Taking local concerns back to the capital
June 30, 2019
"It's nice to be back home," said Rep. Carl Newton as he began a report on the recent Oklahoma legislative session. He was speaking during the Alva Chamber Community Coffee on June 21. Newton followed Sen. Casey Murdock who also reported on legislative business.
"What I like about Sen. Murdock and what I've tried to do on my own is that we try to take ideas from our constituents and to the capital. Rather than the capital trying to tell you what to do, we try to do it the other way around. Some of them aren't real popular. Some of them we get through."
County Fire Protection
Newton said Murdock had a bill to allow county employees and county commissioners to go on private land with the landowner's permission to build firebreaks for wildfires. "In Oklahoma City that's not a big deal. In northwest Oklahoma where we've had three major wildfires up here, it's a huge deal. If we can have one firebreak and it saves 1,000 acres or stop it right at the beginning, it would be good. It passed pretty handily."
A cemetery bill carried by Newton didn't fare so well. The bill addressed the problem of small cemeteries where long ago people bought several plots and then moved away. "These plots lay there, open, nobody ever using them." If the cemetery board had no way of contacting the owner, after proper notification the plots would revert back to the cemetery for use by someone else. "Some of our cemeteries are landlocked," said Newton.
The bill passed the house but stalled in the senate. "We were like only two or three weeks to the end (of the session), and you had to run it through conference then have to take it back to the house and the senate. I just didn't want to lose it in the process."
Newton said he pulled the bill and plans to bring it back at the beginning of the next session. "Since
we're not in an election year a bill can be carried over from one session to another."
Higher Ed and Career Tech
Since Murdock covered common education (public schools), Newton added that the legislature increased faculty pay by 3.5 percent in higher education. With common ed getting all this increase, you have higher ed having a hard time retaining faculty. And so we gave them an increase which was very much needed.
The concurrent enrollment program allowing high school juniors and seniors to take college courses at no cost also received funding. "I mean I've got kids that have a whole semester, some maybe even a whole year of college done by the time they graduate high school. That's great. It's no cost to the student and we gave them more money for that."
The legislature also gave Career Tech $12 million. "I've been on the Career Tech board. Folks, our Career Tech in Oklahoma is one of the best in the nation." He said not everyone goes on to higher ed after high school and the training by Career Tech fills needed jobs. "People come out of here with jobs. Your employment rate is what – 80 to 90 percent. So we wanted to make sure we kept them going."
Newton chairs Natural Resources for the house. He said almost everything that affects this falls in the category that includes the insurance commissioner, agriculture, the conservation commission, the corporation commission, and the historical center. "We only make up two percent of the whole budget, but there's about 14 agencies."
He praised the new secretary of agriculture, Blayne Arthur, who lives in Stillwater. "She's a very sharp lady, very sharp." Through the ag department, the legislature gave $600,000 for rural fire departments and $500,000 for wildfire intervention. "So between the two we put up $1.1 million. Rural fire and wildfires, there's two different titles, but I can guarantee you you're talking about the same thing. We're just trying to control the wildfires and help our rural areas be better funded there."
Newton said extension programs are important in rural areas. "We've had a concern, in the house and the senate, that our extension programs are being picked at all the time. And extension services is back home, you know. There's one in Woods County, there's one in Alfalfa County, there's one in every county. It seems like there's been a lot of emphasis about putting it centrally located and not reaching out to our part of the state. We specifically put a million dollars in ag, it usually goes to higher ed, but we specifically put it in ag to make sure it would get back to our rural areas. So that's another thing we were working on there."
The next item drew laughter from the audience. "You know, in conservation commission I guess we had a little foresight. We put $1.6 million in dam control and improving our dams. Might be a little late getting the money there, but in the conservation commission we gave them $1.6 million for that."
Moving on to the corporation commission, Newton described it as "that's your highways, that's your way stations, all that stuff." The legislature gave them $5.3 million to start getting all their paper files on the computer. The projection is that the cost will be $9 to $16 million. The $5.3 million will get them started.
More Careers for Felons
"I did want to cover some bills that I thought were of interest and that were passed," said Newton. House Bill 1373 opens more work opportunities for convicted felons. "The ones we changed in this law were electrician, plumber, accountant, architect, podiatrist, dental assistant, funeral director, and five or ten others. It was like a 90 page bill."
He said convictions involving violence or sexual offenses were excluded. The occupational board can tighten the standards more, for instance to exclude someone with a felony conviction for theft.
"I know from personal experience a kid got a felony drug charge the first year he was in college. He's doomed for the rest of his life. Even if he turns it around, you've saddled him with something he can't do for the rest of his life. So this allows him to be able to grow and mature and to be a productive citizen. There is a five year waiting period after a felony conviction."
Quick Action Closing Fund
A $5 million quick action closing fund was set up for the governor to obtain and entice businesses into the state. Newton said without such a fund, the governor would have to wait for the next legislative session to ask for approval of funds for these opportunities.
"By the way, you know something interesting I found out about last week. You know where the number two data resource center is in the United States? Pryor, Oklahoma. You know where the number one is going to be in the next two years? Pryor, Oklahoma. Google just put $600 million into that facility. And so if we can get another Google to come in here, it's great for our state."
Newton said the film industry is showing a lot of interest in Oklahoma. "California laws are getting a little crazy out there for them. So they want somebody that's a little more common sense than some other places. And we've got a beautiful state. So that's another one. Give (the governor) the ability to reach out if he sees something going on so he doesn't have to wait until the next legislative session."
Senate Bill 441 requires all schools to go 165 days out of the year. "We had an ice storm a few years ago and went from days to hours. There's 1080 hours in the school year. We had some schools that were getting down to 134 days in a year. That's alright if they're doing a good job, but we're talking about some D and F schools. It's just like making sure you're playing level, that you're doing the right thing.
"There are going to be exceptions to the 165 days. If they have the credentials to show they have been performing with their students, we're going to give them an exemption. But if we've got these D and F schools that are cutting the number of days, it saves the school money but we're not educating our kids. That doesn't start until the 2021-2022 school year."
"Another one is increased transparency in charter schools," he said. While some might question the presence of charter schools in northwest Oklahoma, Newton said they are here.
"They can be located in Oklahoma City and you've got teachers right here in Alva. And they do a good job. I'm not criticizing that. We just wanted equal transparency between the charter schools and the regular public schools. And we want to make sure the money that goes to the educational management organization, Epic is one of the educational management organizations, we want to make sure the money that is going to them is being spent in the appropriate way. Fair enough, right?
"And also part of House Bill 1395 says a teacher cannot vacate their contract and go to another school unless they get the board's permission. It's in the middle of the year, you don't like teachers leaving your school. It hurts, especially in a rural area when you're trying to find a new teacher."
Newton said he had been unaware there was an abortion pill. "It's a two-pill treatment that will cause an abortion. The first pill they take and then they have to wait 24 to 72 hours, I don't remember which it is, and then that creates the abortion. We are making the doctors notify the patient if they take the first pill, and it has been proven as safe, they can stop the abortion at that point and save the baby."
Patient's Pharmacy Act
Newton also discussed House Bill 2632, the patient's pharmacy act. "Big insurance companies were requiring or allowing certain pharmacies to get a discount or advantage over other pharmacies. And so we equalized that out by passing 2632.
"It was a way we could help our rural pharmacies, give them an equal chance with the chains. That passed pretty handily. There were actually two bills, the house bill and the senate bill, but the senate bill the governor vetoed. But the house bill was actually the better bill, of course."
"And we did talk marijuana this year. Can you believe that?" said Newton. "After you guys passed State Question 788 we had to deal with the aftermath of the marijuana law."
He said there is a six percent excise tax on marijuana and a one percent state sales tax. "So there's a seven percent tax altogether on marijuana. It goes to the state. But we also gave the county and the city the ability to put a tax on there if they so desire. That would be up to you.
"How many (dispensaries) you guys got in Alva? I know we got four in Cherokee. Must be the marijuana capital, I don't know," Newton joked.
He said marijuana smoking will follow the same guidelines as cigarette smoking. "And there were a whole lot of other nuances. The whole idea we tried to make sure is ... you know where marijuana comes from, we follow it from the seed to the end product and make sure there are controls there to make sure we're not feeding an illegal industry to sell it. There's going to be labeling on all the marijuana products to try to protect that."
Speed Limit Raised
"Also, we raised the speed limit. Interstates can go up to 75 and turnpikes can go up to 80. So you can get there faster," he said. However this change doesn't go into effect until November. "It's up to the Department of Transportation to decide what roads are appropriate."
"I'm a Southern Baptist. I don't vote for many liquor bills," said Newton. However, the alcohol modernization act passed in a state question limited the number of liquor wholesalers in the state of Oklahoma.
"Say, Crown Royal, one wholesaler for the whole state of Oklahoma. Seagram's could have one wholesaler for the whole state of Oklahoma. For a wholesaler in Oklahoma City to come out to a rural area, it's difficult. We had some wholesalers who wanted to reach out in these rural areas but they couldn't get these different brands. So the idea is we allowed any wholesaler to be able to sell any brand.
"This is a constituent call I had. Two liquor stores in Woodward were calling me saying 'we can't get a certain brand. They're trying to put us out of business.' We're trying to make this fair trading for all industries around here."
Tagging Commercial Vehicles
"One of my constituent bills, had a guy who had a lot of commercial vehicles. He's living in Carmen. He says, 'I'm spending thousands of dollars driving back and forth to the tag agent. I've got 20 vehicles and they're all coming due in different months so I'm doing a lot of driving back and forth.' So we passed a bill that if you have three or more commercial vehicles, that you can tag them all at one time – one trip, one time. I'm going to come back and try to do farm next year. It's going to be a little more burden on the tax agent but I think it's only fair."