Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan said Thursday Democrats and Republicans in the Oklahoma State Senate proved the skeptics wrong by working together in an unprecedented manner in the First Session of the 51st Oklahoma Legislature.
“The voters handed us a tie in November and there weren’t very many people who believed we could make it work. Sure, there were bumps in the road, but for the most part we put aside our partisan differences and worked together to accomplish the people’s business,” Morgan said, moments after the Legislature adjourned for the year a full day before its constitutionally mandated deadline. “Our power-sharing agreement worked. The pundits will want to talk about the winners and losers in this session. I am proud to say that the people of Oklahoma were the big winners.”
For the first in state history, the Senate is divided evenly with 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans. Under an agreement reached in December, Morgan, D-Stillwater, shared power evenly with Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than Glenn Coffee. The two of us recognized early on that although we, at times, had serious disagreements over policy that the people expected us to work together. I think we did that. It’s been noisy at times, but partisan differences never kept us from completing the people’s business.”
Democratic Floor Leader Charlie Laster said, he too, was proud of the nice way the Senate conducted its business in a professional manner.
Laster said Oklahomans were the real winners in the session, thanks in part, to passage of key elements in the Senate Democrats’ Oklahoma Rising Agenda.
The Shawnee Senator specifically listed passage of the All Kids Act, which will close the gap and provide health insurance for an additional 42,000 Oklahoma and approval of the toughest state immigration reform legislation in the country. He also praised passage of legislation that will allow more small businesses to offer health insurance to their employees.
“We began this session with the goals of expanding the availability of health care for all Oklahomans and protecting working Oklahomans from unfair competition from illegal immigrants. We passed legislation to help us reach both of those goals,” Laster said.
Morgan lauded passage of a dedicated funding source for the Oklahoma’s Promise Scholarship Program.
“We have ensured that Oklahoma will keep its promise to every student who has earned a scholarship and that this program will remain an important part of our efforts to increase the number of college graduates in our state,” Morgan said.
Laster said he is disappointed that Republicans obstructed efforts by Senate Democrats to increase the minimum wage, which would put more money into the pockets of Oklahomans struggling to make ends meet.
Appropriations Co-Chairman Johnnie Crutchfield said he was pleased with passage of the Fiscal Year 2008 budget, which includes the first step in a long-term fix for the troubled Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System. The $10 million deposit in the fund will be followed with additional deposits, eventually increasing to $60 million a year over the next two decades to reduce the system’s unfunded liability.
Crutchfield also lauded the budget’s inclusion of an average $1,000 per-teacher pay increase, weighted toward veteran teachers and those with advanced degrees and an increase of $122 million for higher education.
Crutchfield said the budget includes a series of important Democratic initiatives including:
$2.5 million for rural fire department equipment costs and $1.4 million for firefighter training;
$15 million for the Oklahoma Centennial Commission, as that entity completes celebrations, plans and projects for the 2007 State Centennial;
$10 million for a state Bioenergy Fund;
And $3 million for drug courts and the “Smart on Crime Initiative.” Drug courts have been shown as one way to reduce prison overcrowding.