The deadline to submit bills for consideration during the Oklahoma 2017 regular session is January 19, 2017. There will be many bills that will be submitted that will die long before any action is taken. Unless you are a real policy junkie, it is folly to get too worked up about some of the bills that are submitted this early in the process. However, here are some key issues that the state is facing that should be on your radar screen during the legislative session.
Budget, budget, budget.
This is a no-brainer. For another year, with a huge budget deficit (projected to be about $870 million), crafting a state budget will eclipse most other issues. The legislature will hear from the 5 state agencies which receive about 77% of the allocated budget about how their funds are spent ahead of the opening of the legislative session. The legislature will consider cuts to be sure, but they may also take a harder look this year at ways to increase revenue as well.
Real ID Act Compliance.
The federal government has provided another extension (until June 6, 2017) for the Oklahoma legislature to pass a law to bring Oklahoma’s law in compliance with the federal Real ID act. Oklahoma’s continued non-compliance with the Act could affect your ability to board a plane, and enter a federal facility (including a courthouse).
Oklahoma is losing quality teachers to bordering states because of the low pay they receive in Oklahoma. Oklahoma teachers’ pay scale hasn’t changed since 2008. State Question 779 which was on the November, 2016 ballot, sought to take a step to remedy that trend, by requiring a $5,000.00/year pay raise for teachers (among several other changes to primary, secondary, and higher public education in Oklahoma). That State Question was rejected by voters. Thankfully, state lawmakers appear not to have taken that defeat as a sign that Oklahoma residents don’t want their teachers to receive higher pay. Bills have already been submitted to address increasing teacher pay. The question, as always, is how to pay for it. A bill has also been submitted, seeking to mandate a 5 day school week across Oklahoma. 100 school districts across the state switched to a 4 day school week this school year, to address budget cuts. There’s no question that 5 day school weeks is preferable, for our kids’ future, and for attracting businesses to open operations in our state. But addressing that issue, without finding ways to increase funding to public education, seems unduly cruel to rural school districts.
Criminal Justice Reform.
The passage of State Questions 780 and 781 were significant steps toward criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Even with those reforms, changes are still needed in order to effectively reduce the rate of growth of the prison population in Oklahoma, and to take away Oklahoma’s dubious distinction of incarcerating more women per capita than any other state in the nation. The governor has formed a criminal justice reform task force that (it is anticipated) will, with the help of the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, assist the legislature in crafting bills aimed at reducing the rate of incarceration in Oklahoma.
The legislature formally convenes on February 6, 2017.