Over 1,700 bills and resolutions have been introduced for the 2016 legislative session, along with an equal number of measures from last session that remain alive and could still be considered this year. Despite the  plethora of legislation, there is little doubt that this session will be dominated by debates over how to address the state’s massive budget shortfall, which is at $901 million and is likely to grow even larger when the Board of Equalization certifies new projections in mid-February.

For OK Policy too, budget and tax issues will be of highest concern over the coming months. But we will also pay close attention to many other issue areas where there may be opportunities for policy gains or threats of serious setbacks. Last fall, our staff went through a multi-step process to identify our top priorities for 2016, identifying those issues that were of the greatest importance to Oklahomans while also fitting within our organization’s mission, expertise, and ability to make a difference. We came up with  some two dozen issues in six areas: budget and taxes, education, criminal justice, health care, voting and elections, and economic opportunity. In December, many of you took the time to complete a survey and offer feedback on our issues, which has helped us further hone our plan for the session.

Here is a brief summary of our 2016 policy priorities. We will be writing more about many of these issues in the coming weeks.

Budget and Taxes

We will make a forceful case that the state’s budget emergency can’t be solved only by doubling down on painful budget cuts and one-time revenues fixes that deepen the structural budget deficit. Instead, recurring revenues must be on the table. We shared a few sensible revenue solutions to the budget crisis in this recent fact sheet, including reversing the latest tax cut, adopting combined corporate reporting, ending the double deduction of state income taxes, and improving collection of taxes owed on online purchases. We’re pleased that the Governor’s budget echoes the need for recurring revenues and endorses our proposal for ending the double deduction.

“We’re pleased that the Governor’s budget echoes the need for recurring revenues and endorses our proposal for ending the double deduction.”

In addition to measures that address the current budget crisis, the state needs to adopt better budgeting tools to help guide long-term decisions making. For example, HB 2899 by Rep. Scott Inman would require that the Governor’s annual budget include multi-year revenue projections and estimates of the cost of maintaining current levels of services into the future, known as a current services budget. At least a half-dozen other bills also call on agencies to prepare multi-year revenue and budget projections.

We will also continue to oppose proposals like HJR 1018, SJR 4 and SJR 37 that call for a constitutional convention to adopt a federal Balanced Budget Amendment and possibly other constitutional amendments designed to limit federal power. A convention is a risky approach that could lead to far-reaching and radical changes to America’s time-tested Constitution, while also creating major risks to the economy by preventing government from responding to alleviate economic downturns.

Health Care

emergency room signOne of our highest rated priorities among our survey respondents was to accept federal funds to cover more low-income working adults through Soonercare or Insure Oklahoma.  According to the 2013 Leavitt Report, expanding coverage would provide a large net benefit to the state budget, as additional state costs would be more than offset by shifting current state spending to 100 percent federal dollars and from the economic boost of bringing new health care investment into the state. The Legislature can approve SB 1372 by Sen. John Sparks to bring in these federal dollars and expand coverage.

Also beneficial would be to increase the excise tax on cigarettes and tobacco, as proposed in HB 2498 HB 2505 and HJR 1058 by Rep. Doug Cox and by Gov. Fallin in her State of the State address. A tobacco tax increase would improve Oklahomans’ health by reducing tobacco use while generating substantial new revenue, which may be essential to meeting our third health care priority, preventing deeper cuts to Soonercare reimbursement rates. Since 2010, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority has enacted close to $450 million in program cuts, most of which have reduced rates and limited payments to health care providers. Further rate cuts could lead to providers refusing to see Soonercare patients, which would threaten Oklahoma’s health care safety net and further limit access to care for Oklahoma’s low-income residents.

Finally, OK Policy will closely monitor legislation that would expand Medicaid managed care and outsource administration of the program to managed care organizations. SB 1500 and SJR 56, both by Sen. Rob Standridge, instructs the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to cease all plans for a managed care pilot program, reversing a bill passed last year.

Voting and Elections

Last session saw the introduction of well over a dozen bills aimed at increasing electoral participation in Oklahoma and passage of several measures, including one that creates a new option for online voter registration. Many of last year’s bills remain active, while new proposals have been introduced.  While there are many worthy election reform measures under consideration, we are especially hopeful about proposals that would allow voters to choose permanent absentee voter status (HB 1559 by Rep. Elise Hall), extend the early election voting period (SB 317 by Sen. Holt) , and provide for pre-registration of youth beginning at age 16 (SB 999 by Sen. Holt).

Economic Opportunity

For the one in twelve Oklahomans with a felony conviction in their past, a criminal record can create huge obstacles to rebuilding their lives and becoming productive family members and citizens. Last year, OK Policy helped lead the successful fight for passage of HB 2168, which removes restrictions on obtaining state-issued job licenses for professions that do not substantially relate to an applicant’s crime. Legislation filed this year, HB 2585 by Rep. Mark Lepak, would build on this progress by creating a more uniform policy for the consideration of a criminal record by occupational licensing boards, as well as providing an appeals process for applicants with criminal records to show evidence of rehabilitation.

Similarly, SB 1075 by Sen. Kevin Matthews would enact a “hire outside the box” policy prohibiting large employers from asking for information about felony convictions until job applicants have advanced in the hiring process. This would give Oklahomans with a felony conviction more opportunity to explain their circumstances while still allowing employers to make the final hiring decision on an individual basis. HB 2475 by Rep. Pam Peterson would enact a similar policy, though this bill only applies to state employers.

Many bills have been introduced aimed at improving wages and working conditions for working Oklahomans. OK Policy requested one of these bills, HB 2897 by Rep. Scott Inman, that would require employers to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodation for limitations related to pregnancy. 

Finally, we have long expressed concern about payday loans — short-term, high-cost credit that can trap economically vulnerable households in a vicious cycle of debt. We will be supporting SB 1074 by Sen. Kevin Matthews, which aims to curb payday loans by limiting the annual percentage rate (APR) allowed for a loan to 36 percent. Currently lenders in Oklahoma can charge an APR as high as 395 percent. Meanwhile, payday lenders are pushing SB 1314 by Sen. David Holt, which would authorize “flex loans”, a new form of high-cost, short-term credit.

Education

OK Policy will continue to advocate for fiscally responsible policies to improve common education funding and provide teacher raises in Oklahoma. HB 2498HB 2505, and HJR 1058 are nearly identical measures by Rep. Doug Cox that would send to a vote of the people a $1.50 cigarette tax increase, with 66 percent of the proceeds going to a “Common Education Classroom Teacher Performance Stipend Revolving Fund.” Numerous other bills have been filed to increase Oklahoma’s minimum teacher salary schedule in order to provide across-the-board teacher raises, but without an identified funding source, these are unlikely to be feasible.

We’ll also keep a close eye on bills that threaten to eliminate some of Oklahoma’s most successful education programs. Among these are SB 872 by Sen. Patrick Anderson, which would revoke Oklahoma’s Promise college scholarships for any student convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors. Other proposed bills would threaten higher education access for low- and moderate-income students by tinkering with tuition aid amounts or by requiring students receiving aid to attend community college for the first two years of their education. We’ll also stand against bills like Sen. Greg Treat’s SB 1324, which would roll back Oklahoma’s nationally-praised and proven effective universal pre-K program.

Education will continue to be a hot topic for policymakers in many other ways this year, including attempts to delay full implementation of the Teacher-Leader Effectiveness evaluation system, proposals to reduce the number of mandatory state tests, and various ideas to encourage or require school district consolidation. We’ll examine and weigh on in these issues as the session develops.

Criminal Justice

We’re seeing a lot of potential for major criminal justice reform in Oklahoma this year. In her State of the State address, Governor Fallin proposed several sentencing reforms for drug possession and low-level property crimes. These reform ideas have been filed as HB 2472, HB 2751, and HB 2753 by Rep. Pam Peterson. A simultaneous effort by the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform coalition, which includes OK Policy, is seeking a statewide referendum to reform sentences for certain low-level crimes and use the cost savings to invest in drug addiction and mental health treatment as well access to education and job training.

Another serious problem in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is the trend of courts imposing onerous fines and fees on those with little ability to pay. When Oklahomans are arrested for not keeping up with these debts, the result has become a modern-day debtors’ prison. That’s why HB 2383 by Rep. Regina Goodwin would prohibit the imprisonment of defendants for nonpayment of fines and fees and authorize courts to order community service in lieu of payment. HB 3119 by Rep. Scott Martin would allow drug court judges to waive fines and fees on completion of the drug court program.

In a similar vein, SB 1189 and SB 838 by Sen. Kyle Loveless seek to add safeguards for Oklahomans who have their property seized by law enforcement even without being charged with a crime, under a process known as “civil asset forfeiture.” Numerous abuses of civil asset forfeiture have come to light in Oklahoma and across the country, and OK Policy is part of a coalition including major groups on both the left and the right who want reforms to the law.

With session underway, our priorities list will be a moving target, as some issues fall by the wayside and new threats and opportunities emerge. We hope you will sign up for our email updates and get engaged with our Together Oklahoma advocacy coalition to stay informed and get engaged on these critical issues over the coming months.