Alva Review-Courier -

Transparency, accountability and education

• State senate goals for session

 

Marione Martin

Sen. Casey Murdock gives an overview of the recent legislative session during the June 21 Alva Community Coffee.

State Senator Casey Murdock gave an update on the recent legislative session to the crowd attending the June 21 Alva Community Coffee at Northwest Technology.

"This was the best session since I've been there," said Murdock. "I was first elected into the House in 2014, and you all know what '15, '16 and '17 looked like for the state. It was horrible. So this session was great because we had a little bit of money. We were able to start fixing some things that we have been putting on the back burners for years.

"I think in my senate campaign you heard me say several times we've been gray-taping and baling wiring things together in the state for too long. This year we were really able to start fixing some issues that we've had."

As Murdock looked through his cellphone for his notes, he told the audience his son is looking at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. He stayed with Rep. Carl Newton in Cherokee the previous weekend and attended a basketball camp. "He's just a junior but he is looking at Northwestern," said Murdock. The crowd applauded.

Murdock added, "I don't know if it's the school or because his girlfriend lives in Burlington." NWOSU President Dr. Janet Cunningham called out, "Whatever it takes."

Senate Caucus

The senator said when he was in the House of Representatives, they held a caucus retreat every year.

"No, we weren't at some resort sitting by the pool drinking mai tais. We did these caucus retreats to gain vision for the upcoming session, to set priorities." He said the senate never really did that but with Sen. Greg Treat as the new pro tem, the senate held a caucus this year.

"We set out our goals for the session. I guess previously in the senate, they just shotgunned goals out there. Their priorities were everything across the board. But we this year picked five goals, four goals, the fifth one we couldn't all get on board with."

Budgets and Agencies

Murdock continued, "Our goals were budget transparency, government accountability, education investment and criminal justice reform. And this year we hit every one of them.

"So the budget transparency and government accountability is locked. I know some people say well that's just more government." Murdock said they set up a board for the house and senate to go through agency budgets, revenues and expenses.

"One thing that frustrated me since I have been elected is agencies. They'd seem like they were working off of two sets of books – the books that were true and the books that they showed us," said Murdock. He cited the recent health department money problems as an example. They asked the state for $30 million to continue operating. "But on the $30 million, there's only so much of the pie. We had to cut into county roads and bridges. We took $30 million from them to give to the health care authority. Well come to find out they didn't need it, they had it. That made county roads and bridges short"

He said the board "will give us a better idea on how to budget and make more educated decisions in budgeting."

Education Budget Increases

Murdock said during the teacher walkout, those educators who came to his office told him it wasn't only about teacher raises but also about money for classrooms. "We could not do it all in one year. This year we kept investing in our education."

He said the senate and house "butted our heads. The senate wanted to stick more money in the classroom. The house and the governor wanted to give more teacher raises. So we had a staring contest, we played a little chicken for a while. That's politics. But we came to the middle and we gave $1220 raises to teachers, we gave $75 million to the classroom."

He said the total added money for education was $157.9 billion including $74.4 million increase in classroom funding, $58.9 million to give teachers an average pay raise of $1220, $18.9 million devoted to teacher healthcare benefits, $5.5 million to fully fund the reading sufficiency act. "This is the first time that it has been fully funded."

Murdock said, "So the total investment into education this year was $207 billion. We're building on what we did in the 2018 session. We're continuing to build. I'm totally on board with Gov. Stitt wanting to make us a top ten state. This will help. This sits us number one in the region in teacher pay? I don't know what Texas did this year. And that's keeping up with the Joneses. Are we ever going to be able to keep up with Texas? I don't know. You look at their economy. They're a massive economy. They were a country of their own at one time. But right now we're number one in the region on teacher pay."

Murdock added, "We've got to fund the classroom to make sure our kids are being educated. And I think money to the classroom will help get our scores up and we will have better outcomes with our children."

Fumbling with his phone to find his notes, Murdock mumbled something about "that and me being blind." Rep. Newton who is an optometrist said, "I've got an opening this afternoon."

"Well, I tell you what," replied Murdock, "my eye doctor in Beavers says it's age. He says, 'You've got the A G E disease. He didn't say there was anything to do except thicker glasses and I haven't gone there yet."

Governor's Power to Hire and Fire

"One big thing was giving the governor the power to hire and fire agency heads," said Murdock of the legislative session. "That's accountability. And I've got to applaud the governor for stepping up and asking for this because since statehood and the way it has been set up, the governor has had plausible deniability."

He explained plausible deniability using the year DHS was facing budget cuts. "We had a $1.3 million hole in the budget and we were making cuts. DHS was going to cut the senior meals." He said DHS had been told not to cut programs when they were told about the budget cut on a Wednesday or Thursday.

"Monday morning the headline comes out they're cutting senior meals. I had people calling my office, elderly people scared to death, not knowing where their food was going to come from. They depended on this. And it was politics. It was politics as usual. They decided to cut these programs that would hurt the people the most so my phone would ring.

"But what frustrated me, there wasn't anything I could do about it. Not one thing I could do. We allocate this bucket of money and we give it to the agency, and the agency spends it how they see fit to spend it.

"When Carl and I vote on a budget and we send funding to these agencies, our job is pretty much done for that year, and they spend it how they want to spend it," he said. But with the governor having the power to hire and fire that agency head, "when he's told 'don't cut these programs' and his job is on the line he's probably not going to cut those programs."

Murdock explained, "Before this, the governor could say 'that's the agency's decision, I have no power over that, can't affect that.' Well, now he can. And we would hold him accountable."

 

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