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GOP majority suppresses bills from Democratic legislators as punishment for Step Up failure

GOP Committees Hear Lowest Number of Minority Bills in Recent Memory

OKLAHOMA CITY – Republican-controlled committees have once again put party over state by only passing 30 measures authored by House Democrats through the committee process.

At a time when Oklahomans from both sides of the aisle expect their voices to be heard, House Republican leadership has elected not to listen to the people but instead have used committees to retaliate against Democrats who have chosen to listen to their constituents and stand against big business and special interests.

Specifically, the minority caucus was notified that members who voted against the package would need to transfer their bills to other caucus members who were in favor of Step Up. One such measure, House Bill 2615, authored by Rep. Will Fourkiller (D-Stilwell), was transferred to another Democrat all due to Rep. Fourkiller’s ‘no’ vote on Step Up – a vote requested by a majority of the constituents that contacted him. The measure simply commemorated soldiers buried at the Fort Gibson National Cemetery.

“I have spent seven years at the Capitol, representing the people of Norman and I have never before seen this level of partisan denigration, especially based on a measure that was widely rejected by both parties,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “Several members of the Democratic caucus filed legislation requested by constituents to help make the government more responsive to their needs or to fix problems with our current laws and none of their bills were heard.”

Of the measures denied a hearing, four measures would have provided teacher pay raises of $5,000 or more and five measures would have restored the gross production tax to a rate more equitable for all of Oklahoma. Overall, 38 of the 140 measures introduced by Democratic members and not granted a hearing would have benefitted public education and helped to dramatically improve the state’s fiscal situation.

“When I filed House Bill 2842 to restore the gross production tax rate and dedicate the revenue to a long-term teacher pay increase, I knew I was facing an uphill battle,” states Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah. “But, I also knew that there were several members, both Democrats and Republicans, that supported both of the objectives in this bill.”

Retired educator Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, filed HB2617, which sought to make a tax credit available for teachers that have paid for classroom supplies like reams of paper and pencils. The bill was assigned to a budgetary subcommittee and not granted a hearing.

Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, filed HB2929 to help place a timeline for dealing with the backlog of nearly 7,000 untested rape kits in the state, which is an essential step in stopping serial rapists.

“The victims of sexual assault and rape continue to be ignored in our state,” Nichols said. “Many law enforcement agencies across the state failed to comply with the Governor’s audit request on untested rape kits and now because of politics we are once again showing them justice doesn’t matter. Untested kits leave us with the threat of a rapist walking free. This is an urgent and dangerous problem, it should be bigger than politics but thanks to a few committee chairs, it is not.”

Other measures presented by House Democrats that failed to receive a committee hearing:

HB2531 – Authored by Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, would have restored of the historic gross production tax rate, boosting state revenue by over $300 million.

HB1368 – Authored by Rep. Johnny Tadlock, D-Idabel, approval of dedicated, per-pupil funds for books and supplies.

HB2611 – Authored by Rep. Johnny Tadlock, D-Idabel, created a tiered gross production tax.

HB2741 – Authored by Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, would restore the state standard deduction.

HB2746 – Authored by Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, would increase transparency of the Legislature by subjecting it to the same rules of other public bodies.

HB1876 – Authored by Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, would allow a spouse or family member paid leave to care for veterans returning home with disabilities.

“It’s stunning that we have people elected to serve the citizens of Oklahoma that would refuse to hear good legislation from a member based on a previous vote,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City. “That kind of petty behavior from House leadership effectively silenced the voices of the thousands of Oklahomans who put their faith in their legislators.”

Source: Press release from Democratic Caucus

College Staff Vital To Higher Education Mission

Lost in the most recent asinine Oklahoma spectacle over undocumented students was part of an ultra-conservative legislative group’s proposal that would cut non-instructional jobs at the state’s universities and colleges in an effort to save $328 million.

State Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow), who seemed to indicate he was speaking for the group, didn’t note how many “non-essential, non-instructional” employees all that money would add up to, but I think it’s safe to say hundreds if not thousands of people would lose their jobs under the proposal.

It’s a terrible proposal that, if enacted, would seriously devastate college and universities and harm the lives of those people who lose their jobs as well as students, but it was overshadowed in the media by Ritze’s proposal that the state could save $60 million by identifying non-documented students in public schools and turning them over to federal authorities to have them deported.

Other members of the group, Republican Reform Caucus, disavowed Ritze’s deportation proposal, which is unconstitutional and, well, just basically cruel and abusive, but by then Oklahoma had to endure another national media spectacle as news outlets from throughout the country reported the news.

Even in the Trump era there are plenty enough people who think the idea of deporting children and denying them an education is appalling. Even in Oklahoma, the idea was greeted by at least some leading Republicans—Gov. Mary Fallin, for example—as a non-starter. Ritze, who started the entire Ten Commandments monument controversy at the Capitol a while back, has been part of an Okie spectacle before so this is nothing new to him.

So we maybe could have just moved on from the media fiasco after that, as we always do, except for the proposal to cut $328 million from higher education. As you might recall, the legislature and Fallin cut funding to higher education by 16 percent last fiscal year. Although it’s unlikely the group’s proposal to cut that many higher education employees will survive intact, I do think it’s an indication that college and universities can expect another major cut.

The state is facing a $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, but the larger issue is Oklahoma faces a huge budget structural problem, which short-term fixes through cuts or minor revenue increases can’t solve.

I think a case in point of the structural problem would be this proposal to cut hundreds of college and university staffers, who support instructional staff. College staff, from IT specialists to advisors to administrators, do important, meaningful work. What would happen under this doomsday scenario is that instructors would then have to assume much of the staff work, taking their attention away from the classroom and research.That, in turn, would harm students, who pay tuition to attend college.

My point is that the state leaders can’t just lay off hundreds of state workers in higher education and expect there to be no impact on the quality of education or the number of college graduates in the state. Oklahoma, as we all know, lags behind the national average in college graduates. This proposal, or any proposal that significantly cuts higher education, is not feasible for the basic sustainability of our colleges and universities.

More importantly, what would happen next year when there’s nothing left to cut?

Oklahoma Faces Budget Problems Once Again

So here we are once again in a state budget mess as time begins to wind down in the legislative session and, faced with a $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, lawmakers and stakeholders have starting offering up proposals.

On one side of the proposals, a small group of legislators and their supporters are suggesting the state raise the oil and gas production tax back to its historic level of 7 percent and increase income taxes on the wealthiest Oklahomans. This could put a dent in the shortfall

On another side, there are proposals to tax more services and raise taxes on cigarettes and fuel, which would help the financial situation somewhat and could lead to teacher raises but would hardly solve the problem. Some people see these as regressive taxes, as well, because people with less income pay more of a percentage of their income for the essentials of life. One can argue whether cigarettes are “essential,” of course.

Then there’s The Oklahoman editorial board, which recently warned “ . . . if lawmakers raise taxes on oil and gas production and cause curtailment of drilling, they could quickly turn the current state recovery back into a recession.”

In the end, funding cuts seem to be a given once again this coming year.

So we’re stuck in a dire situation. Oklahoma, it has been noted repeatedly, has cut education the most on a percentage basis than any other state since 2008. Teachers haven’t had an across-the-board raise in years, and many are flocking to other states for better pay and support.

Virtually all areas of state government have been slashed financially in recent years as the hydraulic fracturing boom evaporated because of the world oil glut and because of tax breaks for energy companies and recent income tax cuts that primarily benefited wealthy people. The Oklahoman notes, “Energy production is a foundational element of Oklahoma’s economy,” but, well, that’s both the point and the problem.

As I’ve written here before, Oklahoma needs structural change in its economy and its tax revenue streams. What if peak oil demand and the creation of more renewable energy means Oklahoma won’t ever again enjoy the real “boom” side of the boom and bust cycles of the fossil fuel industry? That’s a possibility.

Oklahoma does have plenty of land, electricity and a decent location with two major Interstate highways running through it. It makes it ideal for growth in technology companies and tech-related businesses, but how can that happen without a more educated workforce?

How do you get an educated workforce after draconian cuts to education at all levels, which includes a16 percent funding cut to higher education last year.

Where Is The Plan To Fund Oklahoma Teacher Raises?

Legislators have apparently yet to come to an agreement on how they plan to fund proposed teacher raises and with their session scheduled to end in about a month that’s not an encouraging sign. reported that the Oklahoma Senate has not scheduled a hearing on a proposed House bill that would raise teacher salaries by $6,000 spread out over three years. This means it missed a Thursday deadline, although by rule it could still be worked out by the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget, according to the article.

The Oklahoma Legislature, at least in recent years, has been noted for bringing up companion legislation and passing budget deals at the very end of the session, which is a practice that sometimes gives little time for public input on crucial matters impacting the state.

The teacher pay raise, which is a crucial matter given that some teachers here are flocking to other states for better salaries, has been endorsed by a number of Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin. The sticking point, of course, is that the state faces an $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year. How will the raises be funded?

The lack of an agreement on a funding plan may well mean at least some legislators want to be perceived as trying to fight for teacher raises when, in fact, they know that given the dire budget situation there’s no way any significant increase is possible.They want to have it both ways. Even a nominal raise would help, but committing the state to a three-year, $6,000 teacher pay increase without significant tax hikes or additional revenue streams would mean drastic cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Gov. Fallin has suggested the state start taxing a list of services, which has been met with mixed approval. There is a proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack. The Democrats in the legislature have suggested raising taxes on higher incomes and restoring the overall oil and gas production tax to 7 percent. There’s still no real agreement on these issues.

Is it possible that education will face cuts again and teachers will go without raises? It could happen.

Got A Light To Help The State Budget? Increasing Cigarette Tax Under Consideration Again

I don’t necessarily see anything wrong about raising the state’s cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, but the legislative effort to pass it again shows how Oklahoma is still dependent on small fixes to help shore up its budget.

The proposed tax increase would generate around $184 million the first year in a budget of approximately $7 billion, and some $50 million of that would go to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which is a good thing. With additional matching federal funding for health programs the amount of money the tax would generate has the potential to increase incrementally.

The problem though is that part of the mission of the tax is to get people to stop smoking so, if that happened, fewer smokers would mean declining revenue. It’s a tax that seeks its own demise.

In addition, those of us that don’t smoke won’t contribute at all, and smokers would pay a steeper price for their habit. The tax is regressive in that lower-income people, if they smoke, spend more of a percentage proportion of their money for cigarettes. I understand why smokers would oppose the cigarette tax and feel singled out, but the evidence is clear that long-term smoking can and does lead to severe illnesses, such as cancer and emphysema. The nicotine contained in cigarettes is also a highly addictive drug, and it’s difficult to quit. The tax is regressive, but it’s also a public health issue in terms of the overall medical costs to our society.

So it’s a debatable issue with no real answer. Do people have the right to smoke? Of course. But how much of that right infringes on other people in terms of its health costs to our society? This question will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and we know people will continue to smoke in the foreseeable future.

The state faces a $878 million shortfall for next fiscal year. Education funding is at dismal levels, and teacher pay here is ranked 49th in the nation, pushing some educators to leave the state for increased salaries. The budgets of state agencies have been sliced because of the state’s recent budget problems caused by an oil slump and relatively recent enacted income tax cuts and tax credits for the energy industry.

As I wrote earlier, the state budget faces structural financial change. What if we’ve experienced the last true fossil fuel boom in Oklahoma? Revenues from production taxes—taxes that have been cut recently—and income taxes paid by oilfield workers have always driven the economy and the state budget to an proportional extent in Oklahoma. What do we do now besides finding small revenue streams like the cigarette tax to help balance the budget? What happens when there are no more streams to find.

Divorce Bill Would Create Conflict

Each year now for at least a decade, there has been a smorgasbord of really bad and extremist right-wing bills introduced into the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature, from anti-abortion measures to actions that allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community to religious intrusion initiatives that threaten the teaching of real science in our schools.

Some actually make it through the process and are later overturned by lawsuits. Others don’t make it through the process because somewhere along the line a bit of common sense kicks in among the legislative leadership. It’s a circus, and all of this has been happening in the last eight or nine years as the state faces very real fiscal problems. Nothing like a bit of cray cray to take everyone’s minds off major cuts to education funding, right?

House Bill 1277, sponsored by Rep. Travis Dunlap, a Republican from Bartlesville, is one such bill that needs to get stopped by common sense. The bill, which would restrict no-fault divorce in Oklahoma, would make children more vulnerable to the emotional upheaval of divorce and manufactured even more conflict when it’s terribly unnecessary.

Dunlap was quoted in a local story about the bill this way: “I call it human flourishing or family flourishing or those sorts of things.” Okay, “those sorts of things” really doesn’t sort it all out for anyone. Strong families are diverse and have their own unique qualities. Single-parent families, blended families, singles with a strong friendship network, all can and do flourish.

The bill would restrict the use of incompatibility for divorce for couples married 10 years or more or have minor children or when at least one of them objects to the divorce. The couple then would then have to undergo counseling. I especially think the reference in the current version of the bill stating this could come about “where one party objects in writing” is problematic. What if someone does this simply out of spite or anger? The bill has passed out of a House committee, which is not a good sign that cooler heads might prevail. Maybe the Senate will stop the bill from advancing.

We all know Oklahoma has a high divorce rate, which often lands it in the top ten for divorce among states. Much of this has to do because of marriages among young people, whose religious backgrounds and romanticized notions about marriage distort the reality. The state even implemented the failed Oklahoma Marriage Initiative in 1999 to no avail.

The last thing anyone—from counselors to attorneys— should want to do is to inject vitriol and conflict into a family situation involving children and extend psychological chaos because of some legislator’s archaic beliefs about human flourishing, but this is what the bill is designed to do. Dunlap and other Republicans want to engineer human behavior by implementing legal obstacles, but it doesn’t work that way.

There’s no real legal need for this bill. If a couple with children can agree to divorce amicably then that’s obviously the best solution. The makeup of families and marriage itself has been transforming, evolving and changing over many decades now. More people need to embrace the pluralistic nature of new family structures, but that’s something that takes time, but it’s happening, even in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma law restricting emergency contraception blocked in district court

Judge Lisa Davis granted a temporary injunction, blocking a law preventing over-the-counter sales of emergency contraceptive

Today District Judge Lisa Davis blocked a law that made emergency contraception less accessible to women in Oklahoma.

Passed by the legislature with bipartisan support and signed by Governor Fallin this spring, HB 2226 made Oklahoma the only state with a law keeping the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step behind the counter.  The law requires that all women show identification to a pharmacist and teens have a prescription in order to purchase the contraceptive.  

Because of the judge’s temporary restraining order, this law does not go into effect on Thursday as planned and the drug will be available for sale like all other over the counter drugs.

Martha Skeeters speaks at press conference after ruling to block HR 2226 in Oklahoma

Martha Skeeters speaks at press conference after ruling to block HB 2226 in Oklahoma. She is joined by Senator Connie Johnson and lawyers from the Center for Reproductive Rights.


Plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights were the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, an advocacy group, and Jo Ann Mangili, an Oklahoma mother of a teen daughter.

HB 2226 began as a bill concerned with regulating health insurance benefit forms, but came to include the unrelated and discriminatory provision concerning Plan B One-Step. David Brown, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, argued that the law contravened the Oklahoma Constitution’s requirement that a law contain only one subject.

OCRJ President Martha Skeeters said, “The judge’s ruling today is good news for women and teens in Oklahoma, who deserve the same access to emergency contraceptives that women in the rest of the country have.”  The FDA has ruled this contraceptive safe and effective for all ages.  It is most effective the sooner it is taken and effective only up to 72 hours.  So its timely availability is extremely important. 

Skeeters added, “The legislature needs to be more concerned about the far-reaching effects of unintended pregnancy on the health and safety of Oklahomans and refrain from passing unconstitutional bills aimed at restricting accessibility to contraceptives.”

Oklahoma’s rate of births from unintended pregnancy at 48% is much higher than the national rate of 38%.  And Oklahoma ranks seventh among states in teen birth rates.  In 2012 the state settled a lawsuit which alleged among other things that children in the DHS foster care system were being mistreated.  Unfortunately the state has been unable to reach goals set by that settlement to improve the treatment of children in DHS care or to increase the number of social workers.

Senator Connie Johnson explained how the bill's content was altered at the eleventh hour of the legislative session.

Senator Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) explained how the bill’s content was altered at the eleventh hour of the legislative session.

News coverage of the court hearing and reaction:

Posted originally at, and republished here with permission.