Area legislators review first weeks of legislative session
Beverly Bryant - February 22, 2019 4:05 pm
Ken Luttrell, Bill Coleman and John Pfeiffer.
North Central Oklahoma’s State Senator Bill Coleman and Representatives Ken Luttrell and John Pfieffer reviewed the first three weeks of the 2019 legislative session in a forum Friday sponsored by the Ponca City Chamber of Commerce.
Each of the three expressed a sense of optimism about this year’s session with their work moving at a brisk pace and in a positive direction.
In opening remarks, Coleman said two bills he has carried have come out of committee and a total of 48 bills have moved off the Senate floor. He said he expects the constitutional carry bill to be heard by the full Senate next Wednesday. He said sporting events and businesses will still be allowed to restrict guns in certain settings.
He said he had met with school superintendents about a bill which would establish a five-day school week. He called it a good conversation, and superintendents said teachers are in very short supply in some districts.
Rep. Luttrell said this forum was his first opportunity to address constituents since the last election cycle. He said he finds the new office holders, including Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and Gov. Kevin Stitts, positive influences and a breath of fresh air in Oklahoma government. He said they are able to negotiate and work together for the good of the state and are committed to transparency in government.
Luttrell said under their direction, business people and educators are helping direct the course the state will take.
One particular point Luttrell said attracts his attention is the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, on which he serves. He said veterans who are without loved ones will soon get guardians to protect their rights and safeguard their interests.
He also said Oklahoma has had a disadvantage in Career Tech for veterans, and many veterans have been going out of state for training.
“Some $40 million has been lost in Oklahoma becuase the GI Bill accreditation for career training has not been approved here,” Luttrell said.
Rep. Pfieffer said there is one more week to the committee deadline before floor work on bills begins for the next four weeks.
He said the State Board of Equalization has certified $574 million more for FY 20 than it did for FY 19, and that amount is better than it has been for the previous four years. He said that gives the state a budget of $8 billion too $8.2 billion for FY 20.
“A lot will go into the rainy day fund,” he said. “Various tax collections are up and we’re in a better financial situation.”
He said working relationships are improved and the House, Senate and Governor are all getting along now.
“Everyone was at Gov. Stitt’s inauguration,” he said. That was not the case at Gov. Mary Fallin’s last inauguration, he said.
“Things are moving fast, with 10 to 15 bills moved out of committee every day,” he said. “We’re moving $30 million back to county roads and bridges quickly, so county commissioners can do their jobs.”
He also spoke about pay raises for teachers.
“It’s not an either/or situation,” Pfieffer said. “We can make teachers No. 1 in the region and also put money into classrooms.”
After their opening remarks, the three lawmakers responded to questions from the audience.
The first question was about whether state department heads are now appointed. No changes have taken place yet, but Gov. Stitt is working with legislative leaders to empower the governor to have more oversite of the agencies’ appointing boards.
“This is a massive power shift,” Pfieffer said. “Legislators don’t have the power or knowledge to make needed changes. This is a huge shift to make the agencies accountable to the governor. It probably will be a mix of board members serving at-will and more accountability to legislators.”
Luttrell added “That accountabililty is so important to you. They (agency boards) are entrenched. They don’t care to help our constituents.”
A bill by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat will look at five agencies to make them accountable to the governor, Coleman said.
“I’m all for it, and agency heads know it’s coming,” Coleman said.
Luttrell addressed a question about the status of Amtrak service in northern Oklahoma. He said train service is a passion of his as well as Mayor Homer Nicholson, and President Donald Trump has signed a funding bill for $50 million for east-west routes.
“Kansas has a new governor, and we hope we can coat-tail with Kansas on a new route. We love it and support it and will not give up,” Luttrell said. “It’s important to north central Oklahoma.”
Another question addressed higher education funding. Coleman said he is in favor of increased funding, especially for instructors.
Luttrell said he favors putting more money into concurrent enrollment programs, saying “It’s a vital part of working people’s ability to provide for higher education.”
Pfieffer said that when allocated money reaches the State Board of Higher Regents, the state Legislature loses control over the funds.
“We have to look at the formula,” he said. “College presidents are looking at how to save money. Money going into construction programs such as Oklahoma State University’s comes from private donations. These new buildings have better designs and cost-saving measures.”
Another question from the audience asked about municipal zoning powers over medical marijuana.
Coleman said the Legislature is having to do a lot of cleaning up of SQ 788. The bill allows a doctor to prescribe at a medical marijuana dispensary, which is not allowed in any other medical situation.
“We want to ban that, but give the people what they want,” he said.
The legislators talked about a so-called “Unity Bill,” which started with 700 pages and has been reduced to about 85 pages, Pfieffer said. He said it condenses the best practices of other states that allow for medical marijuana. Key to that is a requirement for the best and most accurate labeling on medical marijuana products.
“We’re selling more cannibis than we’re growing, which is a diversion,” he said. “We’re going to go for seed to sale tracking, from growing to the end product sale.” He said the current numbers indicate that some supplies currently sold in the state are coming from out-of-state sources, including California, which do not meet California standards.
“The Unity Bill is the bill everyone can agree on,” he said. “We’re trying to protect our citizens. It will be on the House floor soon so the State Health Department has a framework to work in.”
The three also addressed a question about a possible increase in benefits for retired educators. Coleman said he expects a 4 percent Cost of Living Adjustment this year or next, while Luttrell said the boards which oversee the retirement accounts have asked that there not be an adjustment until the funded at 120 percent.
Pfieffer said Oklahoma is proud to be a balanced budget state, but the pension fund is a long-term obligation to fund. Previous shortages were caused because a COLA was given to participants instead of reinvesting those funds for the future.
“We want the funds stabilized first,” he said. “The Teacher Retirement System is 74 percent funded right now.”
Another question for Coleman asked him what has surprised him most in the last three weeks.
“The rapid pace. It is surprisingly fast,” Coleman said. “We are there four months a year, four days a week, and it just won’t stop.”
Luttrell was asked how things are different in his position in the House of Representatives compared to his previous term in the Senate.
“Technology and attitudes are better,” he said. “People are more focused and have a plan. The leadership is setting a course and the freshman class is encouraging.” He said he sometimes sees himself as the “Godfather of the freshman class” and enjoys sharing information with others.
The next Legislative Forum will be held March 22 in City Hall. On March 29, the Chamber will hold a School Board Candidate Forum.