New Legislative Session Set In Motion For 2015
OKLAHOMA CITY - The 2015 Legislative Session was formally set in motion Monday with Governor Mary Fallin's State of the State address, delivered to a joint session of the Legislature.
Governor Fallin devoted much of the 34-minute speech to presenting her ideas for attacking three problem areas for the state: health outcomes, education and the incarceration rate. She proposed a variety of measures, most of which will require the passage of legislation, and thus buy-in from legislators.
It was not clear, at this early stage, how much support the governor had for her agenda. Although the session lasts almost four months, some lawmakers complained that very little gets done until the final two months, when the pressure is on.
There's always pressure to complete a balanced budget, and that will certainly be the case this year, with an anticipated revenue shortfall of at least $300 million. Some lawmakers said they believe the gap will be even more.
"What I foresee is that we will probably do a little of the robbing Peter to pay Paul," Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, explained in an interview last week. "We have a lot of revolving funds which are actually savings accounts that we will use to fill most of that $300 million hole."
As predicted, Governor Fallin, in her address Monday, proposed shifting $300 million from the state's revolving funds to cover the shortfall and prevent major cuts to state agencies.
One reason for the budget hole was the large number of tax credits and incentives that have been approved by lawmakers over the years. Fallin and others said they believe the time has to come to make those credits more transparent and do away with those that are not effective.
"What we have is [sic] several bills coming through that might limit the amount of the tax credit on the top," said Rep. Osborn, "and [create] a better matrix for judging. Are they really doing what they say they are?"
Another priority for the governor, as well as, for many lawmakers was boosting education. There is legislation that would do away with end of instruction (EOI) exam requirements, while putting heightened focus on the ACT test, which most colleges require for admission.
The new State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, has already stated she wants to bring teachers' salaries up to the regional average within five years. Democrat lawmakers said they've been pushing to give teachers a raise for years.
"We send our children to our teachers for six and seven hours a day," said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. "Wouldn't you think we'd want to value their services by paying those people an adequate salary?"
Lawmakers seemed likely to spend significant time this session discussing the governor's and their own ideas for reducing the prison population (Governor Fallin would like to see more resources put toward mental health and substance abuse services).
Another hot topic, at least going into session, has been election reform. Sen. David Holt, R-Bethany, has proposed several measures, including online registration and consolidation of elections.
"Senator Holt has some very innovative ideas that we need to look at and debate," said Morrissette. "I hope that he doesn't get the treatment that I got where they open the trap door and down you go and all your ideas go with it."
There is also no shortage of bills this session that seem likely to grab more headlines than actual votes -- from a host of bills intended to undermine last year's same sex marriage ruling, to legislation allowing the destruction of a drone flying over one's property, to the repeal of the watermelon as official state vegetable.
"Those bills are going nowhere," said Morrissette.
Most lawmakers cringed at the mention of such headline-grabbing bills, and insisted the Legislature has far greater priorities and challenges that deserve their attention.