Sleeping dogs of the 2015 session

Photo by Chris Waits
Photo by Chris Waits

The 2015 session is now underway and it’s clear that this year, as always, will feature heated debates on a multitude of contentious issues, from proposals to expand school choice through vouchers and charter schools to efforts to rein in tax credits to hot-button social issues, such as guns, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Less noted, but perhaps equally significant, is the low profile of several issues that have been highly contentious in recent years and that many expected to see back on the agenda in 2015. Here’s a review of four issues on which few, if any, bills have been filed and it now appears that minimal legislative action is likely this session.

1. Pension Reform

For the past several years, Republican leaders have strongly promoted shifting Oklahoma’s public pension systems away from traditional defined benefit plans to 401(k)-style defined contribution plans. Last year, legislation was approved creating a new defined contribution system for all new employees in the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS), over the strenuous opposition of a coalition of labor groups defending traditional pensions. It was widely expected that this year would see similar proposals affecting teachers and the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS), and perhaps attempts to consolidate various public pension plans under a single Board.

To the surprise of many, no major pension overhaul legislation affecting OTRS or the other systems was filed this year. There are several bills to make minor changes in the membership of pensions and a slew of bills that would make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom, but nothing fundamental. Advocates are keeping a close eye, however, on multiple “shell bills” that could take on a different form as session unfolds.

2. Medicaid Reform

Among national and local critics of Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Oklahomans, a major push in recent years has been to privatize the program by moving the Medicaid population into capitated managed care plans, or HMOs, run by private insurance companies. A bill to move all Medicaid recipients  into HMOs, including those receiving long-term care services, was passed by the House in 2013, and several measures were introduced in 2014. While supported by some health insurance companies, opposition to Medicaid privatization has been fierce from hospitals and other providers, especially those familiar with Oklahoma’s failed effort at Medicaid managed care in the 1990s.

This year, there is only one Medicaid managed care bill, HB 1566, which simply directs the Medicaid agency to develop “a pilot program to evaluate the potential use of a patient-centered, integrated managed care system.” A bill by Sen. Rob Standridge, SB 228, would create a Medicaid Reform Advisory Group, but expressly prohibits the group from “considering reforms using out-of-state contractors for managed care models of health care delivery.”

3. Immigration

It’s now been eight years since passage of HB 1804, the immigration bill authored by Rep. Randy Terrill that was widely seen as among the toughest state laws aimed at clamping down on undocumented immigrants. In 2011, following Arizona’s passage of an even more restrictive immigration bill, over two dozen immigration proposals were introduced in Oklahoma addressing such subjects as local law enforcement practices, human smuggling, school enrollment, and bilingual services. Ultimately, opposition from a broad range of immigrant advocates and business groups helped ensure that none of those measures passed.

Since then, the immigration issue has been increasingly quiet, with fewer bills introduced and moved through the process. This year, three bills that have raised concerns from immigrant advocates were introduced:  SB 522 limits official use of languages other than English; SB 523 expands law enforcement powers associated with suspected human trafficking, and HB 1093 gives law enforcement officials authority to ask all occupants of a vehicle for identification during a traffic stop. None of these bills seems likely to be heard in committee.  Meanwhile, several measures supportive of undocumented residents, including ones to enable some to get a driver’s license, were also introduced.

4. Social Safety Net

Two years ago, legislators introduced a slew of bills to tighten eligibility guidelines and impose new controls on various social safety net programs, many of which had a decidedly punitive bent. The most drastic bills would have barred ex-felons from receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and imposed new asset limits on the program. Several bills passed, including one authored by then-Speaker T.W. Shannon that supposedly tightened work requirements on certain SNAP applicants that he touted prominently in his run for U.S. Senate. A year earlier, the Legislature required drug-screening of applicants for cash assistance benefits.

This session, only one bill aims at limiting safety net benefits –  SB 74, by Sen. Rob Standridge, would deny cash assistance benefits to individuals with a prior drug-related felony conviction unless they’ve completed drug treatment. Another bill by Sen. Standridge, SB 643, proposes a pilot program for married cash assistance recipients that would consolidate various benefits into lump-sum payments.

It’s unlikely that any of these issues are off the table for good. Most are likely to rear up again in the future, and could even become more prominent as session unfolds. But for now at least, these four dogs that have bitten and growled in recent years seem to be enjoying some peaceful sleep.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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