The Altus Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis hosted a Legislative Luncheon in room H-12 on the campus of Western Oklahoma State College on Thursday to celebrate the end of session May 27.
Altus Chamber of Commerce Membership Director Bonnie McAskill started off the meeting with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance and by recognizing the elected officials in the room before turning the microphone over to Chamber President and CEO Brian Bush. Bush started the luncheon off by thanking everyone for being in attendance and introducing both state Sen. Mike Schulz (R-Altus) and state Rep. Charles Ortega (R-Altus.) Before calling on Ortega to speak, Bush acknowledged Schulz’s designation as the president pro-tempore of the Oklahoma state Senate.
“I want to take this time to thank everybody for the opportunity to be here for this final legislative update,” Ortega said. “We did have a trying, challenging time this session. As most of you know we went into it at the beginning with a $1.3 billion shortfall. We formulated a budget that while I have to admit not everyone was satisfied with it, given the circumstances and some of the things we tried to do, we wound up formulating a budget that I think will carry us through, knowing full well that at some point in time we’ll have to go back and revisit some of those numbers.”
Ortega did not want to focus too much of his time on the budget saying Schulz would be giving a more in-depth speech about it, and instead turned his attention towards a few issues he believed were key to the Altus area and the state.
Ortega said there were a lot of questions about Medicaid. There was concern about senior care facilities being closed down, hospitals in rural areas being threatened with closure, but Ortega said while working through the budget, they made that a priority.
“In addressing that shortfall, we made sure we made our health care authority a priority to mitigate the possibility of those services and facilities being shut down. In looking at the health care authority challenge, we had an option that was being considered that was the balancing act. It would have provided for and taken care of and expanded the federal dollars for that particular program,” Ortega said. “We elected not to go that direction. We elected instead to budget and to fill that gap as much as we could. I think we were successful in doing that. The threat of the closures on senior facilities and closures of hospitals in rural areas is now a thing of the past.”
Ortega went on to discuss the criminal justice system saying that in 2010, a proposal was introduced that would reform the system. Ortega said that they were able to review the penalties and sentences ruled on as a result of the state’s mandatory sentencing laws, and said they successfully addressed the issue and are on the road to making some changes. There will be a resolution on the ballot that will require a vote of the people to change some of the initiatives. He went on to say that there are 27,000 people in the state penitentiary system and that the residual effect it has on the state budget, economies, and the services that families are having to participate in, is tremendous. The Altus work center is just one of 15 that will be closed and the inmates relocated to the Granite Reformatory and the prisoners in Granite will be moved to Sayre. There is a possibility of reopening this facility in the future as a temporary revocation site.
Another issue he addressed is the evaluation process for teachers. Ortega said a law was passed this year that will turn the process back over to the school.
Ortega thanked the crowd again and introduced Sen. Schulz who came to the podium and began with humor. Schulz started with thanking the crowd for supporting him and having confidence in him over the last ten years and then started with the budget.
“In the ten years I’ve been in the building and in ten years prior to that being around sessions in different capacities. This is probably the strangest one I’ve ever been a part of or been witness to,” Schulz said. “The budgeting process really began a year ago. We knew what we were in for. So the people that are responsible for that began having monthly meetings if not bi-weekly meetings talking about what the next one was going to look like, talking about where revenues were, how revenues were coming in. It truly was a yearlong process.”
“A year ago we appropriated $7.13 billion. This year we ended up appropriating $6.79 billion,” Schulz said. “So the $1.3 billion shortfall that we heard about for four months was more like a little under $0.4 billion shortfall.”
“We did a lot of things this year to stabilize revenues. We did not continue down the road of increasing structural deficits by spending one-time monies that may or may not be there next year. We will continue on that path,” Schulz said. “If you compare what we appropriated to where we actually ended up, we actually ended the year up with a $6.85 billion appropriated number. If you compare that to what we did, there were not a whole lot of cuts. I think it’s also important to remember that out of the $6.7 billion we appropriate the state will spend $24 billion. A lot of people get wrapped up and think everything we appropriate is what we spend and that’s not correct. We continue to have discussions about how to bring those $24 billion back under legislature so we have a little bit more flexibility in determining where those monies are going. It’s also important to remember if you take the top five appropriated agencies completely out of the mix, we can cut every other state agency in the state of Oklahoma and for every one percent we cut them, it raises about $9 million. I say that to emphasize how much money we appropriate to the top five.”
Schulz continued on with some of the issues he thinks are important to Oklahoma and what things are being done about it.
Schulz said a real positive step was taken as far as incarceration is concerned and that they are not done yet. He said they would look for ways to keep people united with their families as a lot of addicts are being locked up in this state when that is not the help they need. Schulz continued to say that for decades the state has needed to invest money in the Department of Corrections and it is getting to a time where we must bite the bullet and do it.
He touched on teacher evaluations and also on something that he says has been a hot button topic for quite some time now, end-of-year instruction tests. He said they started to do away with a lot of the tests and that they have started down the road of hopefully telling teachers, “Why don’t we let you teach school and why don’t we get out of your business.”
Schulz also touched on a recent bill that was passed that says if a person is arrested for a felony crime, law enforcement will collect a DNA sample from that person and that will go into a database. His personal belief is that if one gets fingerprinted by law enforcement then they should collecting DNA off the person as well.
Something else that got a lot of talk at the end of the session is civil asset forfeiture. A lot of law enforcement agencies are seizing people’s assets.
“It is a fine line we are walking between trampling on somebody’s liberties and making sure we have the right tools from keeping the drug runners from running free in the state,” Schulz said.
Schulz brought up some questions that will be on the ballot, such as State Question 777, which is the right to farm in the state of Oklahoma. It would give farmers and ranchers the ability to operate their ranches without undue influence from outside organizations like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Another is alcohol modernization, which would reform the alcohol distribution system in Oklahoma. Essentially, it would go to a single strength beer and give people the opportunity to purchase wine and stronger beer in grocery stores and convenience stores if the stores choose to stock it.
One thing the state did not complete this year was Real I.D.
The luncheon wrapped up with a question and answer session followed by Bush thanking everybody for coming out.
Reach Ryan Lewis at 508-482-1221, ext. 2072.