OKLAHOMA CITY (14 March 2017) – The state House of Representatives voted Tuesday to strengthen penalties for offenders who abuse the elderly or the incapacitated.
Penalties for abusers of senior citizens or incapacitated individuals would be stiffened by House Bill 1406, which the House approved overwhelmingly, 81-3.
State law dictates that anyone convicted of an offense against the elderly or incapacitated must be incarcerated, and the first 30 days of the sentence is not subject to probation, suspension nor deferral.
If the crime committed against an elderly or incapacitated person is assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, aggravated assault and battery, or caretaker abuse, neglect or exploitation, HB 1406 stipulates that the offender would not be eligible for probation, suspension or deferral for the first 60 days of his/her sentence.
The bill also would enhance penalties for anyone committing a subsequent offense against an elderly or incapacitated person.
“Certainly we need criminal justice reform,” said Rep. Mickey Dollens, an Oklahoma City Democrat who authored HB 1406. “We shouldn’t fill our prisons with non-violent offenders, nor people coping with addictions or mental health problems. But prison is definitely warranted for those who commit violent crimes – people who pose a danger to our society – and especially those who abuse the elderly or the physically or mentally impaired.”
Approximately three weeks ago a 53-year-old Oklahoma City man was arrested and accused of beating to death a 94-year-old woman during a 2013 residential invasion; her neighbors said it was the third time the victim had been attacked inside her own home. And just last month a 21-year-old woman was sentenced to life in prison for the beating death of an 83-year-old Bluejacket woman during a robbery.
HB 1406 will now be referred to the Senate for consideration.
Out-of-State Tax Collectors
House Bill 1427 would direct the Oklahoma Tax Commission to establish a field office outside of this state and hire at least five full-time auditors whose principal duty would be to pursue the collection of unpaid taxes owed to the State of Oklahoma by remote sellers or out-of-state individuals, firms and corporations.
The legislation would authorize the agency to lease office space, but does not specify the state in which the office would be established.
The Republican author of the measure said his bill would focus on “collections from remote vendors” that have stores or employees in this state.
The State of Oklahoma audits out-of-state companies to ensure that they abide by state tax laws. The Oklahoma Tax Commission issued 471 assessments as a result of audits of multiple tax types (such as sales taxes) in tax years 2014-17, according to Rick Miller, director of the OTC’s Tax Policy and Research Division.
Those included 464 assessments of vendors and companies in 43 states (primarily Texas, California, Arkansas and Kansas). They also included six assessments of companies in three Canadian provinces (Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario), plus one assessment of a company in the Mexican state of Jalisco, ledgers reflect.
Nevertheless, Oklahoma doesn’t have a presence near those companies’ headquarters, the author of HB 1427 said. For example, he said, neighboring Texas has tax offices in Tulsa, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Fiscal analysts calculate that the cost of establishing a field office in another state and compensating no fewer than five tax auditors would be $450,000.
The House endorsed the measure, 70-17, and will deliver it to the Senate for consideration.
GOP Fee Increase Narrowly Approved
House Bill 1670 would increase by $1 – from $9 to $10 – the fee collected from anyone convicted of any offense, including traffic infractions but not parking and standing violations, that can be punished by a fine of $10 or more.
The additional revenue – estimated at $550,000 to $600,000 annually – would be earmarked for the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET).
A fiscal analysis indicated 60.53% of the revenue would be used to help finance CLEET operations, 33.64% would be used for facility-related expenses at CLEET’s Ada campus, and 5.83% would be routed to the state’s General Revenue Fund.
The Republican bill passed the House, 51-37, and will be sent to the Senate.
Tax Impact Analysis Endorsed
House Bill 2209 would require the state Tax Commission to prepare an “incidence impact analysis” on any bill or proposal that would increase, decrease or redistribute state taxes by more than $20 million. The analysis also would, “to the extent data is available on changes in the distribution of the tax burden,” identify “the incidence effects that would result if the bill were enacted.”
The Tax Commission does not anticipate any increase in administrative costs if HB 2209 is enacted.
The House supported the measure, 84-0, and transmitted it to the Senate.
Special Commission Would Review School Finances
A bipartisan School Finance Review Commission would be created by House Bill 1578 to “conduct a review of all matters related to school finance, including but not limited to teacher compensation, benefits and administration costs.”
The eight-member committee would be comprised of individuals appointed by the Governor, the Lt. Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Tempore, the House Minority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader, along with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the executive director of the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.
The commission would be directed to submit its first report of its findings by Jan. 1, 2019. None of the appointees could be an elected official, and the committee members would receive no compensation or travel reimbursement for their service.
Appropriations to education consume more than half of the state budget, the Republican author of the measure noted.
More than one House member indicated the proposed panel would simply duplicate services already provided by the State Department of Education.
The House passed the bill, 64-26, and referred it to the Senate for consideration.
Political Party of Limited Gov’t
Proposes Unfunded Mandates
A revised version of House Bill 1684 would require every school district adopting a four-day school week to submit a plan to the State Board of Education, estimating the potential cost savings and educational impact of the shorter week.
The bill failed on a bipartisan vote Tuesday, 45-43, although the Republican author of the proposal served notice that he may bring the bill back up for reconsideration.
Opponents argued that the measure was tantamount to an unfunded mandate.
Opponents also emphasized that school districts have scaled back to four-day school weeks to trim expenses because their state funding has declined dramatically in recent years. At last count, 218 sites in 97 school districts have enacted four-day school weeks.
Because of the latest in a series of state revenue failures, state school funding for the current fiscal year is more than $100 million lower than it was last year. In fact, the Legislature’s appropriation for public education for the current Fiscal Year 2017 is less than the appropriation was in FY 2009, fiscal ledgers show. During that same eight-year period, student enrollment grew by almost 49,000, to 693,710, according to records of the State Department of Education.
Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding for public schools fell 26.9% between FY 2008 and FY 2017 – the deepest cuts in the nation.
Another proposed unfunded mandate that was derailed was House Bill 1577.
That Republican measure would have required the State Department of Education to include on its website an itemized accounting of vacant or unused properties of Oklahoma’s school districts.
The House rejected the idea, 35-56, on Monday.
Alternative Certification Requirement Repealed
State standards for alternative certification would be lowered by House Bill 1957, which would remove the requirement of two years of specialized work experience in a particular field if the applicant has only a bachelor’s degree.
The House approved the bill in a split vote, 72-21.
Oklahoma schools are coping with a severe teacher shortage.
The House previously approved a related measure, House Bill 1362 by state Rep. Regina Goodwin, and transmitted it to the Senate.
HB 1362 would direct the State Department of Education (SDE) to publish a report each year about emergency teaching certificates.
The report would include the total number of certificates issued throughout the state, the school district and the specific school in which each of those teachers was assigned, the subject matter taught by each of those teachers, the total length of time in which the teacher taught under an emergency certificate, and demographic information, including student poverty levels, racial composition, and disability percentages at the specific school in which he/she was assigned.
Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the SDE, said the department already compiles this information but it’s not assembled in one unified report.
“We need to know where teachers who receive emergency certification are being placed,” Goodwin, D-Tulsa, said earlier this year. “I want to know what kind of impact certified teachers have on student performance.”
Because of the rash of vacancies in teaching ranks across Oklahoma, the number of emergency certifications has skyrocketed: from 32 in the 2011-12 school year to 1,063 emergency certifications requested by 265 school districts during the 2015-16 school year, and 1,082 issued from July through December 2016, records indicate.The SDE estimates more than 52,000 students are being taught by an emergency certified teacher.
According to the SDE, the principal areas in which emergency certifications were issued in the current Fiscal Year 2016-17 were elementary education, science and mathematics, and early childhood education; other major areas were social studies, English and language arts, and health education.
The top 10 counties with the greatest number of new teachers are Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cleveland, Canadian, Comanche, Garfield, Muskogee, Pottawatomie, Rogers and Kay, SDE records show.
Patriotic Proposals Approved
House Bill 2277 would require students in Oklahoma public schools to recite the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag every day rather than just once a week, as current state law mandates. The state statute, in accordance with federal law, authorizes an exemption for students “who do not wish to participate” in the pledge.
In a related matter, state law also requires instruction in the history and etiquette “relating to the United States flag” to be presented “in one or more grades” in every school district in Oklahoma.
The author of HB 2277 said the Stars & Stripes “symbolizes the patriotism, dedication and courage of those who have made this the greatest country in the world to live in.”
The measure was endorsed Monday by the House, 93-1, and was transmitted to the Senate for consideration.
In a similar vein, House Bill 1337, the “Freedom to Display the American Flag Act,” would ensure that Old Glory can wave unfettered throughout Oklahoma.
The bill, by Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita, would imprint in state statutes a prohibition against any policy or agreement that would restrict or prevent a member of a residential association from displaying the U.S. flag at “a reasonable height” of no more than 20 feet, on property within the association. The bill expressly refers to an owners association, condominium association, cooperative association or residential real estate management association.
HB 1337 breezed through the House, 92-0, and was transmitted to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Sen. Randy Bass, D-Lawton. The bill is co-authored by Reps. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah; Ben Loring, D-Miami; and Johnny Tadlock, D-Idabel.
Hoskin said his measure was prompted by a retired Marine who moved to Grand Lake. The Texas transplant told Hoskin that while in the Lone Star State he lived in a neighborhood that had a homeowners’ association which forbade him from flying the American flag. He asked Hoskin whether Oklahoma safeguards a homeowner’s freedom to fly the flag.
Hoskin, a U.S. Navy veteran, scoured the statutes, and HB 1337 is a result of that search.
The bill is identical to one Hoskin introduced last year which passed the House of Representatives, 91-0, but died in the Senate without receiving a floor vote.
“The truly remarkable thing is that a bill of this type would even be needed in this nation,” Hoskin said.
A third measure with a patriotic theme is pending in the House of Representatives.
House Bill 2192 by Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, proposes to expand the list of monuments accepted for placement on the State Capitol grounds.
A monument to the U.S. Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution) was authorized by a bill enacted last year. HB 2192 would allow “a suitable monument ... displaying the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution of the United States.” All three amendments arose from the Civil War.
The 13th Amendment, which was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, abolished slavery.
The 14th Amendment, ratified July 9, 1868, contains the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses.
The 15th Amendment, which was ratified on Feb. 3, 1870, prohibits denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude [a/k/a slavery].
The proposed monument would be designed, constructed and installed on the Capitol grounds “by private entities at no expense to the state,” the legislation pledged.
HB 2192 received a “do pass” recommendation from the General Government Oversight and Accountability Committee and was referred to the calendar for a vote by the full House.
Facility Would be Transferred from Tourism to Ag
Administration of the Forest Heritage Center in Beavers Bend State Park in McCurtain County would be transferred from the state Tourism and Recreation Department to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, under House Bill 1372.
Rep. Johnny Tadlock, D-Idabel, said he filed the measure because he believes the Agriculture Department “could promote it the way it should be promoted,” emphasizing the character and timber-related economy of the area. The House endorsed the measure, 79-9, and referred it to the Senate.
The Forest Heritage Center in Beavers Bend State Park is a museum-in-the-round and features unique displays and 14 large dioramas (painted by Harry Rossoll of Atlanta, Ga., the artist who created Smokey Bear) that cover prehistoric forests, Caddo Indians, papermaking in the South, 1940’s lumbering, and forest Appreciation. These dioramas tell the story of prehistoric forests, Caddo Indians, paper-making in the South, 1940s lumbering and forest appreciation. Each diorama is accompanied by a taped narration. Visitors to the Forest Heritage Center will discover unique wood art, historical documents, antique forestry tools, homestead memorabilia and a research library filled with books, periodicals and other materials pertaining to forestry.
The center is open year-round and the State of Oklahoma “pays all of the bills on that building,” said Dick Dutton, executive director of the Tourism and Recreation Department. Since no admission fee is charged, attendance figures are not compiled, Dutton said.
The legislative appropriation to the Tourism and Recreation Department in Fiscal Year 2017 was slashed by 11.65%, and that was before additional reductions made after the state revenue failure that was declared last month. Although tourism is Oklahoma’s third-largest industry, appropriations to the Tourism and Recreation Department have been slashed by 36% over the past decade, House fiscal records reflect.
Since state agencies were advised recently to prepare for budget cuts of up to 14.5%, on the heels of the revenue failure last month, the Tourism and Recreation Department has identified 16 state parks, one state golf course, 80 full-time employees, Oklahoma Today magazine, and the Miami travel information center as potential targets of budget cuts.
The parks include Talimena State Park near Talihina, Great Plains State Park near Snyder and Mountain Park, Cherokee Landing State Park, Natural Falls State Park in Delaware County, Red Rock Canyon State Park near Hinton, Great Salt Plains State Park in Alfalfa County, Lake Eufaula State Park, Lake Wister State Park south of Poteau, Alabaster Caverns State Park south of Freedom and north of Mooreland, McGee Creek State Park east of Atoka, Foss Lake State Park between Clinton and Elk City, Osage Hills State Park east of Pawhuska, Greenleaf State Park near Braggs, Lake Texoma State Park, Grand Lake State Park near Langley, Boiling Springs State Park near Woodward, plus Grand Cherokee Golf Course near Langley.