What might turn out to be the most important legislative session for a generation will convene Feb. 5.
With public schools, the state health department and the prison system in shambles and other vital state services barely surviving, lawmakers face a monumental number of tasks.
Their past performance in facing the same issues does not give us much encouragement that the job will get done this time, either; but the urgency of the current situation might finally break the logjam of inertia and partisanship that has tied up the state Capitol for years.
Here is the Tulsa World’s legislative agenda for 2018.
• Adequate funding of public schools: The urgent need for a state-funded teacher pay raise and sufficient other funding to allow schools to operate properly has been our top priority for the three years the Tulsa World has formally presented a legislative agenda, and has been the state’s most obvious need for much longer.
Everywhere we look, we see evidence that our schools are weakening because of the state’s failure to invest in them: Four-day school weeks, teachers migrating to higher-paying jobs in other states, students losing faith with public schools and migrating into online charter options. The state’s systematic disinvestment in our traditional public schools is destroying a critical unifying force in society — the shared literacy and civic education essential to a functioning republic.
We are pleased to see a $5,000 teacher pay raise included in the nonpartisan Step Up Oklahoma agenda, which is fast becoming the game plan for economic and governmental reform in Oklahoma. That’s an excellent start.
• Adequate, sustainable state revenue: Repeatedly, the state has faced gaping budget holes in recent years because of depressed petroleum prices, ill-considered tax cuts and poor budgeting policies.
In addition to the damage done to public schools, the Legislature’s fiscal recklessness has left our health and mental health systems reeling, our state colleges and universities devastated, our prisons overburdened and understaffed and other core state services inadequately met.
There is no chance that modest growth shown in recent tax receipt reports will undo the damage done or that the answer lies in more spending cuts.
We have repeatedly called for needed increases to the cigarette, income, fuel and gross production taxes. We will continue to do so, as has Step Up Oklahoma.
• Repeal or revise State Question 640: The 1992 constitutional amendment requires a 75 percent majority in the House and Senate for the Legislature to raise taxes without a vote of the people. It might as well ban revenue bills, because there will always be more than 25 percent dedicated to blocking state progress and timing issues to make referring tax proposals to the voters a practical impossibility for budget-making.
Step Up Oklahoma has proposed moving the supermajority to 60 percent. We would prefer the more democratic alternative of a simple majority, a move that would nullify the power of the entrenched minority that currently holds the Capitol hostage. But 60 percent would be a far sight better than 75, and we can get behind that idea, too.
• Smart-on-crime reform: Outrageously, one legislator — Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha — was allowed to block a House vote on Gov. Mary Fallin’s package of criminal justice reforms last year. Rep. Biggs has resigned from the Legislature to take a good-paying federal job. Good riddance. Now the state can move ahead.
Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation, the highest for women. It’s a destructive, self-perpetuating and ineffective justice system that is impoverishing our people and bankrupting our state. It must be reversed.
The solution is a rational system of resurrecting salvageable lives through court-ordered mental health and substance abuse treatment. That saves our limited prison space for the truly dangerous, irredeemable criminals that we all want kept away from society.
• Line-item budgeting: For years, the Legislature has spent the state’s tax revenue in lump sums, leaving details to state agencies, avoiding responsibility for their failure to fund core state services adequately and nullifying the governor’s line-item veto.
Lawmakers should be required to make those decisions publicly and then answer for their choices.
• Executive branch reform: The Step Up Oklahoma plan includes giving the governor direct authority to appoint agency directors and ballot shortening plans to make the state superintendent of schools, labor commissioner and corporation commission posts appointive instead of elective and run the governor and lieutenant governor on a single unified ticket.
We agree about giving the governor direct control over state agencies outside the state higher education system. While we are hesitant about making the superintendent and corporation commission appointive, we strongly endorse that move regarding the labor commissioner and would suggest doing the same thing with the insurance commissioner.
• City finance flexibility: Mayor G.T. Bynum has called for the Legislature to give cities the authority to levy property taxes to fund public school operations costs. Former Mayor Dewey Bartlett previously asked for authority for city property taxes for municipal operations costs.
Both ideas have merit and deserve action from the Legislature. Tulsa cannot prosper if the funding needs of its public schools are not addressed. Neither can it survive if its operational expenses can only come from sales and use taxes, which have never been reliable and are increasingly depressed by internet commerce.
• County Home Rule: The state’s two metropolitan areas are ruled by a two-headed monster, city and county governments, which run redundant programs with redundant bureaucracies. We join the Step Up Oklahoma calls for allowing counties to tailor a local government that meets the needs of its constituents.
• No school vouchers: Until Oklahoma funds its public schools adequately, how can it consider robbing them of money to pay for the private educations of the privileged few?
• Preserving the independence of the state Regents for Higher Education: The voters of Oklahoma knew what they were doing when they staked out constitutional independence from legislative and gubernatorial meddling for the state’s colleges and universities. Legislators have attempted preliminary assaults on that independence in recent years. They should stop. We aren’t interested in returning to the bad old days of partisan cronyism in the state’s higher education system.
• No politicization of the judiciary: We specifically oppose partisan judicial elections and any efforts to reshape the Judicial Nominating Commission to the whims of the Legislature. Reapportionment of appellate court election districts is reasonable and overdue, but that cannot be cover for more pernicious ideas.
• Redistricting reform: An initiative petition to end gerrymandering in Oklahoma through a nonpartisan reapportionment process is pending. The Legislature has a chance to provide voters with a more nuanced proposal than is possible through the petition process, and they should move forward to do so.
• Addressing the opioid crisis: A task force led by Attorney General Mike Hunter has proposed a reasonable set of changes in state law to deal with the highly addictive scourge of opioid abuse. We particularly encourage action on a proposal, also championed by the Tulsa County commissioners, to end the use of paper prescriptions for opioids. Paper presecriptions encourage forgery and are easily eliminated without undue hardship to doctors or patients.
We also continue to call for adequate funding of state treatment programs for people with all kinds of substance addictions. The only solution to the problem is to deal with it as a health challenge, not a criminal one.
• Licensing reform: The Legislature should begin reviewing the more than 400 occupational licenses required by law to make sure they are protecting the public, not the people holding the licenses.
While a substantial list, all those things are achievable, if legislators will only dedicate themselves to seeking what is best for the state, instead of what is best for their party or their own political aims.