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April 10, 2014: Rep. Randy Grau and a Minimum Wage Bill
Oklahoma Watch talks with Rep. Randy Grau R-Edmond about SB1023, a bill he supported which prohibits municipalities from passing their own minimum wage laws.
March 27, 2014: The Long Road to Banning Texting While Driving
Oklahoma Watch's David Fritze talks to Sen. Ron Sharp R-Shawnee about why his bill to ban texting while driving did not pass for a second consecutive year.
March 20, 2014: Another Bill Bites the Dust
In the battlefield that is the Oklahoma Legislature, there are a number of ways for bills to die.
Some bills are voted down in committee or on the floor. Many others fail to get moved out of their house of origin by deadline, which was March 13 this year.
In the Senate this session, out of the 976 bills and 35 joint resolutions filed, 336 survived to move to the House for consideration. In the House, out of 1,197 bills and 23 joint resolutions, 348 were green-lighted to go to the Senate.
Here are eight bills and resolutions that didn’t survive the early stages.
SB 2116, by Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Forest Park
The bill that would legalize marijuana possession and cultivation for those over age 21 didn’t make it to the Senate floor.
SB 1473, by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow
Dahm’s bill was given the ironic name of the Piers Morgan Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms without Infringement Act, after the former CNN host who favors stricter gun control. Dahm was quoted as saying the bill would expand the rights of citizens to openly carry firearms.
Board of Corrections
HB 2876, by Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole
This bill would have abolished the Oklahoma Board of Corrections and have the department’s director report to the governor.
HB 2732, by Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville
The House voted down this measure, which would have given inmates who are required to serve 85 percent of their sentences a chance to earn credits for good behavior when their sentence starts. Currently, inmates can earn credits only after serving 85 percent of their time.
HB 3028, Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton
The former Speaker of the House proposed consolidating the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Arts Council into the Department of Tourism, but the bill died after being heard in committee.
Three House bills, by Reps. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah; Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, and Ann Coody, R-Lawton
Brown’s bill, HB 2313, would have boosted teachers’ pay to the regional average as determined by salaries in surrounding states. Proctor’s HB 2636 proposed to increase teacher pay at schools where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. HB 2966 by Coody would have increased minimum teachers’ salaries by about $2,000. All three died. Yet funds for pay increases could still come through education appropriations, said Amanda Ewing, associate executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association.
HB 2243, by Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City
Nelson’s “parent trigger” bill, carried over from last year, would have allowed parents to make administrative changes at poorly performing schools if enough parents signed a petition. Parents could then fire staff, hire a private management company to operate the school or turn the school into a charter school.
HBs 3378, 3379, 3380, by Rep. T.W. Shannon
While still speaker, Shannon said he would make judicial reform a priority and introduced various reform bills, none of which survived. The bills would have set term limits for members of the appellate judiciary to 12 years and required Oklahoma Supreme Court justices to retire at 75. A proposed Board on Judicial Performance Evaluation, made up of people appointed by the governor and legislators, was proposed to evaluate judges in the state.
March 20, 2014: Sen. AJ Griffin on Requiring Painkiller Prescription Checks
Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, talks with reporter Warren Vieth about prescription drug abuse and her bill that would require doctors to use Oklahoma's Prescription Monitoring Program.
March 12, 2014: We Are Women, We Are Few
Reps. Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City, and Emily Virgin, D-Norman, talk with Oklahoma Watch Editor David Fritze about why there are relatively few women in the Legislature.
March 12, 2014: Proposal Would Overhaul Medicaid
March 13, 2014, Update: Senate Bill 1495 was amended Wednesday so that, rather than create a statewide privately-run managed care model by 2017, it would instead direct the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to create a pilot program for a privately-run managed care system by Jan. 1, 2016. The amended bill passed the Senate on Thursday morning by a vote of 25-21. - Clifton Adcock
A bill that would make substantial changes to the state’s Medicaid program will likely be brought to the floor of the state Senate for a vote, the bill’s author said.
Senate Bill 1495, the “Oklahoma Medicaid Reform Act of 2014,” by Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, would turn the state’s SoonerCare program into a privatized “managed care” model.
Medicaid is a federal- and state-funded program that provides health care to low-income adults and children, including the disabled. The program is managed at the state level. The program is managed by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
David’s bill would require the authority to develop a statewide plan for all individuals covered by the Medicaid system; the program would shift to managed care by 2017.
All SoonerCare enrollees would have to enroll through a private managed-care organization. Another bill, HB 2788, by Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, contains similar provisions.
Such a change would require a federal waiver. However, Florida enacted a similar change to its Medicaid program in 2011, and a federal waiver allowing those changes was granted in 2013.
Medicaid managed-care plans often are operated by private companies that contract with the state, which provides the organization with a set amount of money per enrollee each month. The amount varies depending on each person's age, health and other factors. The company then pays providers, such as doctors, hospitals and nursing homes, for the care. If the bills exceed the amount provided by the state, the private company must eat the cost; if the bills are less, the company keeps the excess unless its contract caps the margin, in which case the net amount is returned to the state.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Oklahoma’s Medicaid plan was administered through a partial managed-care system using health maintenance organizations, or HMOs. Medicaid enrollees in the Tulsa, Oklahoma and Lawton areas were required to go through an HMO to access care, while the state administered the program in rural areas because a lack of primary care providers there, said Carter Kimble, government relations director for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
However, around 2003, the state suffered a funding shortfall even as managed-care groups were seeking an 18 percent increase in state funding, Kimble said. The state was unable to meet that amount, and an Oklahoma City area managed-care organization quit the program. That brought the system below the federally requirement of having three managed-care organizations, he said.
At that point, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority expanded its management of the program to all areas of the state; the program evolved into its current community-based managed-care model, Kimble said.
If the current legislation were signed into law, the Health Care Authority would transition from managing the program to overseeing the contracts between the state and the managed care groups.
David said the bill would improve health outcomes, lower costs and increase access to health care. She will likely bring it to the Senate floor for a vote on Wednesday. The deadline for bills to be voted on in their chamber of origin is Thursday.
“We have some of the lowest health outcomes in the nation, and yet we pay some of the highest provider rates,” David said. “We don’t do a good job of managing the care of this population.”
David said the health care environment has changed and would likely prevent a reoccurrence of the problems with the managed care system during the 1990s, and other states that have gone the statewide managed care route have provided a blueprint for the way forward.
Kimble said the Health Care Authority is neutral on the bill. Kimble said SoonerCare enrollees would not likely see dramatic shifts in their health care plans if the bill is passed; the increasing number of managed care organizations and reforms in the Affordable Care Act have helped resolve issues with patient coverage by the groups.
Kimble also said doctor shortages in rural areas are one of the reasons why SoonerCare has provider reimbursement rates that are higher than national average; the higher rates create an incentive for providers to accept SoonerCare patients.
Although David said the legislation has received support from advocates for patients, doctors and hospital groups are not as supportive.
Charles Clark, president of Oklahoma’s State Council on Aging, criticized the plan in a March 2 opinion piece in the Tulsa World.
In an opinion article in the Journal Record, David Blatt, president of the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute, warned the plan could lead to the same problems the state faced in the late 1990s after it experimented with a managed care-type system for Medicaid.
The plan received support from the Oklahoma City-based think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. , which hosted a seminar for legislators last May highlighting the managed-care model in Florida and other states.
To read Senate Bill 1495, follow the link, click on the “Versions” tab and select Floor (Senate). http://www.oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=SB1495
March 10, 2014: Legislative Deadline This Week
This week is the final week that bills can be heard in their chamber of origin in the Legislature.
That means that if a House member introduced a bill, and it got past committee, it has until Thursday to be voted on by the full House. It’s the same situation in the Senate.
Bills that get passed by the end of the day Thursday will go to the other chamber to be considered by that chamber’s various committees.
Here’s a link to this legislative session’s deadlines: http://www.okhouse.gov/Legislation/LegislativeDeadlines.aspx
- Clifton Adcock
Feb. 26: Bill Would Require Marriage Program
A House committee has approved a bill that would require certain couples who have children and are seeking a divorce to go through an Oklahoma Marriage Initiative program before the divorce is granted.
House Bill 2249 by Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, passed the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday by a vote of 6-2. It would need approval by the full House and then the Senate.
The bill would require couples who have a minor child and are seeking a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility to attend and pay for a program to educate the parents on the negative effects of divorce on children.
The bill states that if the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative has created or approved such a program, then the judge must order couples to attend that program. If the initiative has not created the program, then the courts must use volunteers, including adults who were minors when their parents divorced and who can speak to the negative effects of divorce.
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative was introduced by Gov. Frank Keating in 1999, with the goal of reducing the state’s divorce rate by one-third by 2010. The state provided the initiative with $10 million in discretionary Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or welfare, money to get the program up and running.
The initiative’s goals were scaled back in subsequent years. It now offers workshops and outreach with a focus on marriage sustainability and promoting healthy relationships and families.
Since 2000, about 350,000 people have gone through Oklahoma Marriage Initiative courses or training, the group says, and most who have attended report high rates of satisfaction.
The Oklahoma City-based public relations firm Public Strategies manages and operates the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, contracting with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to receive funding.
Between 2002 and 2013, Public Strategies received more than $70 million in federal funds to promote marriage in Oklahoma, according to an Oklahoma Watch report in November. Of that, Oklahoma provided around $58 million through federal discretionary TANF funds, while the federal government has awarded the company around $13 million in grants.
In 2013, former House Speaker T.W. Shannon authored a bill, eventually passed into law, to provide discretionary TANF funds to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative to pay for public service announcements promoting marriage. Those PSAs are to be developed in the latter half of this year.
During Wednesday morning’s Human Services Committee hearing, Nelson said the reason he is offering the bill on divorce “is to make sure accurate information is given to parents before they make that decision, so they can weigh the cost and have input from professionals and people divorce has impacted in the past.”
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative would likely develop and oversee the program’s curriculum, since it has developed programs and conducted research on relationships and marriage in the past, Nelson said.
The program would likely be offered through video and the cost should be minimal, he said.
If some other organization developed curriculum for the program, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative must first approve it, he said.
Feb. 25: Risks of Read-or-Fail Law
State Rep. Mike Shelton talks on Capitol Watch Video about his bill, HB 2565, that would delay implementation of the Reading Sufficiency Act, which requires third graders to pass a standardized reading test to advance to fourth grade. This year's third graders will be the first to be held to that requirement. Shelton's bill would restart the run-up to high-stakes testing to allow schools and teachers to better prepare students to improve their reading skills.
Feb. 17: Let My Bills Be Heard!
Cheryl Williams and Dan McKenzie were fuming. They had sat through an hour-long session of the Senate Education Committee, where all sorts of things were talked about. But not the one thing they really cared about—Common Core.
“I’m just a Republican who happened to off work today so I came down here because I was fed up,” said Williams, who does contract work for the Federal Aviation Adminitration.
Williams and McKenzie, both of Edmond, were among more than 100 people who thronged the Capitol to demand passage of legislation that would eliminate, suspend or scale back the controversial educational standards adopted in 2010.
A raft of bills have been introduced to do just that. But in the Senate, seven of them have been assigned to the Education Committee. And none of them has been scheduled for a hearing by Chairman John Ford, a Common Core supporter.
Unless Ford budges by the end of next week, all seven bills will die in his committee.
“I think the standards are good,” said Ford, a Bartlesville Republican whose wife is a former public school teacher.
Common Core is a set of defined standards for English language and mathematics instruction in K-12 schools. It was designed by the National Governors Association, and implemented by state legislatures across the country. But it is under attack by conservatives who consider it a stalking horse for “federalization” of public schools.
Ford says the critics are misinformed, and believes it would be wrong to derail the initiative before it has an opportunity to prove itself.
“Common Core somehow has been defined as something much different than what it really is,” he said, shortly before finding himself surrounded in a hallway by a knot of opponents who were still demanding a hearing.
Williams and McKenzie said it was fine with them if Ford defended Common Core and voted to keep it in place. But they were outraged that he could use his unilateral power as committee chairman to prevent it from even being discussed.
“You get one guy like Sen. Ford, and he can just stop things,” said McKenzie, who teaches welding at Moore-Norman Vocational Technical School. “It eliminates representative government.”
Williams and McKenzie will have another opportunity to push for a hearing next week before a committee passage deadline arrives.
“If you have something assigned to your committee, at least have the courtesy to let it be heard,” implored Williams. “At least let the process work.”
Feb. 14: Errors in Campaign Finance Filings
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission’s website offers citizens a chance to see who is donating how much to what candidate. But errors can occur and may not be detected.
In December, while searching campaign donation records filed with the commission, an Oklahoma Watch reporter noted two donations recorded by the political action committee for The Geo Group Inc., a private prison company. Geo Group’s PAC had written two $5,000 checks to then-House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s 2014 campaign, one on Jan. 30, 2013, and the other on July 17, 2013. Shannon stepped down as speaker on Tuesday to run for U.S. Senate.
State law limits donations from a single source to a candidate’s committee to $5,000. A violation of that law could bring civil and criminal penalties.
Shannon’s candidate-committee records, filed in late 2013, showed that only one $5,000 donation was accepted in September. Neither Shannon’s committee nor Geo Group’s PAC reported that one of the $5,000 checks had been returned.
It was the same in Jan. 31 filings covering the final quarter of 2013. Neither committee reported a return of one of the $5,000 checks. In addition, Geo Group’s PAC showed a $2,500 donation made in November to the campaign of state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. That was on top of two Geo Group PAC donations to Cleveland earlier in the year, bringing the total to $7,500, above the $5,000 maximum.
Oklahoma Watch called the treasurers for Geo Group and Shannon, but neither immediately returned calls.
A few days later, Geo Group filed two amended PAC statements. The first showed that the first $5,000 check to Shannon had been lost and a stop-payment order had been issued. The second showed that the Cleveland campaign had returned the third $2,500 donation.
The amended filings and documents indicate there was no breach of ethics laws or rules. Click here to see the filed documents.
Clifton Adcock can be reached at cadcock@Oklahomawatch.org
Feb. 13: Campaign Finance Disclosure
Gov. Mary Fallin is proposing an injection of funds to help the Oklahoma Ethics Commission create a new campaign finance disclosure system, but the commissioner doesn’t know if the amount will be enough.
Fallin proposed spending $780,000 in fiscal 2015 to fix or replace the commission’s outdated software, which allows for campaign contributions and expenditures, as well as candidate information, to be filed by candidates and viewed by the public.
But what the commission ultimately receives won’t be known until legislators approve the budget in May.
Early estimates to replace the system were between $3 and $6 million, Commissioner Lee Slater said. Since then, officials have learned they can get new software cheaper, but are not yet sure if Fallin’s proposed allocation would cover the cost, he said.
Slater said the system is so bad that it needs to be scrapped, which would cost the same as fixing the bugs in the current software.
“Our current software is a mess,” Slater said. “It’s not reliable.”
Among the issues cited by Slater:
• Lawmakers sometimes can’t see their previous campaign fundraising and expenditure reports.
• Software won’t always let candidates enter information into forms.
• Contribution tallies are frequently incorrect.
• Filed reports don’t always appear.
Some other states offer better campaign disclosure systems. Wyoming, for example, abandoned its paper filing system in 2010 and bought user-friendly electronic filing software for $2.5 million.
The Ethics Commission received $50,000 in 2008 to buy Federal Election Commission software, but the amount was not enough for an upgrade and ended up being used for employee salaries.
Slater said the commission is pricing new software and hopes to have an estimated cost before the end of the legislative session. He added that unlike in 2008, money won’t be diverted for salaries.
Feb. 12: Heroin in Oklahoma
The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has focused attention on rising heroin use among people who previously had been taking prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that the number of previous-month heroin users nationwide doubled from 166,000 in 2002 to 335,000 in 2012. The U.S. population increased 9 percent during that period.
In Oklahoma, some state officials are expressing concern that prescription painkillers have become “gateway” drugs leading to heroin use. Oklahoma has one of the highest prescription painkiller abuse rates in the nation.
So far, the trend has not shown up in state statistics. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services told Oklahoma Watch they have not yet detected an appreciable rise in heroin overdoses or abuse.
But state officials concede that efforts to crack down on prescription drug diversion appear to have caused the street price of OxyContin and other popular prescription painkillers to rise, while increased supplies of bootleg heroin have caused its cost to decline.
One Oklahoma City physician who specializes in drug dependency, Hal Vorse, said the street price of heroin is now only about a third of the cost of an equivalent dose of OxyContin. He said heroin users now constitute a bigger share of his patient population.
Some state officials are taking notice.
“The attention to an inadvertent increase in heroin use is critical to ensure we are getting treatment for addicts rather than simply shutting off one source of drugs, only to have them substitute another,” Oklahoma Health Commissioner Terry Cline said in a text message.
“We must have a comprehensive approach to tackling this huge challenge in our state,” Cline said.
Feb. 10: Hickman's Positions
Rep. Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview, has been elected the new Speaker of the House, replacing T.W. Shannon. Will this mean a change in the fate of certain key pieces of legislation?
It's too early to tell, but perhaps there's a hint in some of the positions taken and bills introduced by Hickman in recent years:
*Last year, Hickman was among a handful of Republicans who opposed the cut in the income tax rate to 5 percent by 2015. According to the Associated Press, he thought the cut was too risky without a provision to trigger more revenue in the event the state faced an economic downturn. The state Supreme Court rejected the tax cut because it was contained in a proposal that had more than one subject. Gov. Mary Fallin has proposed an income tax cut again this year of a quarter of a percentage point.
* In 2012, Hickman co-authored SB 1733 with Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, that made Oklahoma the 25th “open carry” state. The measure requires gun owners to undergo firearms training, obtain a license/permit, and undergo a background check before they can openly carry. Those requirements are more stringent than those of some other states.
* In 2008, Hickman introduced a bill to ban texting while driving but it died in committee. Advocates of such a ban are pushing hard again this year and feel their chances are better.
* In 2007, Hickman protested a bill requiring children under 18 to wear helmets when riding ATVs, arguing that the state should not take over the role of the parents.
Feb. 10: Harry Coates Bares It All
Many Oklahoma legislators play it close to the vest on their financial disclosure forms, revealing the minimum on annual filings with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
But state Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, appears to put all of his cards on the table.
The two-page “Statement of Financial Interests” asks for such details as the type of prior-year income from state government and other sources if the amounts exceed $5,000. It also requires listing the names of lobbying firms with which the legislator has done more than $5,000 in business, honoraria over $200, types of securities valued at more than $5,000, fiduciary relationships and other facts. But except for honoraria, the form doesn’t ask for specific amounts.
Coates goes much further.
In a detailed attachment to his last report, in 2012, Coates, a 63-year-old construction consultant, revealed his annual income at $212,200, the amount of cash in two checking accounts ($65,500), and the amount of federal and state income taxes he paid ($47,600). He listed the value of his four proprietorship interests ($144,000 total), and the value of real estate he owns ($585,000 total), not to mention retirement funds ($714,900). Total net worth: about $1.5 million.
His 2013 form said there was no change in his financial situation.
Coates has been in the Senate since 2002 and is term-limited, so he will leave in mid-November.
He said he discloses a lot of financial data because “I just don’t want
want anyone to think I’m hiding something.”
Coates said he usually fills out his statement after preparing similar forms for his taxes each year.
“If you’re going to do it at all, it ought to be detailed,” Coates said. “I don’t think it does a lot of good to fill out the financial part of that if you don’t put the information on there.”
Feb. 6: Texting Behind the Wheel
Years of failed legislation have not dimmed Laura Gamino’s hopes that Oklahoma lawmakers will impose a ban on texting while driving.
Gamino walks the halls of the State Capitol regularly to meet with legislators and attend committee meetings in an effort to advocate for bills that would make texting while driving illegal.
Gamino is the injury prevention coordinator for the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, so pushing such legislation is part of her job. Traffic injuries are the most common reason people are admitted to the hospital, which, along with about 15 other organizations, is part of a coalition, Drive Aware Oklahoma, that advocates for the ban.
Gamino also feels personally motivated because she gets scared when she sees people looking at their phones while driving.
“I don’t want to share the road with people whose eyes are looking down,” Gamino said. “It’s very frightening.”
Oklahoma is among only nine states that haven’t approved a ban on texting while driving. This session, legislators have introduced seven bills that would ban the practice and create fines of up to $500 that apply to drivers who text while their vehicle is moving.
A similar bill was proposed last year but wasn’t heard on the House floor.
Gamino says she can’t explain why similar bills failed in earlier years. Some legislators view the ban as government intrusion into people’s private lives and feel it is redundant because police officers can already pull people over for distracted driving. One lawmaker asked if the state’s next step would be to ban eating a hamburger while driving.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, when a driver reaches for a phone, dials or texts on a cell phone or other portable device, the risks of having an accident increase threefold. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for 4.6 seconds, which means a vehicle traveling at 55 miles per hour would cover the length of a football field during that time.
Gamino said she is optimistic a ban will be approved this session because
she says the public is more educated about the dangers of texting drivers.
“We’re trying to bring it more to the forefront of the public’s eye. Surveys show the public is in favor of this,” Gamino said.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s 2014 message to constituents can be boiled down to three key assertions:
Oklahomans deserve another tax cut, no matter what. Most state agencies can absorb a 5 percent budget reduction without suffering. Just about anything the Obama administration is for, Oklahoma’s executive branch is against.
Fallin’s State of the State address, her fourth since taking office, set the stage for the beginning of the 2014 legislative session, which began Monday and will end in late May.
Besides calling for another income tax cut and reduced funding for most state programs, Fallin denounced Obamacare, defended state education reforms, denied pay raises to most rank-and-file state workers, asked school districts to take care of their own storm shelter needs and endorsed debt financing for Capitol repairs.
"Let’s take this opportunity to show our country that lower taxes and limited government do work,” Fallin said as she wrapped up her 42-minute address and aired what may become the central theme of her 2014 reelection campaign.
“The Oklahoma way, not the Washington way, is the best way.”
Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth covered the governor’s speech and the immediate aftermath in a series of live-action tweets on Monday. Follow us on Twitter to read more @OklahomaWatch. You also can view the governor's detailed handout on her budget proposal.
Warren Vieth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to see Gov. Mary Fallin's State of the State speech in a word cloud and full text.