‘Tis The Season

Greetings from the state capitol! I’m often asked how the session is going, since things seem to be more cordial this year. My usual response “pretty good, but that will change once people start to hear the word ‘no’.” This is that time of year.

The legislature completed the second lap of its session with a deadline week to hear bills originating in the opposite chamber. After last Thursday’s deadline, most bills not moving forward are finished for the year. They are still alive to be heard next session, whether they are stuck in committee or didn’t get a floor hearing. And there are certain exceptions for leadership.

What remains is to hear bills that were amended in the opposite chamber and sent back. Amendments are either accepted and or rejected in their chamber of origin. (House members like to think the Senate abuses our bills with amendments, but our amendments improve Senate bills—just sayin’!) Amended bills with a positive floor vote go on the Governor (“no” can occur there with a veto); rejected amendments go to conference, where House and Senate members continue the discussion, and try to bring forth agreed-upon language that will get another vote in each chamber.

It is hard to get bills through the conference process, and if they don’t emerge this session, they are dead (another “no”). From here forward, members will want to finish work on the appropriations budget, and once done, will be looking to “sine die” for the year and go home. Right now, it looks like we might wrap up by mid-May, and with a truncated schedule, members will see conference committees pressed to complete their work. We’ll also have to watch very carefully to see what emerges from conference—this is where surprises occur late in session with little time for review before voting. Entire bills can change.

The news this past week is that an initiative petition has been filed to expand Medicaid in Oklahoma. If the roughly 178,000 signatures are acquired, it will be on the 2020 ballot as a constitutional measure. Inside the capitol, there is talk for some alternative proposal to access increased federal funds and head off the ballot initiative, but specifics are under wraps. I will address all that in a future article, but for now, I will simply say that we need to evaluate the experience in other states… before we decide to proceed. When I read that state enrollments and costs are dramatically higher than advertised, that there are no assurances for future federal funding, and that despite increased “access to health coverage”, health outcomes aren’t improving, and then I also read the exact opposite, it seems to me we should take a hard look in those other “laboratories of democracy” to see what they’ve really experienced.

The House passed a $1,200 teacher pay raise this session to create a competitive regional salary in hopes to refill the teacher pipeline. The Senate passed a “reform” bill requiring a minimum of 165 days of school, with certain exceptions for high performing schools. As I understand it, the Senate prefers to give teacher pay raise money through the funding formula, perhaps raising the minimum salary schedule, perhaps not, and letting local school districts decide how to spend it. The House amended the Senate school day bill, adding its version of the pay raise, and sent it back to the Senate. The Senate decided not to move the stand alone House pay raise. (Again, a “no”.) During the floor debate on the House floor, we heard a lot of anger about “local control”, an argument which tangled the two issues, and forced members to decide whether to vote for a combined bill, while actually opposed to the reform idea, for the sake of the House version of the pay raise.

I voted for the school day bill, and would have done so with or without the pay raise in it. Consider just a couple of data points: first, some schools in Oklahoma are only in session 135 days in the school year, and second, if we set the new minimum number at 165 days, we’ll still be 49th. On the floor during debate, one colleague went through a list of the requirement in different states to make the point that most states are in school significantly longer than we are, averaging about 180 days a year. In the same debate, I only heard one mention of what I think is the most important question: what are we going to do to improve the academic experience and performance of our children? What we know from evaluating other states and countries is that more days in school, translating into time on task at a rate children can absorb, led by a competent teacher, is key. This shouldn’t just be about 4 day weeks or 5 day weeks, even though teacher and student attendance improves. I anticipate the two chambers will get their differences on these two initiatives settled this session.

As always, please drop by the office if you happen to be in Oklahoma City. 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.