma without the funding. But as everyone knows, the Sonics are very likely already moving here without this funding. How many other organizations are receiving this credit that would move to Oklahoma without receiving it?
No doubt the proponents of this corporate welfare program will argue that a large number of jobs have been created because of the tax credit based on the number of successful applicants for the money, but the circumstances surrounding the tax credit for the Sonics proves just how faulty these numbers probably are.
As State Representative, I have taken a hard stance against corporate welfare and will continue to do so in this instance.
If you would like to provide your feedback on this matter, please feel free to visit www.housedistrict31.com and complete my 2008 Constituent Survey. I am asking House District 31 constituents to weigh in on this, and a number of other issues. To date, over 200 individuals have completed the survey. According to the most recent tally, the people of House District 31 are overwhelmingly opposed to this tax credit, with 87% of respondents expressing opposition to the plan.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Hello again, everybody! A troubling theme running through the 2008 session of the Oklahoma Legislature is for some to propose easy answers to complex problems.
One of these “easy answers” is as unfair a tax scheme as anyone could have imagined, and it seems like it just will not die. A few years ago, a plan was floated that would have created the so-called “Come Home to Oklahoma Act.”
The idea was to encourage people to move into rural areas that have lost population in the last several decades. The goal was noble; this way to reach the goal was as patently unfair as anything I have ever seen introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature. Here is why.
The bill would have provided a five-year income tax exemption to anyone moving from out of state who either purchases or builds a single-family home in one of 48 counties or 43 towns within the other 29 counties that have lost population since the 1940 or the 1990 Census. Some of the counties are in my district.
The problem with the idea is two-fold. First, it creates an unfair tax system in which someone who has lived their entire life in Oklahoma would end up paying more state income tax than someone who just moved into these areas.
I do not know how any leader can look his or her constituents in the eye and tell them they should pay more tax than someone who just arrived. It is unfair, and potentially unconstitutional.
The second problem is that it does not make sense from an economic development standpoint. While we need an adequate workforce to attract business and industry, jobs rarely follow people; people follow jobs. If we attract residents to these areas before there are jobs for them, then the problem this idea attempts to solve is made even worse.
The bill died a merciful death a few years ago in the Finance Committee when I was chair. Now, it has arisen from the dead and passed the House of Representatives on an unbelievable 69-28 vote.
This bill was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will likely die again. While the bill is dead, we might see the idea again. In fact, variant of it is still alive.
A similar idea would give certain engineers who move into Oklahoma a tax credit that could be used against their income tax. This is nothing more than a different way to do the same thing as the “Come Home to Oklahoma Act,” except the focused is on jobs already are among the highest paid.
Easy answers to complex problems rarely produce the desired results. We should look at problems and come up with solutions that treat every Oklahoman fairly. Certainly, that is more difficult, but the end result will be better and more fair for every Oklahoma family.
Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week and may God bless you all.