Panel of legislative leaders briefs Chamber breakfast attendees
The four top leaders from each body of the Oklahoma Legislature – Senate Pro Tem, Senate Democratic Leader, House Majority Floor Leader and House Democratic Minority Leader – comprised the panel at last month’s Legislative Breakfast and provided their insights heading into the legislative session.
More than 650 Oklahoma City business leaders attended the event, hearing what the legislative leaders expect from a session that features the largest number of freshmen senators and representatives since statehood. Seventy percent of all senators and representatives have four years or less experience. Combined with the new leadership of Governor Kevin Stitt and Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell, the 2019 legislative session has the potential for a fresh start.
There are some residual issues from the previous session--things like the implementation of State Question 788 (medical marijuana), education funding and criminal justice reform.
“The marijuana issue is something that we have dealt with over the entire interim,” said Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat.
“Speaker McCall and myself appointed a bipartisan, bicameral task force to look at this," Treat said. "They came up with some recommendations that they recommended to the Department of Health. Implements some rules on testing and labeling. Unfortunately, in the opinion of the Attorney General and the council at the Department of Health, they were not able to institute those without legislative approval. So, I think early on what you'll see us do is really address the testing and labeling. I think you'll see us be very diligent, very methodical, but also not waste any time and getting good policy implemented.”
Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd said that even though the petition was not perfectly drafted, it is the law of the land.
“As Senator Treat mentioned, Attorney General Mike Hunter actually has given us some guidance in that we know that our scope is limited to the language of the actual petition,” she said. “So, we must make sure that everything legislatively that we do is within those parameters. That being said, we need to be able to make sure employees are protected. However, there has to be a balance with the business community. Employers have a responsibility for safe workplaces and they have a liability situation, also. My caucus believes that we will be able to thread the needle and balance that out with legislation that will benefit both employees, protect employees, while protecting the employers.”
House Majority Leader Jon Echols lauded the bipartisan effort that generated the recommendations.
“I think that committee shows that we've turned a corner in the legislative process,” Echols said.
“Remember, this is a bicameral bipartisan committee," he continued. "House, Senate, Democrats, Republicans came together every Wednesday, did serious work and came up with unanimous recommendations for testing and labeling. I think that is a sign of things to come. The level at which we were able to work together, we're going to have disagreements, but that's one of the ways that we are continuing to work together.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin shared that sentiment.
“I'm looking forward to addressing this in a bipartisan manner and I'm happy to hear that everyone seems to agree that we can find a balance between the will of the people and making sure that we have safe drug-free workplaces,” she said.
When it comes to criminal justice reform, all four panelists agreed that leading the nation in the rate of incarcerations is not a point of pride for the state of Oklahoma. A number of bills have been filed that will, if enacted as a package, stop all projected prison growth in the state by focusing solely on reforms involving non-violent offenders.
“The incarceration rates are not just abysmal, they're embarrassing, to a certain extent,” said Floyd.
“I think it hurts business as it hurts our reputation nationwide. But, most importantly for me, I believe that we cannot address criminal justice reform in Oklahoma without also making part of the discussion about how funding for criminal fees and assessments is basically how the courts are funded. We have got to get away from funding courts in that manner. As long as we fund that way then we will be hampered in our criminal justice reform.”
“We need to start off when we talk criminal justice reform with just a baseline being number one on planet earth in incarceration is not acceptable,” said Echols. “If we all start from this baseline, number one in incarceration on planet Earth is not acceptable, then we're going to have significant moves in criminal justice reform and I think that's what's going to happen next year and I think this Chamber is a large part of helping that happen.”
“We have to talk about reentry and rehabilitation, we have to talk about mental health funding, we have to talk about why people are ending up in the criminal justice system as a safety net, essentially, for substance abuse and mental health disorders,” said Virgin.
The House Minority Leader also said it was music to her ears to hear that everyone seems to be in agreement that there is a problem.
“Now, the challenge is how do we fix it and I think that we are in substantial agreement on how we fix it,” she said. “When we talk about reducing our future population, we have to make sure that we're funding diversionary programs. Make sure that we're not sending people to prison because their probation has been revoked. Thirty percent of our current prison population is there because their probation has been revoked and so that's an important conversation to have.”
“We used to be able to say thank God for Louisiana because their rates were higher than ours, but we surpassed them this year and that's unacceptable,” Treat added. “We can do this much smarter than we've been able to over the last four or five years. The trajectory of our prison population was almost completely upward. It's still growing but it's growing at a slower rate. We must do things to try to bend that trajectory down where we can get some numbers down. And I think we can do so balancing public safety, not making any of our neighborhoods less safe but also realizing that these people not being in prison, getting the substance abuse treatment they need or the mental health treatment that they may need will make society much better. It will produce taxpaying citizens. It will produce kids who don't have the broken families that we've seen, that contributes to cyclical imprisonment. So, I'm excited to work with my colleagues on that this year.”
Another topic that was a major headline-maker last session was education funding. All four legislators are committed to increased levels of funding, with some calling for outcome-based measurements to ensure that the funding is being well-spent.
“We're absolutely committed to the teacher pay raise and continuing to try to find resources for education,” said Treat.
“Resources alone aren’t enough. You have to have measurables, you have to have outcomes. The student needs to be the center of all education policy. How do we get that student prepared for the future? Prepared for either career tech education, a higher education for the workforce and if we don't have outcome-based measurements, we don't know if our money is being well-spent or not. Obviously, teachers deserve more money. Obviously, we need more money in the classroom. But just to throw money at something without having measurables would be a mistake, in my mind.”
Virgin said the Democratic Caucus will be very strong in their support for increased classroom funding and will be very strong in their support for teacher pay increases.
“Because we know that those things are the strategic plan to make sure that we have the outcomes that we need in education,” she said. “Right now, classroom environments simply aren't conducive to learning, they're not conducive to effective teaching when you have 32 third graders in a class that, Lord, I wouldn't want to be in that room. And so, when we talk about outcomes, when we get the funding piece right, the outcomes will be there. And so, if we want to put something about outcomes in legislation, that's fine with me. But I think it's important to note that, right now, our teachers, our administrators, our parents and students are doing an incredible job when they haven't been funded appropriately in at least 10 years.”
Floyd said that last year’s education funding increase was a good start.
“We are still at funding levels that we were at ten years ago and it's not just common education, it's higher education,” she said. “Also, we've got to get back to five-day school weeks, we've got to get back to class sizes that are manageable. We've got to get teachers back into the state and stop the bleeding of teachers leaving the state. We've got to get our certified teacher numbers down. We're almost at 3,000 emergency certified teachers in the state right now. We've got to support education with a strategic plan.”
“Education, at the end of day, is about children,” said Echols.
“It's not necessarily even about schools, it's not about the teachers, it is about the children. When we decide that that's what it's about, then you have to continue that investment. You don't have any other option. You have to continue to invest in the higher levels, but you also have to ask, what are new, innovative ways we make sure that investment makes it to the child level and makes a difference in that child's life?”
Other topics that were discussed included so-called “Constitutional Carry” gun legislation and government reform. All four panelists agreed that there is much work to be done during this year’s session.
“We've got a lot of things on our plate this session,” said Floyd. “We need to continue to work on education. I think everyone has acknowledged that we have issues with criminal justice reform and we're going to continue to work on those. Healthcare and health outcomes in Oklahoma need work. But I'm excited to have a new legislature. New ideas, new perspective, new energy, new excitement.“
“I will tell you we are getting along in a manner that I really haven't seen since I've been up here, from the executive, from the House and the Senate,” Echols observed. “From the minority and the majority party. Not that there's not going to be policy differences, not there's not going to be strong policy differences, but there's a new acceptance that we all wear the same jersey and that's the jersey of an Oklahoman.”
“We have to lock arms with the House, with our Democrat counterparts, to restore trust in the legislative process,” said Treat. “We're not immune to the fact that people don't trust the legislature. We have to show that the people can trust the people they put in office.”
“We have to continue investing in agencies and the outcomes will come,” said Virgin.
“The outcomes will happen. Our health outcomes will increase. Our education outcomes will be much better, as long as we continue to invest.”
While no one can predict what will be acted upon at the state capitol, Chamber Vice Chair of Government Relations Brad Krieger, Arvest Bank, noted at the event that the Greater OKC Chamber is committed to pursuing growth and forward momentum for our state from a business-centric standpoint.
"That it is a goal that we share with all of our elected and appointed officials," Krieger said. "The only way we will move this state forward is by working together and, fortunately for us, that is something that Oklahomans do really well."