Representative Carl Newton, Senator Casey Murdock, US Senator James Lankford’s Field Representative Tanner Roberts and US Senator Jim Inhofe’s Field Representative Ryan Sproul were among the officials present at the first installment of Eggs & Issues for 2021 Jan. 29 at Northwest Technology Center in Fairview.
After an opening announcement from Fairview Regional Medical Center CEO and Chamber of Commerce President Roger Knak, Representative Newton addressed those present.
Mr. Newton began by saying a lot of the bills coming up this year were leftover from last year. With last session being impacted by COVID, only about 25 percent of proposed bills made it through session last year.
One area Representative Newton said legislators will likely focus on early in the session will be a clause to allow public boards the option to use Zoom to conduct meetings.
An emergency order last year allowed public boards to conduct meetings via Zoom and other options at the height of the pandemic.
However, that emergency order expired in November. Though public boards could still hold meetings via Zoom, it was required for a quorum to be present in person at the meeting location.
One bill the representative is working on for this session will address expanding telemedicine practices in the state.
A carry over bill Representative Newton will bring back in session this year is a cemetery bill.
As rural cemeteries are becoming landlocked, it’s becoming harder and harder to find available lots.
What the bill will do is make lots owned but not used for 85 years to be declared abandoned and making them available for purchase.
In the event a family member of the original lot owner wants possession of a lot after it’s reverted back to the cemetery, a clause will be added to the bill that will require the cemetery to offer a comparable lot.
Currently ballot petitions in the state require 50 percent of the vote for passage. Representative Newton feels the percentage needs to be raised to at least 55 percent whether it’s a legislative initiative or initiative petition.
One item highest on his list of priorities is readdressing the use of red and blue lights. He wants the use of red and blue lights to be designated for true emergency vehicles only.
He would like to see construction vehicles revert back to using other colors besides red and blue together.
Representative Newton also addressed the ongoing redistricting process in the state. It was noted by Newton that if you take I-35 going south and I-40 going west, there is 14 representatives for northwest Oklahoma out of the 101 total.
Representative Patzkowsky from the Panhandle has the largest district in the entire state. His district is so large in fact that it covers roughly 25 percent of the entire state of Oklahoma in order to meet the population goal of 37,124 for each district.
Though census data from 2020 has not bee returned yet, the latest reports indicate the state of Oklahoma has seen an average growth of five percent while northwest Oklahoma has seen growth of one percent.
Representative Newton said Census data is scheduled to be released by the first of April allowing for redistricting to be completed by the end of the session.
However, in the event redistricting is not completed by the end of the session, the Governor will get to appoint two people, the Senate Pro Temp will get to select to people and the Speaker of the House will get to appoint two people to finish the process. Some concerns were expressed if that turns out to be the case.
Newton closed by saying that budget wise, this year will not be as bad as next year. He added income tax payments being delayed due to COVID will actually help provide some of the needed funds this year.
The floor was then yielded to Senator Murdock. He began by sharing his frustrations and concerns with how the voting process on bills was carried out last session during the pandemic.
He explained how members were brought on the floor 10 at a time to vote on bills and he said the process made it very hard to have any constructive debate on legislation being considered.
Senator Murdock shared his concerns with what is occurring in neighboring state New Mexico. He mentioned their capital is on lockdown due to the virus, which means the public is unable to see firsthand the bills that are being voted on.
For this session, Mr. Murdock stated he started out with around 60 bill ideas and that number has already been cut in half. He expects that number will also be cut before the session begins.
One bill the senator is working on will require agencies owning at least 80 acres of property, to have the property fenced.
Senator Murdock shared one experience he is familiar with happening is an agency leases out their land in Cimarron County. The person who leases the property has been paying to put up a fence but after their five year lease is over, they will take up the fence.
The process has been causing problems for the individuals who have seen their leases end and the new lease holders. It’s the hope the bill requiring the agencies to install the fence will alleviate the problems that have been occurring between lease holders.
Another bill the senator will be working on is a carry over from last year, which will limit the number of acres state agencies can own. He touched on the Department of Wildlife owns/controls 1.2 million acres and CLO owns 750,000 acres.
In his mind, the public should be owning the land, not state agencies. He shared that while the CLO owns 750,000 acres across the state, 236,000 of those are from his area in Cimarron County.
In Cimarron County, 20 percent of all the property in the county is owned by state agencies. He stated there’s not families living on that property and the local school districts are not receiving money from property taxes on the property.
Another bill the senator is also working on is criminal justice related and will strengthen first degree rape charges.
During the question portion of the meeting, Fairview Public Schools Superintendent Craig Church expressed his concerns over the state funding formula for schools.
Currently, the state uses a three year high for ADM and that is how schools receive funding. Using the three year formula, he said it gave districts the ability to plan for losses that would be coming in the future from the state has the school’s enrollment numbers fluctuated year to year.
Mr. Church brought up one proposal being circulated that would do away with using the three year high and instead going year to year. He said if that proposal passes, it will be catastrophic for rural schools that have oil production in their districts.
Tax protests were also discussed by Mr. Church. He explained how the tax protests continue to impact property owners in the Fairview School district and others as well.
Mr. Church stated some believe the bond issue passed by voters a few year ago lead to an increase in property taxes but the reality is the increase came due to tax protests from DCP.
He shared frustrations that when companies protest occur, the citizens of the districts have to pay the difference. He also shared frustrations that when the funds are tied up in protest, they go into escrow accounts and the companies receive the interest on the funds.
Representative Newton told Mr. Church bills are already in the process that will address some of the concerns connected to tax protests.
FRMC CEO Knak then expressed his concerns with the Medicaid Managed Care funds being sent to a third party out of state company.
Representative Newton responded by saying a plan had been delivered to Governor Stitt prior to COVID that would have allowed the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to take over the Medicaid Expansion in the state.
He said the Governor reviewed the plan and the Governor stated he liked the plan; however, the Governor never moved forward with the plan.
The topic of mental health was also brought up and Representative Newton said mental health will be an emphasis this session. He added a mental health caucus has already been formed to address issues this year.
Knak then spoke on the topic and stated that even though COVID has certainly brought up many opportunities for people to curse it, one positive that came out of it for FRMC is mental health treatments.
He stated that after FRMC’s mental health counselor was able to start doing virtual visits, she’s had a lot better acceptance of that than face-to-face visits.
Knak said allowing the virtual visits was approved during an emergency waiver and he expressed his desire to Representative Newton and Senator Murdock to do what they can to make sure the emergency waiver is extended.
An issue brought up by a citizen is the amount of land being purchased by Chinese firms/individuals.
It was noted that it is illegal for people outside of the country to own farm land.
Senator Murdock stated what has been happening is the individuals are buying land with houses and calling it a domicile.
However, in Cimarron County, Senator Murdock explained land owned by Chinese entities are looking at starting grow facilities. He said he has asked state agencies to investigate the practices as grow facilities would fall under agriculture which would be illegal.
It was then noted a piece of legislation being considered would require ballot petitions to have a certain percent of signatures from every county before a bill could be voted on by the public.
Following discussion on other state and federal issues the meeting wound down.