About 40 or so residents of Eastern Oklahoma County attended the annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast Wednesday morning at Eastern Oklahoma County Technology Center. State Representatives Lewis Moore, Tess Teague and Senator Ron Sharp spoke to the gathering and then fielded a few questions during the hour long meeting.
“It’s just as bad this year as it was last year,” said Sen. Sharp (R-Shawnee) when it comes to the state budget. His district includes a wide area including Shawnee, over to Luther and even parts of Oklahoma City. Sharp lamented the ineffectiveness of the term-limited part-time legislature that meets in session only from February to the last Friday in May.
With a nearly $900 million hole for appropriated funds, Sharp said it will be “hard to draw blood from a turnip when Oklahomans do not like new taxes. He also acknowledged the will is there to give teachers a pay raise while noting that corrections officers, and other state employees are also asking for more pay.
Sharp said he only has power during the months the legislature meets as lawmakers try to grasp what is happening in agency budgets. “We go round and round, and four months later it’s like we’ve been doing donuts in the parking lot.”
On a brighter note, he said the economy has diversified somewhat away from energy and points to Boeing and GE that have moved to central Oklahoma with hundreds of jobs and are still hiring. He said those employers are clamoring for qualified employees who are strong in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.
Rep. Moore (R-Arcadia) told the group he is chairing the House Insurance Committee and is seeking membership on the committees of transportation, higher education and water resources. When it comes to stewardship of public funds, Moore praised the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s eight-year plan that will bring better and safer roads to the area, including the expansion of I-40 to a six lane highway between Pottawatomie County line and I-35/I-40.
“Transportation and education are most important for economic development. Businesses won’t come if our roads are messed up and if our education is not solid in the basics,” said Moore whose district also includes Luther, East Edmond, Harrah, Jones and Choctaw.
Moore also said that proficiency in STEM is key for growth. “If your kid or grandchild is not good at math, get them a tutor. Do whatever it takes. They will not regret it,” he said.
Moore also pointed to the need for reform in the money the state sends to the federal government. He said that while the state gets to appropriate $6 billion, the state’s intake on all fees, federal government outlays and taxes is actually $18 billion.
“Trump said he will ship more money back to the states in block grants, with no strings attached,” he said when explaining the money Oklahoma sends to Washington DC only returns at a rate between 30 – 70 percent once administrative and bureaucratic expenses are siphoned. “It’s not very cool.”
Moore pointed to another issue: money spent on illegal immigrants in the state. He claimed that just in the Oklahoma City Public School District, 15,000 undocumented children attend school at a cost of $10,000 per student needing instruction in up to 100 different language. Doing that math, he said that $150 million that could be re-allocated to the classroom including teacher raises.
“Do we want immigrants here legally? Yes. We are willing to help. As Christians, we also want to help. If they are here illegally, I can help them get home,” he said.
In addition to undocumented citizens, Moore also said it’s a constitutional issue to secure the border in the interest of staving off drug, weapons and human trafficking. “Oklahoma City is one of the worst places for sex and human trafficking,” he said.
Moore also expressed frustration with the legislative process and the four-month session. “Getting answers is difficult. Bureaucrats fend you off, and then they have eight months to play with until we come back,” he said.
Being so close to the capitol, Moore encouraged citizens to be more involved. Come to the legislature. Visit lawmakers, share ideas and express concerns.
Rep. Teague won election this year. Representing District 101, in Choctaw, Harrah, Midwest City, Oklahoma City and Nicoma Park.
Among her legislative goals for the year is to introduce an incentive bill that would encourage schools to consolidate administrative functions, allowing school districts to remain community based. She pointed to the Mid-Del School District as an example of cost savings in administrative overhead.
After the legislators’ remarks, Harrah resident and retired Naval Commander Frank Volpe asked the legislators about the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and the controversial turnpike loop in Eastern Oklahoma County.
Volpe said that the OTA is an instrument of the state and is able to scoop up private property to build toll roads, making that formerly private property tax exempt. He asked whether there are any numbers on what communities lose in ad valorem and sales taxes to the OTA. “Have any of you looked at that?”
Rep. Moore said, “I don’t know. But I will look into it and get back to you.”
Moore pointed to his website and numbers received from ODOT on the apportionment of Motor Vehicle Collections and Excise Taxes (for gas, licenses, titles). He said among other entities, OTA gets $44 million of that $564 billion pie. If all of the money went for roads and bridges, Moore said, there would be no need for toll roads, potholes or crumbling bridges in the state.
“I want to see our transportation needs met … If we spent the $564 Million, otherwise diverted, on Transportation projects, we shouldn’t need to use Turnpike bonds to fund the work. Oklahoma should have at least GOOD roads and bridges. Depending on Turnpike bonds only puts our State deeper in debt, continues to break the legislative promise to revert toll roads to “free” roads, and allows current roads, highways and bridges to fall further in disrepair,” wrote Moore in July 2016.
Volpe said that Oklahoma Constitution allows (Art 2 Sec 7) allows individuals the freedom to enter into contracts. But in the case of OTA forcing property owners to sell their land or be sued for eminent domain, that constitutional freedom is being violated to not allow residents the right to NOT contract.
Other questions from the audience involved school funding and income taxes. Moore said he is a proponent of a flat tax, saying it is more equitable.
Moore also said when it comes to property taxes, everyone should tape a copy of their bill from their county assessor on their refrigerator and look at it often to get “fired up.” He said, among other things in Oklahoma County, residents are paying $20 million in judgements. He called for a higher standard among county officials.
Sharp said his senate district has grown from 88,000 to 100,000 residents since he has been in office, and continues to grow. “Our battle at the Capitol is not between Democrats and Republicans,” said Sen. Sharp. “It’s rural versus urban. He said soon the majority of the state’s population will live in two areas – around Tulsa and Oklahoma City.”
The legislature has gathered this week for organization and hearings and will convene Tuesday, February 3, 2017.
Visit the websites of the Oklahoma House of Representatives or the Oklahoma Senate to contact your elected leaders. You can also watch broadcasts and videos of hearings, follow committee work and track bills that affect Oklahoma residents.