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The third Chamber of Commerce / Kiwanis Legislative Luncheon of this session was held Friday, April 15. The attendees received updates from Oklahoma Representative Charles Ortega and Senator Mike Schulz.
Ortega said there have been extra challenges this session since some members of the House are attempting to streamline the legislative process. “There will always be those who don’t agree with a proposed change,” he said. The “good news” is the economic rebound. Oklahoma is usually one of the last ones to feel an economic downturn, and among the first to experience a recovery. “Collections are up $37 million and we’re hoping it’s a continued trend” Ortega said. “State Sales tax receipts are up 11 percent from March 2010.” He cautioned they’re “still trying to fill a $5 million hole” for 2012.
Ortega said something needs to be done when government grows at a faster rate than the public sector.
Major topics at the capitol include: immigration, state tax exemptions, State Board of Education reform, substandard teachers, and redistricting.
Ortega said any immigration policy will likely have an economic impact on the state. An Arizona-type immigration bill deserves a “good, hard look.” Arizona has a different problem. “It’s a public safety issue in Oklahoma.” Ortega is on the joint Senate-House study on immigration. “Whatever Oklahoma immigration policy is adopted, it’ll have to fit Oklahoma,” he said. They’ll continue to study the matter through the summer.
He said that they’ve been negotiating on tax exemptions. The 2006 sales tax exemption is being traded to give an exemption for widows (or widowers) of disabled veterans. The total number of tax exemptions is being studied. They are also consolidating boards, commissions, and duplicated agencies.
Issues in education include a work in progress on a board of appointed representatives from congressional districts. The state can save school districts by giving local control to districts in determining how to deal with substandard teachers, Ortega said.
He said his district will need to pick up an additional 5,300 people. It will still include Altus though, in this redrawing of district maps.
Schulz said that Eddie Wilcoxin will be recognized at the capitol as a State Poet Laureate on Tuesday, April 19.
The topics discussed by Schulz included: conference committee changes, consolidation bills, closing funds, bills regarding guns, wind energy and tax stamps on vending machines.
Schulz recapped some changes in making the legislative process more transparent and deliberate. He had hoped he could discuss the budget at this luncheon but it’s not to that point yet. State agencies should anticipate “ten percent cuts” to be on the safe side. Some state agencies are reexamining their status. Though Schulz said later that changing some of these agencies to non-profit organizations or agencies may not save money, they may get other entities thinking about their own status.
An economic development bill concerns closing funds. This would provide funds for low-interest loans to companies locating in our state. The “open carry” gun bill is dormant. Changes in gun storage on college campuses may also be applicable to technology centers.
Schulz almost always mentions wind energy. The energy industry continues to grow. Recently there was a “shoving match” between a very big gas company and a very big wind energy company over gas exploration on land with wind generation equipment on it. There’s been some agreement now that there should be notification of lease holders of both mineral rights and wind rights in such situations.
Schulz said both he and Charles have been working to reconcile the tax stamps on vending machines. It was proposed to increase the cost of tax stamps from $50 to $150. This may solve some complaints and adverse economic impacts by going from $50 to $75 instead.
He said he wanted to “brag on Charles.” Schulz has received compliments on Ortega’s behavior during an unsettled time in the House. With some personalities in the House not conducive to accomplishing things, Ortega has been a good influence.
Schulz concluded with a joke that the Senate passed a bill for rain, but the House refused to hear it.
A question and answer session included elaborating on consolidating or cutting numbers of state agencies, which may become non-profit organizations. Schulz said both the eastern and western portions of the state have lost population. In the redistricting process, they’ll need to pull in more population in those regions to give accurate political representation to citizens.
The next Chamber of Commerce / Kiwanis Legislative Luncheon will be held at the end of the session, on Wednesday, June 8.