OKLAHOMA CITY Charting the course to a more prosperous future for Oklahoma families, the Senate Republican caucus released their legislative priorities for the 2002 legislative session. Refuting the notion that the current budget shortfall makes it difficult to initiate change, the Republicans believe that times like this are the exact reason the legislature needs to adopt a new way of doing business at the state capitol.
"By prioritizing revenue allocations we can ensure that state dollars are used efficiently and effectively. And our first priority should always be education," said Republican Floor Leader Jim Dunlap. To provide better education support, the Senate Republicans feel that the education appropriation should be the first appropriations bill addressed and passed during the legislative session.
"Education should be the number one funding priority for all existing and new state funds," said Dunlap. "Along with providing adequate financial support to our public schools, we need to identify new, innovative ways to focus the funding on improving student achievement."
Providing a better focus on the students, Senate Republicans propose creating new financial incentives for districts that improve their ratings on the Academic Performance Index. They also renew their call to eliminate social promotion and focus professional development funds towards programs that further train teachers to improve curriculum and instruction. The Republicans will continue to push for the streamlining of administrative costs in public schools by advocating shared administrative functions across some districts.
"We want to make sure schools are accountable for student achievement, but also find more funds to help them focus on those goals and provide rewards for districts that are improving," said State Senator Kathleen Wilcoxson.
Citing the success that states like Virginia have had with their moment of silence in schools, the Republican Caucus has endorsed the efforts of Lieutenant Governor Mary Fallin and Senate Republican Caucus Chair Glenn Coffee to enact a mandatory moment of silence in Oklahoma schools. "This bill will provide students the opportunity to reflect on the day ahead of them," said Coffee. "Virginia has seen improved student discipline and behavior after enacting their law."
Because health insurance premiums are straining the budget of many Oklahoma teachers, the Republicans continue to support the provisions authored by Senator Dunlap last session in SB 582. The $50 million proposal provides an extra $100 per month benefit allowance to certified education staff. "When I introduced SB 582 last session I said the time of teachers paying for their health insurance out of their own pockets must come to an end," said Dunlap. "I reiterate that call this year. I only hope my Democrat colleagues in the House will show more support for the proposal than they did last session." SB 582 died in a House committee in the 2001 legislative session.
"We must address the unfunded liability in the teacher retirement system this session," said Republican Whip Scott Pruitt. With some estimates showing that the ailing retirement system may enter into a negative cash flow situation within the next five years, the Senate Republicans believe that a path to fiscal recovery must be adopted this year. While members agree that there are several ways to address the problem including allowing teachers to voluntarily switch to a defined contribution system, the Republican caucus believes the method for recovery must be determined this session so implementation of the plan can occur in the near future.
"Some of the Democrat leaders refuse to even admit that there is a serious problem with the teacher retirement system," said Assistant Republican Floor Leader Jim Williamson. "It is time for them to stop putting their heads in the sand and start working towards a solution for the massive unfunded liability that will fall on the backs of retired teachers."
The Senate Republican caucus believes that now is the time that Oklahoma's tax system must come under major reforms. To address the immediate concerns generated from the recent income tax increase and the sales tax relief eligibility changes, State Senator Carol Martin introduced SB 821 which would repeal the triggering mechanism that caused the tax increases. Agreeing with the bipartisan calls from the Lieutenant Governor and the State Treasurer, Martin said "It is simply wrong to raise taxes during a recession. We must make sure that this page of Oklahoma history is never repeated."
To further the prospect of Oklahoma's long-term growth, the Senate Republicans are embracing the proposal from Governor Keating to eliminate the personal income tax, the state sales tax on groceries, and the business franchise tax, and to become a federal pick-up state for estate taxes. While they believe that tax reform should provide moderate relief to all Oklahoma taxpayers, the Republicans understand that criteria from the Democrat legislative leadership demand that the proposal be revenue neutral. "Even with revenue neutrality I believe taxing consumption instead of earnings and investment is a positive step for Oklahoma. The income tax and grocery sales tax are backward, regressive taxes that must be eliminated," said Williamson.
In a continuing effort to make Oklahoma more business friendly, Senate Republicans will maintain their attempts to move Oklahoma's antiquated and costly court-based workers' compensation system to a more streamlined administrative system. State Senator Scott Pruitt, a longtime advocate for reform, believes it is time to embrace the path of reform. "In recent sessions we have seen some piecemeal attempts to address the costs in our workers' compensation system. While I appreciate the work that has been accomplished addressing medical cost savings, it is time to actually do something about the high attorney involvement in comp claims. We must move out of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa courts and perform administrative hearings in local communities," said Pruitt.
To ensure better stewardship of taxpayer dollars and allow legislative budget committees more opportunity to closely examine agency budgets, the Senate Republicans are proposing to implement four-year performance based budgeting on major appropriated entities. Under this proposal agencies will be divided into four groups with the legislature evaluating one group per year. In their year for evaluation, agencies will be required to justify their current expenditures and provide four-year costs and goals for all current and new programs needing funding. At the end of the four years the programs will come under rigorous review to determine any changes or elimination that may be needed.
"In the current process we just look at what agencies are spending and them ask them how much more they want next year," said State Senator Mike Johnson. "These four-year cycles provide a reasonable way for the legislative budget committees to really know if programs are working and are being managed effectively. We owe it to the taxpayers to make sure that we are only using their money to fund programs that work."
A considerable amount of national debate has continued on how to ensure integrity in voting procedures. One goal for the Senate Republicans is to establish a voter bill of rights that will be posted at all polling places. This poster will clearly detail the rights of Oklahomans at the polling place and also show what is considered illegal activity. "One of the easiest ways to combat corruption is to ensure that voters know their rights and know who to contact if they feel their rights have been infringed," said State Senator Owen Laughlin. "This is a simple, common sense approach to begin addressing fraud and disenfranchisement."
Also on the election front, the Republicans also propose to allow precinct inspectors to request photo identification from voters at the polling place and to require that voting residency match the address on an individual's driver's license. The residency requirement would not affect students and military personnel.
The Republican caucus, frustrated with the inadequate delivery of Medicaid services may push for a serious reorganization of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority or the outright elimination of the agency, transferring the duties and responsibilities back under the Director of the Department of Human Services. Republicans site declining doctor Medicaid participation and irresponsible budget decisions as key reasons for their outrage. "The delivery of Medicaid services to the people of Oklahoma is woefully ineffectively and inefficiently managed," said Dunlap. "Yesterday's irresponsible decision to cut $11 million in services instead of looking for savings within the organization only magnifies the management's ineptness. This session we are going to look for serious changes in management from Health Care Authority executives."
Better protecting Oklahoma citizens from predatory sex offenders is another goal of the caucus in the 2002 session. The Republican caucus has embraced the proposal from State Senator Jonathan Nichols to eliminate the statute of limitations on index crimes, including rape and molestation cases in which DNA is collected from a suspect. "The simple truth is that it's grossly unjust to tell a rape victim 12 years after the fact that although we may know who committed the crime, current law prevents authorities from prosecuting offenders due to the statute of limitations," said Nichols.
The Republican caucus is also awaiting recommendations from the various Homeland Security task forces. "In Oklahoma we have a special understanding of what it takes to protect our citizens from acts of terrorism," said State Senator Jim Reynolds. "I'm confident that this session we will be addressing proposals to allow for increased training of our emergency response personnel and better communication between all levels of law enforcement."
PROMOTION OF STRONG FAMILIES
Continuing their drive to increase the bond of the family unit, Senate Republicans once again will push for voluntary covenant marriage and will advocate the repeal of no-fault divorce. "Sending a message that marriage is a lifetime commitment and should not be entered into lightly or on a whim is in the best economic and social interests of Oklahoma," said Pruitt. "Entering into voluntary marriage covenants helps ensure that the marital commitment extends through good times and bad."
"Our priorities for this session focus largely on how we do business as a government and how to most effectively use taxpayer resources," said Dunlap. "In tight budget years like the one we are entering the way you do business takes on even more importance. We owe it to the taxpayers of Oklahoma to ensure that taxpayer dollars are focused on programs that provide clear benefits and are managed effectively."