Where Are They Now? Bills we kept our eye on

It was a busy session.  Last Friday marked the deadline for Governor Fallin to take final action on bills that landed on her desk. Now that sine die has passed, we thought it would be useful for OK Policy to do inventory and update you on the status of the bills we wrote about this session on our blog.

There were over two dozen immigration bills introduced this session.  Neither of the ‘English only’ bills, HB 2083 and SB 905, intended as implementing legislation for State Question 751, were approved by the legislature.  On our blog, we advised against passage and pointed out that the bills would have imposed new and draconian restrictions on speech and potentially entangled state officials in a legal double bind.  We also blogged about two bills, SB 683 and HB 1446, that sought to rescind resident tuition eligibility for undocumented high school students enrolling in public colleges and universities.  The stand alone bill, SB 683, died in House committee and the sections pertaining to resident tuition eligibility were removed from HB 1446 in conference committee.  We have blogged extensively about other sections of HB 1446, the omnibus immigration legislation which went through several incarnations and was eventually defeated on the House floor by a vote of 62 (N) to 31 (Y).

SB 971, a bill that would have created the “Oklahoma Health Insurance Private Enterprise Network” and established an online marketplace for health insurance is dead for the session.  Online marketplaces are a requirement of federal health care reform, and we’ve blogged about why SB 971 fell well short of compliance with the Affordable Care Act.  Leadership announced the shelving of SB 971 and the creation of a special joint committee on health care reform and to review the requirements of the new law during the interim and consider what action to take next session.

In this session’s hall of shame, SB 709, which was originally a senior nutrition bill, was amended to target Planned Parenthood by prohibiting third party contractors from partnering with the state to distribute WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits.  WIC subsidizes nutritious food and infant formula for low-income families.  As we reported on our blog, the functional effect of the amendment was to ban non-profits and faith-based organizations in Tulsa and Oklahoma county from administering WIC nutrition benefits to thousands of women and children.  After conferees could not agree on SB 709, the bill was entirely rewritten to address attorney fees for state agencies, but was never reported out of committee.

Neither of the bills aimed at putting more money directly into Oklahoma classrooms by reducing administrative costs will become law this session.  HB 1493, requiring that 70 percent of district funds go directly into classroom instruction, died in committee.  HB 1746, requiring that 65 percent be spent on instruction, faced procedural roadblocks and failed on the House floor without a vote.  We blogged about why these formulaic approaches to education reform are flawed.

The governor asked for legislation this session authorizing a ‘Quick Action Closing Fund’ and lawmakers delivered with HB 1953.  We blogged about such a fund’s lackluster history in Oklahoma and its mixed record in Texas.  Before passing both chambers by a wide margin, the bill was successfully amended by its Senate coauthor John Sparks to require that companies not be involved in independent expenditures intended for political purposes for a specified period before and after the acceptance of an award from the fund.  Although the fund is now established, no money was put into it this session, and where the money will eventually come from remains unclear.

The state left millions of dollars in extended benefits for unemployed state residents on the table.  As we blogged about here, Oklahoma was one of 9 states eligible for $101 million dollars in unemployment benefits for some 29,000 long-term unemployed Oklahomans, money that could have been injected directly into the local economy.  The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC), the state agency that administers the Unemployment Insurance program, officially declined to comment, and the legislature took no action to enable workers to qualify for the additional help.  Epic fail.

We blogged about SB 622, a bill to change how some prominent state officials get their jobs, shortly after it narrowly passed the Senate in March.  The bill proposed changing the State Treasurer, Labor Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner, State Superintendent, and the three-member Corporation Commission into appointed rather than elected offices.  Such a move is not necessarily undemocratic, especially given the very low levels of information the average voter has about down ballot candidates for statewide office.  But for now, the offices will still be elected by the people, as SB 622 never made it out of the House Rules Committee for a hearing on the House floor.

SB 517 proposed sunsetting twenty tax credits, including the Sales Tax Relief Credit, which provides $40 in tax relief to more than one million low- and medium-income Oklahomans.  Poor families already pay a larger share of their income in taxes than the wealthy, and the sales tax on groceries in particular has a disproportionate affect on low-income Oklahomans.  SB 517 passed the Senate unanimously with its title stricken but was not brought up for consideration on the House floor.

The legislature passed HJR 1002 to reduce annual property tax assessments from 5 percent to 3 percent.  As OK Policy wrote about in detail, before the measure passed, Oklahoma already has one of the lowest property tax rates in the nation.  Revenues lost because of lowering the cap will further squeeze local governments and school districts.  Property taxes in Oklahoma subsidize public school textbooks and supplies, public safety and criminal justice, and career technology centers.  HJR 1002 becomes law if a majority of voters statewide approve the ballot measure in 2012. The other property tax measure we explored, HJR 1001, that would have extended the valuation freeze to all seniors regardless of income passed the House but failed to get a hearing in the Senate.

Remember our post on some of the more singular subject matter that deserved a spot on the 53rd legislative highlight reel?  ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ was officially and unanimously named the state’s official gospel song.  Senator Kim David’s SB 237, to classify Jimson weed as a controlled dangerous substance, was approved by the Senate, but never scheduled for a vote on the House floor.  Better luck next session.  Recreational use of Datura Stramonium (AKA Jimson weed) can cause hallucinations, psychosis, violent delirium, and death.  Finally, HB 1320, a bill to apply the same laws to henna tattoos as apply to permanent tattoos or body piercing, was never heard in committee.

Tune-in next session for another packed roster of bills, ranging from the crucially important to the frivolously inane.

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