Sunday, August 30, 2009

Free Market Solutions for High Speed Internet

During the time I have served as State Representative, my office has handled a number of constituent requests. One of the issues I am most often asked to check into is why a certain area does not have access to broadband Internet and when it might become available. Usually the constituent who has an interest in this issue lives in a rural part of the district and is understandably frustrated that they cannot get online quickly.

I am always happy to assist by serving as a go-between with the utility providers to make sure the company knows that there are prospective customers desiring service, and I support expansion as broadband providers work to boost their capacity and bring this service to new areas. This technology is usually a key factor in developers locating new neighborhoods and it has a direct impact on the ability of the area to support new growth. Most people are going to be very hesitant to re-locate to an area where there is limited high speed access.

However, I am not a supporter of some of the possible suggested approaches of having the government subsidize this service by raising phone taxes in order to pay for it. I feel that when government thwarts the free market process, there can be significantly negative ramifications.

No doubt by now you have noticed that all of the taxes placed on your phone or Internet bill under line items have complicated sounding names but give little way to tell what they are really used for (I hope to write in more detail about these charges in another update). There are already too many of these taxes and I do not feel that people should be asked to pay for any new ones.

I think that a recent development in Logan County demonstrates the mistaken nature of this type of government intervention. One of the largest telecom providers recently expanded their 3G wireless network into Logan County so that now their customers do not have to deal with high speed wireless that cuts off at the county line. These types of fast wireless networks are quickly evolving into a state where one day they may very well make traditional land line access completely unnecessary.

Not only will the next generation of 4G wireless networks allow for the bypassing of traditional phone regulatory roadblocks (which could lead to advancements such a free international calling), but they could be the backbone of an infrastructure that will support low cost solutions to issues such as emergency interoperable communications and possibly save taxpayers millions of dollars.

This expansion is just a simple reminder that while politicians consider such issues as the government subsidized expansion of broadband, the free market is providing options that will quickly provide the solutions to problems the government has just started to address.

Friday, August 28, 2009

From "The Tulsa World" - Lawmakers Disagree with Report on Sales Tax Holiday

OKLAHOMA CITY — Some lawmakers disagree with a report that called sales-tax holidays a political gimmick.

The Washington, D.C.- based Tax Foundation this week released a report that is critical of the 16 states that offer sales-tax holidays.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit group that has monitored fiscal policy at the federal, state and local levels since 1937.

Oklahoma has had a sales-tax holiday for three years. This year's holiday, Aug. 7-9, exempted clothing and shoes priced at less than $100 from state, county and city taxes.

Last year, Oklahomans saved about $6.4 million during the three-day tax holiday, said Paula Ross, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

The Tax Foundation's report called tax holidays "a gimmick" that distracts "policymakers and taxpayers from real, permanent, and economically beneficial tax reform. Their creation came about as a way to avoid addressing the negative effects of high sales taxes."

The study said sales-tax holidays do not promote economic growth or significantly increase consumer purchases.

Some retailers increase prices, essentially absorbing the benefit and reducing buyer savings, according to the Tax Foundation.

"Politicians claim that sales-tax holidays largely pay for themselves through increased economic activity and new collections," the Tax Foundation said. "But experience shows the claim of economic stimulus, increased revenue and consumer savings are greatly exaggerated."

Most sales-tax holiday shoppers see a modest windfall for something they would have bought anyway, the study found.

Oklahoma Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, a strong supporter of the state's sales-tax holiday, disagrees with the report's findings.

"I would invite this group to speak with the thousands of Oklahoma families who saved millions of dollars during the back-to-school sales-tax holiday," he said. "Perhaps then they might have a real-world view of what this policy means to real people and the budgets of real families."

Gumm does not believe that Oklahoma retailers increased prices for the sales-tax holiday.

"In most communities, retailers run specials to coincide with the sales-tax holiday, providing even greater savings for families," he said. "It also helps level the playing field for the middle- and low-income families by reducing the most regressive tax at one of the times of year when families spend the most."

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said the sales-tax holiday keeps revenue in Oklahoma as opposed to Texas, which also has a sales-tax holiday.

"It is about regional competition in this economic downturn," he said. "It helps promote the economy."

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" - Looking Forward to "Back to School" Visits

DURANT, Okla. – Hello again, everybody! Since becoming your senator seven years ago, one of my favorite responsibilities is an event called “America’s Legislators Back to School.”

It is a program sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures and it always occurs in September, around the time students study the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of the program is to remind students they already have a role in representative democracy.

There are a number of reasons I look forward to the school visits every year. Most importantly is that today’s young people need to know that their opportunity to lead will arrive more quickly than any generation in Oklahoma’s history.

Term limits mean Oklahoma state legislators can serve a total of only 12 years. I am allowed to run for the Senate only one more time, and I will seek my final term in next year’s election.

No matter what, there will be a new senator for this district in 2014. I tell the students that nothing would please me more than if when my time in the Senate is complete, one of them is to whom I pass this torch.

I learn as much or more from the students as they learn from me. Because representative democracy, our system of government, is not a “spectator sport” – because they need to get in the game to exercise the power that is their birthright – I reserve most of the time with them for questions.

When it comes time for questions, the students are not limited solely to state issues. Often the questions branch out to subjects considered at every level of government. They ask about war and peace, crime and punishment, where I stand and why on just about every issue we consider in the Legislature.

The questions are windows into the concerns students have, and help me as I make decisions on issues that affect their lives. During the visits, I always remind the students that the way they exercise their inherent political power is for them to register to vote when they reach the age of 18.

That is just a first step; we all have to exercise that power by casting our votes at every election and speaking out on issues of concern. That is a good message for all Oklahomans, especially this year as so many Americans participate in the process, expressing concerns at town hall meetings about the course of our nation.

Respectful discourse is an American tradition. The visits I have with students are textbook examples of the town hall meetings where our nation was born, and where it is renewed time and again.

Like the dozens of town halls and legislative luncheons/breakfasts in which I have participated, the “Back to School” visits help strengthen representative democracy – the very system we celebrate each September when we mark the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Local Officials Standing Up to the Legislature

I believe the best form of government is one in which a citizen board sits in oversight of a government entity without having the direct authority to determine who receives money from the government by way of targeting funds directly to the recipient. When elected officials have the direct authority to determine who receives government largesse, the potential for corruption dramatically increases.

I feel that the designers of Oklahoma's government ingrained this important concept deep into the foundations of our government by setting up a system by which the Legislature can determine policy and budget matters but should have no control over where the money is spent. This important safeguard is supposed to help keep Oklahoma legislators from becoming powerful political bosses who can use their authority to reward the privileged few at the cost of the taxpayers.

Legislators should certainly have the ability to expend funds in order to secure the proper support for the responsibilities of the Legislature such as hiring staff etc. They should not however be able to direct appropriated funds once those funds have been appropriated to the various agencies.

Oklahoma legislators have historically been experts at getting around these restrictions. They have found ways to "pass-through" money to certain entities where it is subsequently directed to the recipients of the legislators' choice. This allows for the possibility of corruption. In a recent federal criminal case, it has been demonstrated how legislators have used this system for their own direct financial benefit.

Unfortunately, this system of inappropriate pass-thoroughs is still alive and well. However, the recent effort of some courageous local officials could send a strong message to the Legislature and win a big victory for the taxpayers.

This year, one of the agencies chosen to pass through funding was the Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce was ordered to send money to a group known as ACOG (Association of Central Oklahoma Governments) who in turn was directed to pass through about $16 million to third-party entities. Membership of ACOG includes representatives from central Oklahoma local governments. When it came time for the ACOG board to approve the pass-through funding, some of these courageous local officials (including Logan County Commissioner Mark Sharpton) successfully managed to stave off a vote and delay action on approving the funding which means the funding will not be passed through until at least the next meeting of the board. This may be the first time (at least that I am aware of) that a local government entity has stood up to the Legislature and attempted to not play the same old game that has caused Oklahoma taxpayers so much grief.

It is unbelievable, that even during a down financial year, the Legislature would continue to try to spend money in this way. However, if more local officials would show this same courage, it would make the Legislature think twice about using these methods to direct funds.

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" - September Special Session Likely

DURANT, Okla. – Hello again, everyone! Last week, I wrote that no one is talking about a special session to adjust the state budget in light of the revenue shortfalls.

This week, almost everyone is talking about whether lawmakers should return to the Capitol. Initially, it looked as though the governor would call the Legislature into special session beginning on Monday, August 31. Within a few hours, however, it began to appear that a slower “wait-and-see” approach would prevail.

Finally, the governor announced the question of “if” we return for special session would be answered after the tax revenue numbers for next month are known. Should we have another shortfall – a situation in which the state collects less than what is necessary to meet the conservative budget approved in May – a special session in September is very likely.

If that happens, a number of decisions will be before my colleagues and me. The initial decision would be about having the session in the first place.

The state Constitution provides a means by which the budget is balanced during a revenue failure. That method is automatic and even cuts across the board for all state agencies in order to balance expenditures with the money coming in.

Calling a special session means that the first decision made is that some functions of state government would be protected over others. My stand is that things like public education and public safety should have the highest of priorities; those functions should be the last and least cut.

In a special session, the next decision would be whether to simply adjust the cuts among state agencies or use some of the resources available to plug budget holes. Unlike many of our sister states, we do have money that could be used to help ease budget cuts.

The good news is that Oklahoma has a full “Rainy Day Fund” which could be tapped to help alleviate some cuts. Also, about half the stimulus money allocated to Oklahoma is remaining and could be used.

The bad news is if we use money from either of these pots, it would be gone for good. Using “one-time” money for recurring expenses, things state government pays for every year, is somewhat risky. Doing that means there would have to be some reason to be optimistic about future revenue numbers. In short, have we “hit bottom” yet?

If we decide to use Rainy Day or stimulus money, the final question before us would be to decide which agencies get those dollars and how much do they get. While none of this is rocket science, none of these decisions are easy ones.

Oklahoma is indeed in better shape than most of our sister states. The greatest challenge for us is to ensure that our budget picture, despite this rough patch, remains among the strongest of all the states.

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I was pleased to participate in a health care town hall meeting this past Thursday in Lawton with several other local legislators. The topics of this meeting were based on current Oklahoma law and potential legislation which could be heard in the future. Unlike many of the scenes we have viewed on television, this meeting was civil and an honest dialogue occurred with those fifty citizens present. There was some discussion on the federal policies which are being debated in Congress, but most of the evening was spent on what Oklahoma can do to improve on the current system.

I think most of us would agree that a federally-run program will not help things, especially in light of what we have seen from past experience. If I were able to have input, I would look at more oversight on the existing programs and ask for accountability in those private sectors businesses. The number one problem I think we have as Americans is the insurance industry’s denial of many legitimate claims. Some of my friends owned a medial billing company for a time and I worked with them in this business. I was disappointed to see how certain procedures have to be “coded” correctly on the submission or they would be rejected and more time and money spent on fixing the forms by resubmitting them rather than a phone communication to correct the error. I personally have argued with insurance companies over my own health claims and for constituents who have had legitimate complaints over wrongful denials. I saved myself $600 on a knee brace after my surgery just because I caught an error by the insurance company on a denial. We have to be personally responsible and watchful of all the bills that come through on health claims.

In the past, I have filed amendments to bills dealing with prompt-pay and advertising of costs. These are two factors which I feel will help drive competition in the medical market and save money for patient. Prompt-pay requires the insurance companies to pay claims in a timely manner and file denials in that same period rather than drag out the bill. Often times, doctors will not receive reimbursement for months in some states due to wrongful denials. We have a decent law already on the books in Oklahoma , but it needs to be enhanced to provide for a better time frame for payment. I also feel that doctors should notify patients on an anticipated cost of procedures so patients will know what to expect and also to prevent different costs on the same procedure for those with insurance and those without. This is a problem in the system where those of us with insurance often foot the bill for patients who go to the emergency rooms and then cannot pay their bills. I intend to work with some of the officials in the health care arena on ways to look at a fix in both these areas for this next session, along with a way to help the doctors remove providers who have continual problems and drive up their cost of insurance.

We passed a tort reform bill at the state level this last session which many claim will drive down the costs with unfair lawsuits. I’m hoping this area will just be the beginning at the state and we can look at the other areas of waste and unfair practices.

The area of health care is something that needs to be openly discussed and much thought put into the changes. The politicians need to look at change in the system, but not an over reaching policy that will hurt many of those who they claim to want to help. Experts on all sides need to be at the table discussing and recommending policies. We also need to expect some major overhaul of accountability, but not see any reduction on the care we expect as Americans. This is a tough road, but it is one that is necessary before the system gets further out of control.

On another note, I want to thank the Fort Sill/Apache tribe for their investment in an environmental program which they have started. They purchased a $9,000 trailer through an EPA grant which will allow citizens to recycle plastics, cardboard, newspapers and other items in the Apache area. I hope more groups will look at programs like this so we can lessen the impact on local trash dumps. Jerri Davis and Bobby Claborn initiated this program and I was on hand to see it with Chairman Jeff Houser, Councilperson Robin Isom and City Councilor David “Joker” Johnson last week.

I would also encourage all citizens interested in a good political debate to show up at the Caddo-Kiowa Career Tech at Fort Cobb on August 24th at 7:30 pm. There will be a discussion with the two Democratic Candidates for the special election in House District 55, the seat vacated by former Rep. Ryan McMullen. This will give the voters in the Democratic primary in the area the chance to meet Alex Damon and Larry Peck, the two candidates who filed for the seat. I hope to see you there!

It is an honor to represent your views at the State Capitol. If you wish to contact me and discuss one of these or another issue, I can be reached at my office in Oklahoma City toll-free at 1-800-522-8502, or directly at 1-405-557-7305. My e-mail address is at work. My mailing address is PO Box 559 , Rush Springs , OK 73082 and my website is on the Internet. Thank you for taking time to read this column and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Creating an Inventory of State Assets

It is my belief that Oklahomans expect their elected officials and government leaders to manage their resources in the same efficient manner that a privately owned business would manage its affairs.

Can you imagine a private business entity that went about its business in such a disorganized manner that it was unable to give you a centralized inventory of its real property assets? It would not take long before that business was out of business if they did not have a basic organization structure that could account for this most important of internal control tools.

This is exactly the state of affairs in which Oklahoma state government has found itself. While many state agencies keep their own separate inventories of properties owned, there has not been a centralized location in which state leaders could review the status of the state's assets.

Without this basic tool in place, it is almost impossible to know how much property is owned by state government that is no longer serving its needed purposes and should therefore be returned to the private marketplace. It is also much more difficult to have internal controls to ensure that state property is not susceptible to corruption.

In 2004, the newly appointed director of Oklahoma's Department of Central Services (DCS) commissioned an effort to begin the painstaking process of documenting the location of thousands of acres of state-owned land. This procedure involved DCS officials going to the individual agencies and sometimes county government officials such as assessors or county clerks to try and find out what exactly the state owned. Five years later the study has yet to be completed.

As this inventory has continued to accumulate, it provides an important tool that state leaders can now use to analyze what has happened over the years as state government has taken over this land.

The Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Ken Miller, has asked House Staff to study this growing list in an attempt to explore how the state should be most accountable to the taxpayers now that we are starting to understand exactly what the state owns. You may also soon have an opportunity to help in this process. The Director of DCS has indicated that the list will be available in the future on the state's web portal for everyone to see.

It is my personal belief that state government should relinquish all state assets that are not necessary to perform its core functions. This would allow the private marketplace to use the assets for their intended purposes. And it is about time that the very basic step of providing a centralized inventory of state-owned properties was completed.

Budgets Cut in Wake of Revenue Shortfall - Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute"

Hello again, everybody. This week, the state got some bad – though not unexpected – news: Tax collections are less than estimates on which we in the Legislature wrote the budget.

State law allows lawmakers to spend only 95 percent of what state government expects to collect, creating a five percent “cushion” between estimates and expenditures. Because the national recession is so persistent, state government is collecting less money than needed to meet the conservative budget we wrote last session.

When that happens, state law requires every agency’s budget be cut until the budget balances. Unlike the federal government, which can spend billions of dollars it does not have, Oklahoma state government’s budget must balance. To balance the budget for August, state agencies were cut five percent across the board.

Public schools were spared the five percent August cut because they get only 11 monthly payments instead of the 12 other state agencies receive. School district payments for August were 2.74 percent less than expected. Because school districts do not get a July payment, revenues from that month helped soften the blow. That cushion is now gone.

The August cut for schools in my district range from $27,580 in Durant schools’ state aid to a $268 reduction in Mill Creek schools’ payment. Subsequent cuts for schools likely will be greater because their cushion is gone.

Some state agencies will endure a very small impact. That includes those getting funding from other sources, including the federal government.

Agencies getting virtually all their money through the state budget – such as Corrections and Human Services – are most at risk. The Health Department – anticipating further shortfalls – ordered a larger cut in its budget than the five percent cut, shrinking its budget by 7.5 percent.

As bad as things sound, they could be much worse. The Rainy Day Fund has about $600 million that could be used. Also, we still have about half the federal stimulus money allocated to Oklahoma. The question is: Do we use these dollars now, or hold the money in case the recession continues to wreak havoc with the budget?

No one is talking about a special session to adjust budgets. However, if revenues continue to worsen, I believe there will be increasing pressure on the Legislature to take action. First and foremost, I believe we must protect, as much as possible, budgets for agencies charged with public safety and education.

For most of this economic slowdown, Oklahoma has endured very well. Our budget numbers are still better than almost all our sister states. While the national recession appears to be easing, I believe we should be cautious, protecting that which is most important.

Oklahoma was the “last in” to the recession. Whatever action we take, our goal should be to ensure Oklahoma is the “first out” of this economic downturn.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Open Door Policy - Aug. 10, 2009

It was a very long week as I hosted a delegation of political visitors from El Salvador for five days. They had a very good time and hopefully this will improve trade relations between not only Oklahoma, but the United States.

We also had the 65th Rush Springs Watermelon Festival, Lions Club Rodeo, the inaugural 5K run (thank you Richy Large for organizing this) and my 20 year class reunion over the weekend. It was great seeing old friends as they come home for a visit.

There has been a trend in Oklahoma of record turnouts at festivals as we have seen people visiting local places over a weekend rather than travel for a longer vacation. This is great since we get to highlight many great places right here at home. Thanks also to State Auditor Steve Burrage, Sen. Kenneth Corn, Sen. Don Barrington and Rep. Corey Holland for being at the Festival.

The local Lions Club does the organizing for this festival, as does the Fletcher Lions Club with much for their upcoming fair. Good luck to the newly-formed Elgin Lions Club also as they began meetings last week. You should check out these clubs, along with the Apache Rotary, the Cyril Rotary, the Marlow Lions Club and the various clubs in Anadarko, Chickasha, Lawton and Duncan if you are looking for a civic club to join and help your community. Also, don't forget to attend the Apache Fair and Rodeo this upcoming weekend, sponsored by their local FFA and the Elgin FFA ice cream social at Osborn Park.

I had the pleasure of attending Pioneer School's back to school breakfast and Apache Public School's teacher luncheon. Sen. Tom Ivester and I will also be serving teachers dinner in Cement at the invitation of their school board on Tuesday night. It is definitely time to get ready for school and my football schedules should be ready soon.

On Thursday, I will be participating in a Health Care Forum at Camerson University in Lawton, specifically Shepler Hall. I, along with other state legislators, will discuss successes and failures in state health care policy. I hope it will be a good discussion, but also I hope that the discussion will be civil unlike what we have seen on the local news.

On a final note, it looks like Rep. Kris Steele will be the Republican candidate for Speaker and Rep. Scott Inman has been designated to be the Democratic candidate. Both are good men and it should be a spirited race. Kris and I are working on an interim study on prison reintigration programs this summer also. I look forward to analyzing needs in this area and finding a solution across the party lines.

It is an honor to represent your views at the State Capitol. If you wish to contact me and discuss one of these or another issue, I can be reached at my office in Oklahoma City toll-free at 1-800-522-8502, or directly at 1-405-557-7305. My e-mail address is at work. My mailing address is PO Box 559, Rush Springs, OK 73082 and my website is on the Internet. Thank you for taking time to read this column and I look forward to seeing you soon.

photo cutline: Rep. Joe Dorman, Don McKay and State Auditor Steve Burrage at the annual cookout hosted by Don for his family, friends and visitors to the Watermelon Festival

Open Door Policy - Aug. 1, 2009

It has been a busy week as I have been traveling quite a bit around the district and to the office for meetings. I have also been preparing to host a group of political leaders from El Salvador through the American Council of Young Political Leaders. They will visit Oklahoma August 2 - 6 and I will be their state host and escort. I will be taking them on Tuesday, August 4 to the Chickasha School Foundation lunch fundraiser and then for a tour of the wind farm by Apache and also over to Elgin Public Schools for a discussion on public school funding in Oklahoma. I will also take them for various visits to Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater for briefings on education, public safety and fire protection.

I had the pleasure of touring Silver Line Plastics in Lawton. I viewed how they produce much of their irrigation pipe and the amazing amount that is shipped all over the world. I also had the opportunity to visit Built Better Enterprises in Fletcher and see how they are manufacturing HosWel truck beds, a product used by farmers and fire departments to meet their needs. Jerry and Jogay Renshaw of Elgin have been developing this company and have a great future ahead with this new business in our area. I also attended the Sterling Rodeo this past weekend and am looking forward to the Cyril Rodeo this upcoming weekend, as well as the 4-H Centennial Honor Night Assembly in Stillwater.

I had the opportunity to attend the OK Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment on Monday. I appreciate Jane Mitchell from Success by 6 in Lawton for inviting me to participate. It was a great discussion on the successes and failures we have seen in children's policy and opportunities to build upon the programs which have worked. I expect a great public-private partnership to build from this program and Pat Potts, a community leader in Oklahoma City, had much to do with this effort.

I also visited with DJ Wolfe, the standout OU football player and graduate from Lawton Eisenhower. He is working with a company to install energy efficient equipment in buildings and vehicles. He has been a great assistance to me in understanding a segment of this industry and I will be filing legislation this next session to apply the efficiency credits to home builders that are currently given to home owners. This should increase the amount of efficiency included in new homes and save the purchaser the hassle of additional equipment after the completion. It will also allow them to factor this cost into the paperwork during the purchase and save the homeowner the hassle of applying for the credit.

Finally, I want to extend congratulations to Deacon Vice of Apache for being accepted into the OSU Medical Program and also I want to wish my niece, Samantha Sessums, a happy 23rd birthday. I'm proud of both of you.

It is an honor to represent your views at the State Capitol. If you wish to contact me and discuss one of these or another issue, I can be reached at my office in Oklahoma City toll-free at 1-800-522-8502, or directly at 1-405-557-7305. My e-mail address is at work. My mailing address is PO Box 559, Rush Springs, OK 73082 and my website is on the Internet. Thank you for taking time to read this column and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Crescent and Guthrie School Districts Applying Best Practices

One of my recent tasks has been to participate in discussions with state agency officials and other groups who have an interest in upcoming government modernization efforts. These discussions focus on issues such as using technology to streamline and reduce the cost of government operations and in doing so to increase the opportunities for more aggressive government transparency. As part of the interview, I am very attuned to finding best-practice examples from government entities that can be expanded and applied universally. What may have saved money in one area can sometimes be implemented in others.

It is always an enjoyable turn of events when, as part of the search for these best-practice case-in-point examples, the discussion focuses on local government groups back home who are doing a good job.

Recently, in talking to the State Superintendent of Education about school districts who are using technology in an innovative manner, we discussed the example being put forth by the Crescent school system and their implementation of the server-based curriculum known as Acellus.

Acellus allows Crescent High School students to complete their math curriculum via the internet. Acellus provides high-quality video lectures to students, identifies specific areas of student difficulty, provides an alternative learning path which can be customized to each student’s learning experience and captures student data so that the overall effectiveness of the course can be assessed. The program frees up teachers to spend one-on-one time with students requiring special attention.

In essence, the program adds much needed flexibility to the public education experience. No longer are students forced to work at a generalized pace that either leaves them frustrated at being held back or too far behind to ever catch up. This removes the one-size-fits all approach which has been one of the more challenging flaws of the government-run education system that has played havoc with students' ability to learn. Can you imagine being a teacher who has to teach to a classroom of over 20 different students, each of which has his/her own unique strengths and weaknesses? Technology is allowing forward-thinking school districts such as Crescent to remove some of these barriers and allows us to point to their achievement as a best-practice that others can follow.

A second exciting revelation came about last week in a meeting with the group Oklahomans For Responsible Government (OFRG). OFRG has been working on a massive, state-wide study of each school district's transparency on the web policies and will be presenting that study at a meeting of the Government Modernization Committee later this year. They are checking for ten items that each school district should have available on their web site in order to better enable the people to hold the district accountable.

Their findings have not been encouraging. They have found that school districts are not using technology to allow for significantly greater transparency. However, OFRG informed me that out of the more than 530 school districts they are analyzing, that the highest ranking district to date, with 9 out of 10 benchmarks met, is the Guthrie school system.

I appreciate the commitment of these two organizations to using technology to provide a higher quality of service and to aid in the very important concept of transparency to the people.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Senator Gumm's "Senate Minute" - Amid Health Care Debate, Oklahoma Quietly Improves Program

DURANT, Okla. – Hello again, everybody. As the federal government grapples with health care, an Oklahoma program to help people who cannot get insurance quietly got a boost last month.

State government cannot solve every health care concern, but it can help. That is why the state created the Oklahoma High Risk Pool; it is a health insurance plan for those who cannot get health insurance because they present too great a risk to insurance companies’ profits.

Currently, 34 states offer some form of risk pool, covering about 183,000 people. The High Risk Pool administrators work with a network of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers to ensure patients receive high quality care in the most cost-efficient manner.

The Legislature created the Oklahoma High Risk Pool in 1995 to provide insurance for qualified individuals who could not get traditional health care insurance coverage because of a serious health condition. This plan creates a pool out of the individuals to whom insurance companies do not want to sell individual policies.

The plan is state-sponsored health insurance that “high risk” individuals can buy. While the cost is higher than it would be if these Oklahomans were able to qualify for a private plan, it is still good health insurance when no other choice exists. It just got better.

One of the problems with the High Risk Pool is that it had too low a lifetime cap. That is why we passed, and the governor signed, Senate Bill 2119 in 2008.

The law – which became effective July 1, 2009 – increases the Oklahoma High Risk Pool lifetime maximum coverage from $500,000 to $1 million. It stands to reason that if an Oklahoman is a “high risk,” then they may very well need greater coverage.

Oklahomans deserve health insurance coverage that really means insurance. Too many families have to choose between getting critical health care needs met, or meeting other daily needs like food and housing.

That is why I support many proposals to ensure health insurance works for the people paying the premiums. While we ran into roadblocks on many of those, this bill did make it through – and will make a difference.

It is struggle enough to be fighting for your life against a disease without having to worry about hitting the coverage ceiling. That is especially true for those Oklahomans whose medical conditions have tagged them as “high risk” with the insurance industry.

The High Risk Pool has not solved the health insurance crisis; it never will. But it does help. Availability of health insurance is a life or death matter, and on this issue like so many others, I will always come down on the side of life.

Any Oklahoman who thinks they might benefit from the High Risk Pool should seriously look at this option. Interested individuals can contact the Oklahoma High Risk Pool at 1-800-255-6065 and ask for extension 4767.

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dealing With The Federal Bureaucracy

Last week, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn made a point of exposing the horrendous misuse of our gas tax dollars. Each time you buy gas, you pay about 18 cents per gallon which is remitted to the federal government. This money is supposed to be used to build and repair roads. Coburn explained that a third of this money is being used for items such as scenic beautification, bike paths, pedestrian walkways, transportation museums and environmental concerns.

Coburn's testimony matches with what our local officials experience on a regular basis. You can only imagine how frustrating it is for local leaders who are fighting a desperate battle to repair roads to see how money is siphoned off for these superfluous purposes -- while the roads go unfunded.

Not only are our federal tax dollars inappropriately spent, but the funds that are allowed to come back to state and local government for paving roads do so with horrible, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all controls that handicap local leaders.

An example of this is the upcoming re-pavement of Broadway Road. Logan County received funding for the road in part because it experiences an extremely heavy traffic count (6000 per day) which is wearing away the road surface. However, federal red tape won't let the county use this money to pave the road where the heaviest traffic is located.

A federal rule requires that a road this busy cannot be paved with federal funds unless it is widened and shoulder space is added. The amount of funding does not come close to allowing these types of improvements to occur. This means the road will be repaved farther to the north where the widening is not necessary and the need for re-paving is not nearly as strong.

Because of this federal rule, well-meaning though it may be, the worst part of the road cannot be fixed while the part of the road that is not so needy will receive a very nice repaving job. This means the county must scramble to find a way to fix the heavily traveled part of the road with other funding sources.

Recently, county officials from the central Oklahoma region were called into a training session where they were coached on the rules they should abide by because they receive federal funds (money they took from us through the federal gas tax). An example of one of these rules is a Title VI rule requiring local governments to produce materials in multiple languages. You can only image how infuriating it is for county officials who want to make improvements such as paving roads to be told that instead of doing this, they have to spend money producing their documents in foreign languages.

Another point of contention between federal and county government is the fact that county government is required to produce an environmental impact study for events as simple as the placement of a road sign. What kind of world do we live in when taxpayers have to pay for an environmental study just to put up a sign?

In my view, Oklahoma would be far better off by refusing to participate in this ridiculous system and stop remitting gas tax money to the federal government. Those funds would be used much more efficiently if they were simply sent directly to ODOT and the local governments without the federal filter allowing the federal government to dictate their agenda.