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Five Key Issues Facing Oklahoma Legislators (Feb 04, 2013)
The 54th Oklahoma Legislature convenes Monday with Gov. Mary Fallin delivering her annual State of the State address before members of the Oklahoma House and Senate. KGOU News Director Kurt Gwartney gathered three observers of state politics at 23rd and Lincoln to discuss five key issues they expect to take precedence in the 2013 session:

Tax Cuts

Fallin will likely propose a one-time tax cut during her address at 12:30 p.m. Monday. Last session, the governor wanted to reduce Oklahoma’s top tax rate from 5.25 percent to 3.5 percent, and cut the number of income tax brackets from seven to three.

Fallin told the Associated Press at the end of the 2012 session that legislative leaders weren’t willing to make a “huge, significant cut in the income tax.”

“The House Republicans bailed on the deal, saying that there were some instances in the middle and upper incomes where we would see some tax increases on individuals,” says Shawn Ashley, eCapitol’s Senior News Editor. “And here we are… a year later, and we’re talking about tax cuts again, but not to the same extent that we were a year ago.”

Fallin declined to say how much of a cut she will propose, but says her plan will not include automatic triggers to further reduce the income tax rate if certain revenue conditions are met.

"Last year, we spent four months-plus talking about tax cut proposals and in the end, nothing passed," said Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage (D-Claremore). "And I hope I am not being derelict in my duties, but I am refusing to read any of the tax cut bills at this point, because last year I wasted many, many hours reading those bills and none of them came to fruition."

University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie says the record-low number of Democrats in the State Senate means the 12 lawmakers in the Senate minority can do very little. They can’t break the quorum, or sustain a veto. All they can do is show up, take their debate privileges, and lend voice and moral authority to issues the Democrats think are important.

“Senator Burrage is saying publicly as a Democrat what many Republicans are saying privately,” Gaddie says. “They’re looking around at everything that simply must be done, that even their conservative constituents want done, and they’re trying to figure out how to pay for them.”

StateImpact Oklahoma has spent the past year covering many issues relating to jobs and the economy in the state, and reporter Logan Layden says he’s found little evidence that significantly lowering the income tax would increase the number of businesses coming into Oklahoma. Back to Top

Workers' Compensation

During a forum hosted by The Associated Press in January, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman (R-Sapulpa) said Gov. Fallin’s 2012 business survey showed many businesses think workers’ compensation insurance is too high.

“The number one deterrent to businesses in Oklahoma was, again, the workers’ comp system,” Bingman said. “Oklahoma is a very adversarial system.”

Shawn Ashley says House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) pointed out that overhauling Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system isn’t an overnight process, and lawmakers can’t simply close the doors on the workers’ compensation court tomorrow.

“I’m not sure you could even set a limit on this judiciary proceeding,” Ashley says. “But they’re working that way, to creating this administrative system.”

Gaddie says part of modernizing government is figuring out a way to create a better environment for the citizen while lowering costs and making government less intrusive.

“We’re in the middle of a long, ongoing debate about transforming ourselves from buggy-whip government to modern government. And part of that means considering moving away from baseline adversarial systems of dealing with these disputes, to moving to more efficient administrative resolution systems.”

Layden says their reporting has found businesses have more influence on state lawmakers than any other interest group.

“It’s not necessarily whether or not they pass these bills and they become law,” Layden says. “As long as businesses can see us fighting this workers’ compensation battle, that in itself will be some sort of incentive to come to Oklahoma.”

Gaddie says the rhetoric is about attracting businesses to Oklahoma, because they want predictable regulatory environments. He compares workers’ compensation to the debate over abortion—an issue that’s churned to drive fundraising.

“With Oklahoma, we’ve never been that good at attracting industry from the outside,” Gaddie says. “What we’ve been really good about is growing industry on the inside. The problem is when we lose it. So the real battle is about creating a business environment that causes firms to stay here. And I think that is the thing that’s left unspoken.” Back to Top

Water and the Drought

On Jan. 9, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated all but one of Oklahoma's 77 counties and nearly two-thirds of Arkansas' counties as primary natural disaster areas due to ongoing drought conditions.

StateImpact Oklahoma has been closely following Oklahoma’s water issues. Layden says one of the biggest issues for the state is figuring out how to get the water that’s in Eastern Oklahoma to where it’s needed in Western Oklahoma.

“Right now, it’s really the state that makes decisions about who needs water and where it goes, and how to regulate that,” Layden says. “Moving to a more regional system is something the Oklahoma Water Resources Board wants to do.”

Ashley says those regional planning efforts and the statewide Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan are two ideas that will bump heads.

“It’s going to be one of those issues that’s going to keep coming back, and keep coming back, and there may never be a final resolution to it,” Ashley says. “It’s a natural resource. It falls out of the sky. It bubbles up out of the ground, and unfortunately, we don’t have enough of it right now.”

Gaddie says Oklahoma’s water issues highlight the larger rural-versus-urban issue in the Oklahoma legislature.

“This is the danger of regional control—that parochialism takes over,” Gaddie says. “They think that Poteau is on par with Oklahoma City, and they act accordingly. Giving more regional control of water resources is going to be detrimental to the urban areas, where most of the population is.” Back to Top

Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act

Gov. Mary Fallin says she has no plans to revisit her decision to reject an expansion of Medicaid in Oklahoma, saying instead she wants the federal government to give Oklahoma the flexibility to develop its own plan for improving the health of the state.

Gaddie says increasingly, conservative states with Republican lawmakers and governors are opting in to the Medicaid expansion. Oklahoma’s diversity of public healthcare needs, that could be served by Medicaid, means the state may have to opt-in eventually.

“By not opting in to this, we’re sending a signal that we’re going to limit the potential obligations we might incur to service this population,” Gaddie says. “So the emphasis is more on those people who are creators, than those people who are in need.”

Ashley says Oklahoma hasn’t seen many state bills related to the Medicaid expansion, but he says the issue hasn’t been settled. He expects a task force or working group to look at the federal health insurance exchange over the summer, and make an effort to address the issue in 2014.

Layden says the issue is so difficult for Oklahoma politicians to accept because of the interplay between federal and state government. Adding to this is the unpopularity of President Obama’s administration within the state.

“For people in those situations in poverty in rural Oklahoma, it has to be frustrating to see these fights going on,” Layden says. “When we were doing our coverage of poverty in southern Oklahoma, there was a lot of hand-wringing over what can be done. There are few answers to that.” Back to Top

Capitol Bond Issues

Legislative leaders sparred the week before the session start over whether Oklahoma should borrow money to repair its crumbling Capitol while attempting to cut taxes.

“Every day we don’t address it, it gets worse,” Gaddie says. “The problem is you have a group of lawmakers that are opposed to running any kind of bond issue on anything right now.”

Ashley has covered Oklahoma state government since 1996, and says officials have outlined problems with the 96-year-old structure in committee meetings for several years, but the political battle is over whether or not to fund it with bonds, or pay-as-you-go.

“This is representative of the State of Oklahoma,” Ashley says. “What sort of picture do we want to paint for those businesses that are interested in coming here? When they come in to meet with the governor, do they have to wear a hard hat to avoid the falling debris?”

A proposed $200 million bond issue to pay for building repairs was overwhelmingly shot down last year in the House, where conservative lawmakers have grown increasingly opposed to approving state-backed debt.

“You talk to Republican lawmakers in private… they recognize that there are so many things that they need to do, there isn’t a lot of room to cut anything,” Gaddie says. “I think privately, there are a lot of people that feel this way on both sides of the aisle.”

Ashley says both Democrats and Republicans will continue to argue similar sentiments – that there are things that need to be paid for, but revenues must be sufficient.

“It’s like Keith said, Republicans are aware of it too,” Ashley says. “We saw that last year in those votes. We’ll see it again this year, if it comes to that.” Back to Top

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