Bill Watch: Whoa, we didn’t see that coming!

Every legislative session is a mix of the expected and unexpected. At the start of the 2019 session, we discussed some of the key bills we expected to be following most closely in the areas of taxes and budget, health care, education, criminal justice, and economic opportunity; as we’ve moved through the initial deadlines, we’ve given updates on which of these bills are continuing through the process and which have fallen by the wayside.

Along with key bills that we’ve been tracking closely from the start, the session has also featured several pieces of less heralded legislation that were not on our — or most people’s — radar but that have now gained some steam. In this edition of our Bill Watch series, we look at some of the bills we are now paying closer attention to that have come from out of left field.

K-12 Education

It’s no surprise that lawmakers this session have supported legislation to boost teacher pay — Gov. Stitt made a $1,200 teacher raise a centerpiece of his State of the State address, and a bill to that effect, HB 1780 by Speaker Charles McCall, sailed through the House unanimously and is now in the Senate. However, two other measures are proposing less conventional means of helping some teachers and have quietly swept through the legislative process with little fanfare.

HB 2502 (Rep. McCall and Sen. Montgomery) would allow teachers to claim up to a $1,000 tax credit for classroom expenses and teacher certification fees. While the bill aims to lower teachers’ tax liability, the bill would place a high administrative burden on teachers to provide receipts for purchases they make throughout the year. In addition, it narrowly restricts “eligible items” to classroom supplies such as glue sticks and pencils, while also allowing for  “similar supplies used and useful in classroom for providing instruction.” This definition of eligible expenses leaves a lot of room for confusion and uncertainty and raises the specter of teachers running afoul of the Oklahoma Tax Commission for failing to maintain proper records. The bill would also benefit some teachers more than others, as those whose tax liability falls below $1,000 could not take full advantage of the credit. With a $51 million price tag, these dollars could be better used to restore cuts in funding that would allow schools to provide for necessary classroom supplies.

Meanwhile, HB 2470 (Rep. McCall and Sen. Thompson) would increase the taxable monthly compensation from $69.10 per month to $300.00 per month for teachers who opt out of flexible benefits. Since this bill would only benefit teachers who do not need to purchase health insurance through their own employer, state dollars would be better spent to increase teacher salaries more equitably across the board.

Criminal Justice

Even with the historic and positive developments in criminal justice reform this legislative session, there are several bills moving forward with negative implications for Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis and the justice process broadly.

SB 858 (Sen. Jech and Rep. Kannady) repeals the broad right to a jury trial in all criminal cases. It also takes away the court’s discretion to use a short prison stay in response to failed probation or parole. HB 1093 (Rep. Osburn and Sen. Pugh) allows prosecutors in certain cases to use evidence that is traditionally inadmissible. HB 1091 (Rep. Osburn and Sen. Smalley) creates a new civil fee to finance court clerks to make up for the some of the funding our courts have lost in recent years. Each of these bills change the court process in ways that would be unnecessarily harmful.

HB 2429 (Rep. Roberts and Sen. Allen) uses state databases at agencies like the DMV to verify the citizenship of registered voters. District Attorneys will be required to investigate anyone flagged by this process. Because these systems are often incomplete and updated slowly, it is likely that naturalized immigrants with a legal right to vote will be needlessly impacted by this law.

Health Care

There was considerable attention early in session to SB 605, a proposal to use federal dollars under the Affordable Care Act to expand health coverage through private insurance plans. The bill passed out of a subcommittee but then stalled. Discussions on a statewide expansion plan are continuing at the Capitol, but for now, the only active expansion bill would adopt a more unorthodox approach.

HB 1750 (Rep. McCall and Sen. Thompson) would allow contiguous counties to band together to form Local Hospital and Health Care Districts. Counties could apply for federal permission essentially to expand Medicaid in their district, provided they voted to raise existing sales, property, or use taxes to fund the 10 percent state share. If federal regulators signed off, the federal share would pass through the state Health Care Authority to the District’s governing body and from there to the local hospital. In essence, up to 37 Medicaid expansion programs could be operating simultaneously in Oklahoma. However, the odds are slim that this would go forward: federal regulators have never contemplated — let alone approved — a proposal like this, and it would be extraordinarily complicated and cumbersome for counties to implement.

Economic Security

This week we’ve been taking a closer look at HB 1095 — a bill that would change how employers classify workers and may make it easier to declare workers are independent contractors rather than employees. If that is the effect, this change could have far-reaching consequences. Employees are afforded more protections and benefits than independent contractors. For example, employees who are injured on the job are eligible for workers’ compensation, and employees who are laid off can receive unemployment benefits. Legislators should think very carefully about the long-term consequences of changing the way we classify workers before we make any changes.

Taxes

We’ve discussed previously that several bills moving through the process, including HB 2502 (see Education, above), would create new tax credits or expand existing ones and would have a hefty price tag. One bill we haven’t discussed is SB 961 (Sen. Smalley and Rep. Tammy West), the Oklahoma First-Time Home Buyer Savings Account Act. The bill would provide an annual tax deduction of up to $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for a couple for contributions to an account that would be used for housing expenses for first-time home buyers. The bill lacks a fiscal impact statement as the Oklahoma Tax Commission is unable to estimate how many taxpayers might claim the deduction. It’s unclear whether these accounts would provide much assistance for those who would otherwise be unable to afford a home; research on a similar tax deduction for college savings finds that most of the  benefit goes to wealthier families who can afford to put money away in savings.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy) is a non-partisan independent policy think-tank. OK Policy promotes adequate, fair, and fiscally responsible funding of public services and expanded opportunity for all Oklahomans by providing timely and credible information, analysis, and ideas.

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