Mark Lepak

What does a legislator do when not in session? Last month, I was asked by the Speaker to attend a regional meeting of key state policymakers with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It seems the committee chairmen of our health-related committees couldn’t attend, so I was afforded the opportunity to learn about something not exactly in my wheelhouse. The meeting was sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and is the third such specialized session they’ve sponsored that I’ve been able to (gratefully) attend. Oklahoma’s delegation included three legislators, and several members of Oklahoma’s Health and Mental Health/Substance Abuse Departments.

We learned about the CDC’s “Priority Strategies in Public Health”, which address obesity, opioids, and antimicrobial resistance, among others. While these public health challenges have large scale impacts on health in the US, there are health professionals and state leaders who have developed and implemented policies to address them, with proven results, according to the CDC. The benefits to good health are obvious, but I was fascinated with the data that is available. Sprinkled among the presentations were multiple, facilitated, state-level meetings designed to generate specific action plans with evidence-based public health policies and strategies that could be taken home for implementation. We developed two, and will meet in August to develop next steps.

I was particularly interested in ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), and its relationship to adult health. In a nutshell, the more of these adverse experiences a child endures, the greater the chance of negative health conditions, up to and including a dramatically shortened life span. These adverse experiences range from abuse, parental incarceration, drug/alcohol abuse and/or mental health disease among parents, to poverty, divorce/parental separation, and others. This topic particularly resonated with me after the recent reports that child abuse is actually increasing in Oklahoma. (There is some belief that the increase may be more related to better data collection recently, but even so, the reported level is alarmingly high.) Overall, the top two ACES reported in Oklahoma are economic hardship and divorce or separation of a parent. The third ACE is untreated mental health/substance abuse, or having an incarcerated parent, which seems to correlate to ethnicity. Trauma can occur anytime, of course, but as ACEs accumulate during childhood and adolescence, when young brains are developing, that trauma particularly affects the way those brains develop. Obviously, getting to root causes and preventing such trauma is desirable, but there is also a “resiliency” component that we are only beginning to understand. How do some children with high ACE values avoid poor outcomes as adults? Look to hear more about that topic.

This NCSL workshop is but one of example of the opportunities available to legislators to broaden their knowledge. NCSL conducts a series of meetings every year, covering a broad range of topics. They are an excellent resource. The same can be said of other organizations, such as the Southern Legislative Conference, part of the Conference of State Governments, which I will attend in late July, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. (There are others, and along with various think tanks and advocacy groups, they produce a blizzard of written material, including research, studies, and opinion pieces.) Participants can engage regional and national policy experts from all over the country. Workshops, committee work, panels and forums, and special presentations are typical of the approach, and often result in policy recommendations and model legislation. We hear so much bad news about Oklahoma, but indeed, I’ve been in sessions where Oklahomans had been invited to provide expertise and perspective on initiatives that have delivered results in our state. Other states are coming to realize their pension obligations are unsustainable, and look to Oklahoma for advice on how we effected such a dramatically improved fiscal health for our own. In July’s SLC meeting, for example, Oklahoma will be recognized for our efforts to reduce and control our feral swine population, a major problem for several states. Personally, over the past three years, I’ve attended sessions on Colorado’s experience with marijuana, the use of drone technology and regulation of operating air space, autonomous vehicles, federal ownership of western lands, Article V conventions, civil asset forfeiture, licensing reform, net neutrality, and the evolution of broadband and wireless technologies, to name just a few.

An ex-coach turned legislator compared these conferences to coaches’ clinics—you go to find out what everyone else is doing, and what you can learn to take home and do, or prepare for. You don’t embrace everything you hear, but you learn. I like to compare it to something we all know: good students dutifully prepare for their tests—great students strive to master the subject for long term retention, and seek to do so as they explore a broader range of subjects, enriching their experiences where possible for a deeper and more complete understanding… Oklahoma’s legislators need to be the latter.

During this interim, you can call my office at 405-557-7380, or write to me at Representative Mark Lepak, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd, Rm. 441, State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.

State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore) can be reached via email at mark.lepak@okhouse.gov.