The top two leaders of the Oklahoma House of Representatives promise lawmakers will work on “big” policy measures in the pending legislative session, although they provided few specifics.
“We are going to work on big things this year for the state of Oklahoma and for our constituents,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
He said that will include a major focus on education.
“We are going to work on big education reform this year in a way that is equitable to all parts of the state whether rural or urban,” McCall said. “Good policy works everywhere in the state of Oklahoma.”
“Four years ago this House passed historic teacher pay raises with the promise of improved outcomes for our students,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa. “The pay raises were delivered as promised, but I think we can all agree we still have a long way to go with the student outcomes improving, particularly in our urban schools. Let me set the record straight: Education should not be about the money; education should be about the kids.”
McCall and O’Donnell made those comments during the organizational day meeting of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in which lawmakers reelected McCall as speaker of the House and elected O’Donnell as pro tempore.
Both lawmakers also stressed that the House would focus on increasing broadband access in Oklahoma.
“We know that people throughout the state have to have access to high-speed internet, especially in an environment of a pandemic,” McCall said.
“There’s a large divide in our urban areas versus our rural areas in access to broadband connectivity,” O’Donnell said. “As schools and businesses have conducted their work virtually over the last year, those differences have become more apparent. Not only would broadband increase student access to quality educational material, it will increase the likelihood that businesses locate in rural areas.”
McCall also said lawmakers will work to improve the state economy and appeared to hint that tax reform may be part of that effort.
“We are going to keep stabilizing the budget and building a better tax code that promotes growth and lets earners keep more of their money,” McCall said.
In recent years, lawmakers have steadily increased taxes—raising taxes on income, fuel, tobacco, vehicle purchases, and energy production—as well as many fees. From 2015 to 2018, lawmakers approved $1.1 billion in recurring tax increases and other revenue measures.
McCall also said lawmakers will “protect and improve our Oklahoma healthcare system this session,” but provided no details.
This year lawmakers will have to fund expansion of Oklahoma’s Medicaid system to include able-bodied adults, an unfunded mandate narrowly approved by voters in June. Proponents claimed Medicaid expansion would involve $164 million in additional annual state spending, but within weeks of the ballot measure’s passage the leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee warned that cost estimates had already surged to $246 million, and prior state estimates indicate the total cost may run as high as $374 million annually.
That additional cost will be incurred at a time when lawmakers are trying to balance a state budget after building last year’s budget on hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time funds that must be replaced if lawmakers choose not to make spending cuts elsewhere.
McCall also hinted that reform of the state’s initiative-petition process will be a House focus.
“We are going to uphold and protect the Oklahoma Constitution from infringement by special-interest groups and others who don’t have Oklahoma’s best interests in mind,” McCall said.
McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, have previously said they support reforming Oklahoma’s initiative-petition process to require signature collection from all parts of the state, rather than just urban centers, among other potential reforms.
Treat was also reelected to his Senate leadership spot during that chamber’s organizational meeting.
“By working together, we can achieve more positive outcomes for our state,” Treat said in a release. “Our state faces a difficult situation as we look to recover and rebound from the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The Oklahoma Senate and its members and staff are ready to rise to the challenge and I look forward to leading the chamber as we work together to make Oklahoma an even better place for our families, friends, and neighbors.”
Lawmakers will next convene for the start of the 2021 legislative session on Feb. 1.