Citing the lack of a vision coming from the Democrat leaders in the State Senate, the Senate Republican Leadership announced today their 2001 legislative agenda which includes significant education investment, broad based tax cuts, government reform, and the improvement of Oklahoma's business climate.
"Every year the Democrat Leadership enters the legislative session waiting to see who will scream loudest before setting any agenda," Republican Floor Leader Mark Snyder (Edmond) said. "They spend the first half of the session trying to figure out which constituency they need to make happy this year and then try to cram hundreds of bills down in the last two weeks of the session. That is not what the people of Oklahoma elected us to do. We are here to set a clear path early so when the session begins the legislature is ready to work for the people of Oklahoma, not wait while the Democrat leaders are wooed by special interests."
"I am proud to take this plan and lead the charge for a better Oklahoma this next session," Republican Floor Leader - elect Jim Dunlap (Bartlesville) said. "Now is not the time to embrace business as usual. We come as agents of change and I challenge the Democrat Leadership to join our effort and stand for education, the people, and the growth of Oklahoma."
"The Democrat Leadership of this state for years has claimed to be the champions of education all the while allowing our teachers to be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to compensation and our schools first in line for unfunded mandates," Dunlap said. "If the Democrat Leadership once again shows they are unwilling to stand up for what is right in education then they must be moved out to allow the state's prosperity reach the same level as the character of our people."
The Republican leadership is pushing a $1,200 benefit allowance for every teacher to help defray the cost of health insurance. The allowance will provide an extra $100 per month to all certified staff at an annual cost of $58 million. The Republicans are also calling for a $500 tax credit for the 41,500 classroom teachers to reimburse them for the purchase of classroom supplies. This tax credit provides a $20.75 million annual benefit to teachers.
"The time of teachers paying for insurance and classroom supplies out of their own pockets is over," Dunlap said. "This nearly $80 million investment in our teachers is the first step to a fairer compensation system for Oklahoma's educators."
The Republican Leadership also wishes to restore alternative certification, which was killed as a result of an attorney general's ruling. "Restoring alternative certification will allow many talented professionals and retirees to share their experience and expertise with our children while helping to ease the burden of teacher shortages in math and science," Dunlap said.
Because reading is a fundamental skill that no Oklahoma child should be deprived of, the Republicans will push to use additional growth revenue to support programs that focus on K - 8 reading and will put an end to social promotion. They believe that annual testing will give teachers the tools to identify students' strengths and weaknesses and help them ensure that no student is passed on without being given the skills they need to succeed in the next grade.
"It has to start early. We should set a goal that by the third grade 90% of our children are reading at or above grade level and focus our resources on achieving that goal," Assistant Republican Floor Leader Jim Williamson (Tulsa) said. "Beyond that we need to test students annually and expand our focus to include mathematics so we can offer help to those who are slipping behind and make sure they have the necessary skills to succeed at each grade level."
"Last session we made a significant investment in the teachers of Oklahoma with the $3000 pay raise," Snyder said. "This session it is time to continue the investment by insuring the full funding of the pay package."
The Senate Republican Leadership proposes the creation of a permanent fund to guaranty that no school, and no teacher loses out on last year's pay increase. The proceeds from this fund will be allocated outside of the school funding formula on a per teacher basis to the districts to insure that no schools experience a funding shortfall as a result of sending the appropriation through the formula.
"If we sent this money through the school funding formula some districts would receive a windfall and others a serious shortfall," Senate Republican Caucus Chairman - elect and Education Committee member Glenn Coffee (Bethany) explained. "This fund will protect school districts from a funding crisis and will remove the threat of teacher pay being another unfunded mandate on our schools."
The Republicans also feel that bringing the balance between state funding and student contribution for higher education to the regional average is worth examining. "The Regents for Higher Education made a request for a tuition increase in order to better balance the funding sources of our higher education system," Dunlap said. "For Oklahoma to continue to progress our colleges and universities need the tools to compete with our neighboring institutions. To that end we must seriously consider this request."
The Senate Republicans believe the economic conditions of Oklahoma demand that some of the tax dollars be returned to the citizens. "For too long there has been a prevailing attitude at the capitol that somehow this money belongs to the state government," Coffee said. "That is wrong. The legislature doesn't create wealth, the people do and it is time for the Democrat Leadership to acknowledge the hard working families of Oklahoma and ease their tax burden."
The Republican Leadership is forwarding a tax package that includes a quarter-point cut in the state income tax, a state sales tax holiday, and the immediate conversion to a pick-up state for federal estate taxes. The income tax cut will amount in first-year savings of $23 million to Oklahoma taxpayers and over $50 million when fully phased in. The estate tax relief has no budget impact in the first fiscal year and is a $40 million savings in year two. A sales tax holiday weekend on clothing for school could have a budget impact as low as $3 million. "Every Oklahoma family should be able to take the money they saved on income taxes and go buy their children new, tax-free school clothes," Coffee said.
A preliminary study from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) showing Oklahoma as one of only eight states in the entire country that experienced a net increase in taxes for FY 2001 further supports the Republican demands for broad based tax cuts. Further, Oklahoma's top rate income tax is in the top 20 highest rates in the nation and only two other states in that top 20 (Oregon and Utah) have an earlier phase in of top rate taxes. "No wonder all signs are pointing towards Oklahoma losing a congressman," Dunlap said. "Not only does the taxman hit you harder in Oklahoma, he hits you sooner. And he is getting stronger."
Though the fiscal impact of a quarter-point income tax cut is estimated at $23 million this fiscal year and over $50 million in a full year, Senator Dunlap doesn't believe this will result in less money for appropriations in coming years. "We cut income taxes a few years ago and our state budget has still grown every year. In fact, income tax collections have increased even with that quarter-point cut. There is absolutely no reason not to ease the tax burden on the working people of our state," Coffee said.
Senator Dunlap has also commissioned an interim study on the effect of a one-time tax holiday for IRA withdrawals for retirees. "To many Oklahomans are fleeing across our borders upon retirement to protect their nest-egg from our income tax," Dunlap said. "A one time holiday would help keep those fine Oklahomans home and allow them to spend their retirement and their retirement accounts within our borders."
Senator Dunlap also believes that the legislature acted inappropriately last session in directing the Tax Commission to withhold professional licenses from individuals who fall out of favor. "Under no circumstances should we have given a bureaucracy the authority to revoke someone's professional license, their livelihood, without ensuring rigorous due process," Dunlap said. "This is a wrong we must correct."
The Senate Republicans believe it is necessary that the legislative process be open to full public scrutiny. Therefore, the Republican Leadership will introduce legislation to require the legislature to comply with the Open Records Act.
"We are supposed to be here doing the business of the state for public benefit, but too much of the legislative process is shrouded from the public eye," Dunlap said. "Without full disclosure how can the public be confident we are working in their best interests? I would expect this vote should occur on the floor in the first days of the coming session."
The Leadership also feels that recent Democrat calls for a hybrid General Accounting Office are just an attempt to score political points. They believe resources should be focused towards the Office of the State Auditor and Inspector and the Office of State Finance.
"The Democrat calls for a GAO are the typical liberal response to a problem - create a new bureaucracy," Dunlap explained. "The state already retains the services of a number of talented professionals capable of performing the duties of a GAO, and under the leadership of Clifton Scott and Tom Daxon these professionals would certainly root out corruption and waste and restore the public trust in government. The Democrats should focus on marshalling our current resources instead of looking to create another bureaucracy that will drain funding from education and transportation."
As numerous studies have shown, Oklahoma's high instances of out-of-wedlock births, teenage pregnancies, and divorce have a negative effect on Oklahoma's economic climate. The Senate Republican Leadership feels that the government can help create an environment that emphasizes the importance of the family. This first step in that emphasis is to enact covenant marriage. "We need to send a message that marriage is a lifetime commitment between a man and a woman not to be entered into lightly or on a whim," Senator Owen Laughlin (R - Woodward) said.
The Republican Leadership also is encouraging the legislature to continue efforts to strengthen the value of life by passing parental notification. "We have children that we say aren't mature enough to vote for the President or can't go to some movies without their parents yet we tell them to make a life-changing decision about having an abortion without consulting those same parents," Republican Whip - elect Scott Pruitt (Broken Arrow) said. "I think it shows how our priorities are off when we place more emphasis on parental input when a child goes to a movie than when that child goes to the abortion clinic."
Citing the fact that many marital problems begin with the stress caused by financial troubles, the Republican leaders feel it is the moral obligation of the legislature to eliminate Oklahoma's marriage tax penalty. "As a state we should be making every effort to celebrate and encourage healthy marriages, not penalize them," Snyder said. "It completely baffles me how the self-proclaimed party of the people continues to stand in the way of a common sense reform that would provide relief so many working families they claim to fight for."
"We have the highest workers' compensation cost index in our region," Pruitt said. "Despite this indisputable fact the opposition leadership continues to bury their heads in the sand and hope minor modifications will bring about systemic change. The opposition leadership's current actions remind me of the Middle Ages when doctors used to try to cure disease with leaches. They siphon off minimal cost with a slight rate change or a benefit reduction while doing nothing to address the root of the problem. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now. You can't put new blood in a bad system and expect the problems to go away. The injured worker deserves systemic change."
Along with moving from our antiquated workers' compensation system to a more effective administrative system, the Republican Caucus believes that enacting right-to-work is the key to enhanced economic development in our state.
"We must vote on right-to-work this session," Williamson demanded. "No more excuses from the Democrat leadership for why they don't have the stomach to bring this issue to the floor."
Williamson explained that the previous procedural roadblocks the Democrat leadership has used to block this change would no longer be tolerated. "The people of Oklahoma elected us as part of a representative democracy," Williamson said. "By taking office we made a commitment to our constituents to address issues critical to Oklahoma's future. Unfortunately, the current leadership has made it their highest priority to avoid a direct vote."
The Senate Republican Leadership believes that it is the legislature's duty to have a vote on this issue and that sending it to a public vote should only be used as a last resort. "We aren't elected and paid to pass the buck," Williamson said. "The Democrat Leadership should bring right-to-work to a full and open vote on the floor."
The Senate Republican Leadership maintains this agenda can be advanced within the restraints of a balanced budget. Dunlap explained that current estimates show that a 3 - 4% growth in general revenue is realistic. He feels the growth in G.R., along with Rainy Day funds, will allow the implementation of these initiatives while keeping previous commitments like phase two of the Billion Dollar Road Program and the supplemental appropriation to the Health Care Authority.
"I'm sure we will hear heartache about the difficulty of balancing the budget with all the needs of government this next session," Dunlap said. "I'm not here to fulfill government needs, I'm here to address the needs of the people of Oklahoma and this agenda does just that."
For additional information please contact Eric Polak, Republican Leadership Assistant, at 405/521-5654 or Senator Jim Dunlap at 405/521-5634.
· $1,200 teacher insurance benefit
· $500 school supply tax credit
· Restore alternative certification
· Keep pay raise outside the formula
· Study Regents request for tuition hike
· Social promotion & 90% reading
· Quarter-point income tax cut
· Estate tax pickup state
· State sales tax holiday
· IRA tax holiday
· Correct licensing problem from last session
· Legislature under Open Records Act
· No GAO
· Covenant marriage
· Parental notification
· Marriage tax penalty relief
· Workers' Comp. Reform