Shortly after noon Friday, the Oklahoma Senate adjourned sine die. At the same time, members of the House entered the third hour of questions on the $6.8 billion budget bill to fund state government for the 2017 fiscal year that begins July 1.
This legislative session saw significant budget cuts, long-awaited corrections reform, and changes to the state’s alcohol laws moved forward (you can read more about those here). But several proposals that had been widely talked about in February never quite came to fruition this year.
One of the more surprising turnarounds in the session came when a bill removing license requirements for openly carrying a firearm died in a conference committee. Under the measure, adults 21 and over without a felony record could openly carry firearms without a license or training. State Rep. Jeff Coody, R-Grandfield, authored the “constitutional carry” bill that eventually gained more than 40 co-authors in the House of Representatives. It sailed through both the House and the Senate, with less than 25 lawmakers voting against it.
But then more than two dozen law enforcement agencies, universities and businesses, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, spoke out publicly against the measure. The organizations expressed concerns about public safety at events and arenas where firearm bans are already in place.
“Until these issues can be addressed,” a letter sent to Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said, “we ask that these measures not move forward in the Senate.”
The bill was then sent to a Senate conference committee, instead of to the governor’s desk, where it died.
Real ID Reform
Oklahoma’s compliance with the federal REAL ID Act hit a procedural snag in the House after passing the Senate by a wide margin.
As we reported in April, the legislation by state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, would’ve created a new driver’s license that would’ve met U.S. government security standards. Without a REAL ID-compliant license, Oklahomans won’t be able to enter certain federal facilities and military bases, or board airplanes. Holt’s legislation addressed lawmakers’ concerns about federal overreach by keeping the old licenses as an option for Oklahomans who didn’t want to update their documents.
State Rep. Leslie Osborn’s legislative assistant Cheri Snipes told The Lawton Constitution the Mustang Republican found House members weren’t interested in passing the bill, so she struck the enacting clause. That means she no longer served as the House author of Senate Bill 1362, and no other lawmaker took it up.
Bathroom Bill Bust
With just days left in the session, lawmakers hastily introduced legislation that would provide a religious exemption for students uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with their transgender peers. The bill came on the heels of guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education urging schools to let students use the bathroom of whatever gender they identify with.
Citing both federal overreach and public safety, the Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget spent more than two hours debating the bill May 20 before it passed. Holt said he was ashamed to spend so much time on the legislation when lawmakers were still days away from a budget. The chambers of commerce in Oklahoma’s two largest cities both came out strongly against the legislation, saying it could hurt business in the state. The bill ultimately died in a House committee after a tie vote. During debate, House JCAB members said they were worried about how much it would cost to provide separate bathrooms to students.
Troy Stevenson, the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, said the bill should have never been proposed in the first place.
“We have spent two weeks fighting over where school kids can pee, rather than making sure we can fund their education,” Stevenson said in a statement.
Gov. Mary Fallin originally proposed a $1.50 tax per pack of cigarettes during her State of the State address that she said would generate $181.6 million. As the budget hole ballooned to $1.3 billion, that untapped source of revenue grew in importance.
In March, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority announced Medicaid reimbursement rates to providers would need to be cut by 25 percent, a move that would have squeezed many hospitals - including small, rural ones with a high proportion of Medicaid patients. Shortly thereafter, Oklahoma Health Care Authority CEO Nico Gomez proposed the Medicaid Rebalancing Act to stabilize the Medicaid reimbursement rate and lower the number of uninsured Oklahomans. The tobacco tax would fund the state portion of the Medicaid plan, which would receive a 9-to-1 match under the Affordable Care Act. Hospitals and nursing homes, many facing closure if reimbursement rates were slashed, voiced their support for Gomez’s plan.
Republican lawmakers never fully supported the rebalancing plan, which they saw as Obamacare. A tobacco tax bill was introduced that would help stave off the Medicaid cuts but did not accept the federal dollars. The tax increase required a three-quarters vote, and it failed 59-40 after House Democrats rejected it because it wasn’t tied to Medicaid expansion.
Teacher Pay Tie-Up
Lawmakers spent the entire session talking about boosting teacher pay, since Oklahoma has some of the lowest educator salaries in the region.
Gov. Mary Fallin outlined a plan to raise teacher salaries by $3,000 during her State of the State address in February, but less than a week later House Minority Leader Scott Inman said teacher pay raises weren’t happening this session. State Sen. David Holt’s plan to give teachers a $10,000 pay raise wasn’t heard in committee, and an 11th-hour pay raise proposal was apparently filed by mistake.
The best chance for a teacher pay raise now seems to be a plan backed by University of Oklahoma president David Boren and the grassroots organization Oklahoma’s Children - Our Future. They gathered more than 300,000 signatures as part of an initiative petition to put State Question 779 on the ballot this fall. If the Oklahoma Supreme Court determines enough signatures were gathered, voters will decide November 8 whether or not to approve a 1 percent sales tax increase that would generate about $615 million per year for common and higher education, with more than half of it funding $5,000 pay raises for teachers.