Monday, March 15, 2010

Open Door Policy - 2/15/2010 - 3/8/2010

The state legislature received some good news this week as oil and gas revenue collections improved slightly. This gives the legislature a little more money to appropriate for the session and will reduce the need for some of the cuts. Out of the projections, the legislature would need to reduce $1.3 billion for the budget to be balanced. The increased projections, according to State Treasurer Scott Meacham, will have about $60 million for the current fiscal year and about $120 million for FY-11, the budget we are currently trying to resolve. This will help ease some of the burden, but it will still be a difficult discussion on where cuts must be made with the shortfall.
I have been disappointed that more involvement has not happened with budget meetings. The process has not been open for the budget committee members at this point, much less the entire legislature. Haggling has occurred behind closed doors on which areas will be cut and which will receive assistance. I'm hoping that there will be more open discussion as we progress in session. To be fair, this process has always been done by a few members of the leadership even when the Democrats were in control, but I was hoping things would change with the Republicans in charge. That was always one of their gripes when they were in the minority, and now it is the same criticism by the Democratic members.
On Monday, I was honored to have several FFA chapters visit the Capitol. Students from Cement, Central High, Elgin , Fletcher and Rush Springs had lunch with me in one of the committee rooms and we were able to discuss issues, from the bill I filed to exempt their membership from school absences to the impact of the budget cuts. It is always a pleasure to have this group visit as they truly are concerned with public policy and civic responsibility.
I also had the chance to visit with the Oklahoma Youth & Government conference at the State Capitol. Students from this organization, sponsored by YMCA's from around the state, descended upon the Capitol on Thursday and Friday to discuss ideas for legislation they prepared and debated on the floor of the House and the Senate. I'm proud to serve on their statewide advisory council and was pleased with the discussion and questions they presented to me.
Another event I was privileged to attend was the Ardmore Chamber Legislative Luncheon. I was invited by Rep. Samson Buck and served on the panel with him, Rep. Pat Ownbey and Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield. This helped prepare me for the upcoming Chickasha and Lawton Legislative Luncheons which will be in the next few weeks.
Finally, I want to congratulate Pastor Kip Ackley and the congregation of Calvary Temple Church in Cyril for their grand opening on Sunday. It was a pleasure to be present for their first service in their new building and it was a wonderful day of celebration. I am thankful for their dedication and their service to the community.
It has been a busy two weeks at the Capitol as legislation has been progressing through the committee process. I have had the chance to present several of my bills and received favorable action on those, but I still have a few more which could possibly make it through the process. I have one bill currently out of committee which deals with TIF reporting and I'm currently working to get more of my bills set for hearings.
Of the bills currently on committee agendas, I will present my legislation to place doctors who volunteer for school athletic functions under the Good Samaritan Act, a bill restructuring the volunteer firefighters tax credit so as to enhance training opportunities and a bill dealing with funeral accounts in the Appropriations Committee this week. I also have legislation to create an income tax check-off for disaster reimbursement in Rules Committee and another bill to set requirements for assisted living facilities to have generators in case of power outages in the Public Health Committee. Thanks to Chairmen Ken Miller, John Trebilcock and Gus Blackwell for hearing these bills!
I had another issue get combined with a bill by Rep. Paul Roan to create a designated memorial highway for the US Army's 95th Division in Comanche County at the junction of I-44 and Highway 7 to mile marker 46. That should be on the floor of the House this week. If any bills are not passed out of committee this week, or by the entire House next week, they will not be considered this year.
We saw one bill die on the floor Monday. This legislation would have mandated a minimum of one hour of marriage counseling for those couples filing for a divorce. I, along with many, felt this was too much government intrusion in a very personal area. I fully support and encourage voluntary marriage counseling, but as one person put it, this is trying to save the milk with an expiration date coming up. We should encourage , even incentivize preventing divorce before there are problems, but not have government mandate a solution.
There have been several groups visit the Capitol over the past few weeks. On Monday, we saw delegates from the Oklahoma Conservation Districts and the adult leadership class for Canadian Valley Technology Center. TRIO also had several students tour the Capitol last week, along with students representing Cameron and USAO for Higher Education Day. We also had the chance to visit with delegates for the American Farmers & Ranchers and the Farm Bureau conventions.
On a final note, we saw two fantastic events with great turnout this past weekend. The Emergency Management conference hosted by myself and Rep. Gus Blackwell was well-attended and provided much useful information. There was attendance from all corners of the state and I was pleased to have Mayor Jack Johnson of Cyril in attendance. We also had the Mo Betta Celebrity Quail Hunt in Apache and it was a huge success. I was pleased to visit with Jon Michael McGrath II, one of our upcoming Summer Olympians in Shooting Sports who is a Tulsan and want to wish him the best in representing the USA!
It has been a busy time around the Capitol with the legislative deadline passing to get bills out of committee. I received a favorable hearing on seven of the fifteen bills I had active in the House of Representatives. The bills are now considered property of the floor leader of the House in legislative terms. I am working with him to see if I can have all of these bills heard this week or next week before the final deadline to pass out of the house of origin to the other body. These bills are:
HB 1658 – Exempt medical personnel under Good Samaritan Act to assist with secondary school functions;
HB 3123 – Restructure the volunteer firefighter tax credit to create two additional levels based upon training achievements;
HB 3126 – Adds a board member to the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness Board to qualify for federal matching dollars;
HB 3127 – Enhances reporting requirements for Tax Increment Financing Districts;
HB 3128 – Sets death benefits for state employees be paid directly to funeral homes for savings to the families;
HB 3224 – Requires assisted living facilities in Oklahoma to have a generator in case of power outages; and
HJR 1018 – Creates an income tax check-off for assisting the Office of Emergency Management in payment of phone lines and federal matching dollars in a disaster.
We have had several bills go through the legislative process at this point. There has not been much as far as controversial legislation to this point, but there have been a few which have had strong debate. One deals with a scope of practice on anesthesiologists versus nurse anesthetists. Another issue regulates accountability standards for certified public accountants versus public accountants. Each of these bills will likely be changed as they go through the process as these issues never seem to pass the final version with the language we first will see due to compromise by the authors and the industries involved. I have even seen this on some of my bills, such as the volunteer firefighter tax credit. The suggestions provided by the working group who assisted me, including Perry Brinegar, our Rural Fire Coordinator from ASCOG, provided valuable insight on how to make the bill much more effective.
We have had some great help at the Capitol to this point with the page program. This is high school program established to allow students to work with the legislators for a week and learn more about the process. When I was a staff member for the House, I helped create a mock legislature for the students so they could debate a mock bill and learn the process by going through it like a legislator. I was pleased to have Emily Hines from Marlow serve as my first page for the session. She did a great job and was an excellent help to us. I have several other students set up to be pages and office aides this session and look forward to their visit.
It was a busy time around the district this past week also. We saw six 4-H and FFA auctions to benefit the groups. I tried to make most of them, but was unable to make the ones in the middle of the week due to session. I have sent donations to each of the chapters to assist these programs. I did make the Cement auction on Friday and the Elgin auction on Saturday. Elgin had a great idea to dedicate the funds from one cake to create a scholarship for a graduating senior. I bought this one along with Mike Doyle, a local CPA in Elgin and my treasurer. I hope more of the chapters will do something like this to help students who are continuing their education after graduation. The cakes also went to good use as it was my assistant Pam’s birthday. The legislative assistants at the Capitol all enjoyed them very much as there was none left at the end of the day for me to take home.
There has been quite a bit of activity around the State Capitol over the past week. As the deadline finished for committee work, the legislature has dedicated this week and the last working on bills before the entire House of Representatives. I have seen several of my bills reach the floor of the House and be passed on to the Senate. I still have three bills left on the calendar for consideration before the House this week and hope that one more, my legislation restructuring the volunteer firefighter tax credit, will make it on before the deadline of this Thursday. We are awaiting letters of support from the Office of Homeland Security and Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training, to join the letters I have currently from the various career technology centers and fire service organizations who serve Oklahoma . One other bill, my legislation to require assisted living facilities to have generators in case of power outages, will not be heard this year due to a decision by the House Leadership. There is another bill to require a study of this issue, so I will do my best to get this legislation passed this session.
I have also co-authored many good pieces of legislation by colleagues. Rep. Danny Morgan has authored a bill to allow pregnant women with medical conditions to be allowed usage of a temporary disability sticker for parking. HB 2998, by Rep. Kris Steele, authorizes a pilot recidivism reduction program for incarcerated females. Two other bills create income tax check-off programs for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the Oklahoma Honor Flight program, a fund which assists World War II Veterans a chance to travel to Washington, DC to view the monument dedicated to the military who served in that war. Both programs do not receive government funding from the state and these donation opportunities on income tax returns allow for private citizens to donate a portion of their returns for these and other worthy programs allowed by the legislature and the governor to be on the tax form.
The clean-up is still continuing around the area with limbs left over from the ice storm. Many of the communities and counties have developed plans to account for the costs related to the disaster as the White House and FEMA approved the reimbursement for cities, counties and non-profit groups, such as the electric cooperatives for covering damages. The federal government will pay the estimate of 75% of this amount, with the state required to pay 12.5% and the locally-affected entity paying the remaining 12.5%. We did receive the bad news that individual assistance will not be paid out for costs associated with the ice storms. One of the minimum requirements is that a city or county suffer the total destruction of at least 100 homes or businesses from the disaster, and this did not occur with these ice storms. I will be working on legislation for the future to provide assistance to individuals with medical conditions to cover a part of the cost for generators if a doctor signs off that this is to assist with a medical condition. If you have questions about local clean-up efforts, please contact your local city hall or county commissioner.
We had several visitors to the Capitol this past week. I was pleased to have the minister of the week from our area. Sharla Reynolds, the pastor for Sterling United Methodist and Rush Springs First United Methodist Church , delivered our daily prayer prior to session and also gave us an inspirational message on Thursday. We also saw the Washita Valley Leadership Program, which includes several of my constituents from Caddo County , visit the Capitol for a two day leadership seminar about state government. I was happy to visit with them at the Capitol and also have dinner with them one evening and address questions about policy and procedure. We need more opportunities like this for citizens to learn about the system and contribute back with their ideas. Thanks to this group and all such programs and individuals who seek to better our state by providing leadership. The Conservation Districts of Oklahoma also were at the Capitol and I was pleased to help honor the Grady County Conservation District as the District of the Year.
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

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