Highs and lows of Oklahoma’s 2017 legislative session (Part 2)

Yesterday we shared a recap of what happened this legislative session with the state budget, taxes, and education policies. Today in part two, we’ll look at outcomes related to health care, criminal justice, and economic opportunity.

We began the session with a set of top priorities in all of these policy areas. We made progress on some of our issues and were disappointed by others, but we were also heartened by the large number of Oklahomans who got involved this year, many for the first time, to advocate for a better future. That advocacy was key to stopping some big threats to health care and the safety net this year, though several positive reforms fell short as well.

Threats to the health care safety net and consumer protections were defeated

The clearest win for health care this year came with the quiet death of HB 1270, which never returned to the House to address minor Senate amendments. HB 1270 was cookie-cutter legislation from an out-of-state group that would have required the state to impose expensive and unnecessary verification procedures on SoonerCare applicants and members. We’ll stay on the alert for if this bill starts moving again next session, but this year lawmakers wisely avoided adding bureaucratic hurdles for Oklahoma families who need health care.

Another win came in the revisions to SB 478, a bill that in its original form would have allowed insurers to sell health coverage without covering the state’s required health benefits. However, a coalition effort led to major changes in the final version of the bill that will ensure that all insurance must continue to cover state-mandated benefits.

However, we were less fortunate with HCR 1009. The resolution would have directed the Health Care Authority to pause the transition of Medicaid’s Aged, Blind and Disabled recipients to privatized managed care. HCR 1009 easily cleared the House but was not heard in the Senate despite having more than half the Senate signed on as coauthors. The status of the managed care transition remains to be determined.

Almost overlooked this legislative session was SB 506, the Healthy Food Financing Act, which is intended to spur the creation and viability of grocery stores and other food providers in food deserts and similarly underserved areas. This bill was approved early in session and will create a new fund that can leverage private donations to help bring grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other retailers offering healthier foods to Oklahoma’s food deserts.

Big hopes for criminal justice reform fell just short

Entering the session, there appeared to be a great deal of momentum behind the far-reaching proposals put forth by the Justice Reform Task Force. We argued that in addressing many drivers of incarceration, their proposals could be the solution that our justice system desperately needs. The bills under consideration would have helped to relax Oklahoma’s overly harsh sentencing laws, invested in rehabilitation services, fixed the broken parole process, and reduced the impact of fines and fees on people involved in the justice system. Most of the proposals easily passed their votes until they met a buzz saw in the House Judiciary-Criminal Justice and Corrections committee led by Rep. Scott Biggs, a vocal opponent of reform. His committee refused to hear several of the most important bills, and despite last-minute pleading from Gov. Fallin and legislators, nearly all of the bills failed to pass conference committee.

The few positive measures that did pass included a bill to require risk and needs assessments for all people entering prison (SB 603) and a bill to gather much-needed information about fines and fees in the justice system (SB 342). HB 1482, which would have weakened the justice reforms passed by voters last fall as SQ 780, was fortunately pulled from consideration after strong public outcry.

The voters’ will on SQ 780 was upheld, but for another year, legislators failed to make meaningful progress on fixing our out-of-control incarceration problem. Louisiana, the state with the highest imprisonment rate in the country, is poised to pass major reforms to its justice system this year. With Oklahoma’s failure to act — due almost entirely to the intransigence of a minority of legislators — it may not be long until Oklahoma takes over the top spot.

Economic Opportunity

It was a rather disappointing session for policies that promote economic opportunity. In addition to new taxes and fees that the will hit low income Oklahomans especially hard, there were some missed opportunities on policies that would improve the lives of working Oklahomans.  Last year the state Earned Income Tax Credit was made non-refundable, slashing its benefit for more than 200,000 working families across the state. Despite opportunities, that cut was not restored this legislative session. Multiple bills were introduced to fully or partially restore the credit, but none were allowed a vote in the full Legislature.

A very modest proposal to expand unpaid family leave for new parents (SB 549) passed the Senate but failed when it was not allowed a vote in the House. The bill would have provided up to 20 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents who work for the State of Oklahoma.

Despite these missed opportunities, there were some reasons for celebration this session.  A bill to expand predatory lending in Oklahoma (HB 1913) was vetoed by Governor Fallin after strong protests by advocates and regular citizens. The bill would have created a new small loan product allowing lenders to charge over 200 percent annual interest for loans of up to $1,500 dollars.

Another encouraging development was that the income limit for the Oklahoma’s Promise Scholarship was increased this year. SB 529 increased the family income limit from $50,000 to $60,000 for future students.  A college education is crucial to future success and this decision to allow more students to benefit from Oklahoma’s Promise was a wise move for our future as a state.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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