Legislators address city leaders at Chamber breakfast
Mark Friedel Staff Writer
State Senators and Representatives met with municipal leaders during the Claremore Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast Friday morning at the J.M. Davis Gun Museum.
Oklahoma public officials in attendance included Sen. Sean Burrage, Rep. Ben Sherrer, Rep. Marty Quinn and Sen. Rick Brinkley. Each spoke on current issues affecting citizens of Rogers County and Oklahoma.
With many legislative negotiations at the moment, Sherrer said he wanted to focus on the positive during Friday’s meeting.
“I think Claremore is an interesting mixture of rural, suburban and agriculture. To represent this area we have to be able to work with the urban elements in our districts,” he said. “One thing that is important to Claremore, Rogers County and into Mayes County is insuring that we continue to maintain a competitive rural Oklahoma.”
He said it is a model made up of infrastructure, tax structure, a sound workers’ compensation system and education.
Sherrer also mentioned Oklahoma’s incentives such as the Quality Jobs Act and the Quality Events Act.
Sherrer said he is pleased to report that the programs are working, bringing jobs and events to communities in Oklahoma.
As for infrastructure, House Bill 1080 is a bill that will redirect an additional 5 percent of motor vehicle collection taxes to help pay for major collector roads, he said.
“All county commissioners should be happy with that measure.”
Although public officials have somewhat formed an agreement regarding tax structure, Sherrer’s concern is that the pressure of an income tax cut ultimately causes local governments to turn toward a “Texas-sized property tax plan,” resulting in pressure to raise revenues elsewhere.
“In rural Oklahoma a larger property tax burden is harmful,” said Sherrer. “It is much more harmful than the income tax in my opinion. We’re just getting back to 2008 funding levels in a lot of areas, so obviously elected officials know my temperature on any tax cuts at this time.”
Sherrer said he believes Oklahoma’s tax structure is delicate and wants to ensure that the overall tax burden stays in the 44-50 range.
In addition to infrastructure an tax structure, Sherrer spoke briefly on workers’ compensation.
He said 19 out of the last 36 years there has been a “major workers’ comp reform bill and legislators are looking at the issue again.
“The bill is ever-changing and has moved from a 260 page bill to over 300 pages now. The House author in committee stated ‘the savings in the bill come from the 30 percent reduction in workers’ benefits,’” said Sherrer. “That’s where the savings are primarily built. It is a big deal and if the bill does pass, it will bring massive changes to workers’ comp as we know it.”
Sherrer said he believes the bill will pass and when it does, he hopes workers are taken care of with benefits and businesses are paying less.
One important economic tool for the state is education.
Oklahoma currently spends 52 percent of state funds on education, said Sherrer.
“We didn’t get education funded by April 1 this year and we haven’t since I have been in the legislature. This is not because education is not a priority,” he said. “We’ve recently had a lack of commitment, in my opinion, to education since the economic down turn in 2008 when nearly $280 million was cut from (education) funding. It’s time to start restoring the funding to culminant.”
The final component of success in rural Oklahoma will always be jobs, said Sherrer.
“Our unemployment rate in Rogers County is hovering around 5.7 percent, which is in fact down almost a point from a year ago. Business leaders in Rogers County are continuing to do a great job.”
During Friday’s breakfast, State Sen. Sean Burrage discussed one of the most important topics at the Capitol this year — Medicaid expansion.
He said the majority of Oklahoma elected officials disagree with the Affordable Care Act, however, they have not addressed it because they are scared of the issue.
“What we’re going to do instead is invite the federal government into Oklahoma in January to take over our healthcare system through Medicaid expansion,” said Burrage. “We had an opportunity two years ago to use a $54 million grant and set up a healthcare exchange so we would have some control, but we are so scared of it as public officials, we’re doing nothing.”
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin originally asked for the grant to pay for a “free-market conservative exchange to defend Oklahoma against federalization of health insurance,” then later abandoned the idea.
Burrage said on Wednesday, state senators passed the Shop Bill, which imposes a tax on Oklahoma hospitals.
“The hospitals take the money, then leverage it to get more federal money for Medicaid. We’re just asking for more money to put toward Medicaid,” he said. “It’s embarrassing and very hypocritical of our state officials.”