The Harrah Chamber of Commerce hosted a legislative lunch last Thursday at Harrah Church, 101 S. Dobbs Rd., which allowed several elected officials the opportunity to speak directly to eastern Oklahoma County constituents.
Special guests included Congressman Steve Russell, State Senator Ron Sharp, State Representative Tess Teague, State Rep. Lewis Moore and County Commissioner Brian Maughan. A field representative from U.S. Senator James Lankford’s office was also in attendance.
“It’s good to be here. A bad day in Oklahoma is better than anyway in Washington,” opened Congressman Russell of Oklahoma’s Fifth District.
Russell touched on many things happening at the national and global level including North Korea, healthcare, tax reform and seemingly increasing racial tension.
“Regarding healthcare, Senator McCain cast a vote that surprised everybody and it’s done for this year. It’s very unlikely that the senate will be able to take up any 2017 measures, because we only have the month of September to get all the 2018 work done,” said Russell. “Under reconciliation rules we can take another crack at healthcare in January, and there will be a lot of demand for that as we see the continued hardship of what’s going on following the Affordable Care Act.”
The problems with healthcare is having a significant negative effect on Oklahoma, but Russell believes the state’s elected officials in Washington are doing the best they can in an unfortunate situation.
“In the state we’re seeing an impact to a greater degree with over a 200 percent increase in healthcare costs. Businesses having to pay exorbitant rates for premiums, and we’re seeing a spat between Integris and Blue Shield. Hopefully they’ll sort it out before Sept. 1,” said Russell. “Oklahoma’s delegation, all seven of us, have been consistent in our votes. We’re doing what most of Oklahoma is telling us on these healthcare issues.”
It’s important to get healthcare resolved before moving into tax reform, said Russell.
“It is the vision of the president, which I agree with, to get healthcare resolved before we mess with tax reform, because that’s $960 billion that’s tied up,” said Russell. “Roughly a trillion dollars could go back into the economy, and that’ll help with tax reform.”
The North Korea situation is dangerous and calls for immediate attention.
“The North Korea situation is as dangerous as I’ve seen it in my lifetime. Kim Jong Un is not crazy, he’s very intelligent and evil. He killed his own brother with nerve agent, and he lines up the families of political opponents and fires mortars at them for sport,” warned Russell. “His rockets could hit U.S. territory, and he’s working to get the capability to hit the west coast. In my limited experience with dictators, they eventually miscalculate and it results in the destruction of their government, the suffering of their people and their death. Kim Jong Un wants to live, and that’s our leverage.”
Critics of the president’s remarks regarding North Korea have no sympathy from Russell.
“What we can’t do is accommodate good will for bad behavior. What the president said is no different than has been our policy since the 1950s. If he attacks us, we will strike back and North Korea will be devastated, and that’s been our nuclear deterrent strategy since the 1950s whether against China or Russia,” explained Russia. “‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ has worked so far, and we have the capability to knock down anything he fires, but that’s a dangerous game.”
Hostilities have risen after protestors clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia resulting in one death. Many are calling for continued efforts to remove symbols of the Confederacy from the south.
Russell disagrees with mainstream and social media’s efforts which seem to be to increase hostilities, and only respect one side of the first amendment’s protected freedom of speech.
“It’s easy for politicians to condemn Nazis, that’s a no-brainer. What’s deeper is we’re focusing on things that divide us and not what unites us. That’s a dangerous game,” said Russell.
“My answer is simple, we have to exhibit the love we have to other people. We have to take a step back on divisive issues. If we react by poking each other in the eye, that turns to fists and that doesn’t end well.”
Russell says local issues of renaming schools or streets are not his concern, and should remain up to the people of those communities. However, as far as the removal and vandalism of statues and monuments dedicated to soldiers who served the south in the Civil War Russell believes there’s no excuse for such disrespect to United States veterans.
“Whether destroying veteran memorials in Ohio or Alabama, it’s wrong. Names on a courthouse monument of people from that town who died in war need to be shown respect. Most soldiers who die in war don’t know why they were fighting. They were sent to their death by some politicians who couldn’t get a long,” explained Russell. “Continuing on reconstruction efforts that Abraham Lincoln was insistent upon, they named all veterans of the Civil War to be United States veterans with all the respect and honors that entails. So to desecrate any veterans monument is uncalled for.”
Russell hopes to see the nation unite and embrace the history, both good and bad, that has made the United States the nation it is today.
“We need to understand why slavery was so cruel. We need to understand why the compromises of 1820 and 1850, and every other effort that eventually failed until we started killing each other in America’s fields and farms,” said Russell. “If we don’t have that sharp reminder of what we did to one another in the United States of America we’re going to get back to it. We will remove every vestige of that we did this to ourselves once before, and we don’t need to do that. We need those historical lessons out for everyone to see.”
State of Oklahoma
Senator Sharp, over District 17, addressed the recent unconstitutional ruling regarding the recently approved cigarette “fee.”
In a lawsuit brought by tobacco companies, the state’s high court ruled lawmakers failed to follow constitutional requirements for revenue-raising measures and tax increases when they passed Senate Bill 845 last session.
The ruling nullified a $1.50 “fee” or tax on cigarettes.
“For the first time since 1990 the State Legislature was tasked to raise taxes on tobacco. We’ve had some fees here and there, but after a petition in 1992 was passed, the legislature has not been tasked with raising taxes,” explained Sharp. “We had to have two-thirds vote, and that was just not going to happen. So I don’t know how we can resolve that even with a special section. We’ll have to repeal or amend State Question 640 so we don’t have to 75 percent vote to get things done.”
Lawmakers used $215 million generated by the tax in the fiscal year 2018 budget.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state’s Medicaid agency, was to receive $70 million, or about 7 percent of its appropriation. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services would have received $75 million, about 23 percent of its appropriation. The Department of Human Services was to receive $69 million, or about 10 percent of its appropriation.
Now Sharp says a shortfall will happen, and he doesn’t believe anything can be done in a special session to help.
“In 1990 House Bill 1017 raised about $500 million for public schools, but people were so mad abou that they circulated a petition. In March of 1992 that went to a vote of the people, and the people voted to make sure as a legislature we could never do that again. They knew they couldn’t remove the legislature’s ability to raise taxes, but they set the threshold so high our hands are tied,” said Sharp. “I was a school teacher at the time, and never dreamed I’d be a legislator. The Supreme Court has allowed a few fees here and there for drivers licenses and things, but this was the first true effort since 1990 by the State Legislature to attempt to raise taxes.”
Teague, Representative of Oklahoma’s District 101, also touched on the recent Supreme Court ruling. The first year legislator is leery of a special section to resolve failures of the regular session.
“This was not a great session to be a freshman. We could do a two week special section, but the problem associated with it is the cost. It’s about $30,000 a day to do a special section. That’s a teacher’s salary each day to do that, and it’s just not practical especially the way negotiations went during the regular session. It would have to last longer than two weeks,” said Teague. “The three agencies affected by the unconstitutional ruling have met with the chairman of appropriations, and he has assured them that their money will not start to dwindle until the end of December and the beginning of January. That gives us some time to figure something out. I think the most sensible route is to pass supplemental funding from our ‘rainy day fund.’ But it really depends on the Senate and House coming together.”
Moore, of District 96, says there are solutions to the budget problem, and used his time to touch on education funding and problems with healthcare costs.
“There are about seven things we’re looking at to resolve the budget this year,” said Moore. “Something we need to take to the vote of the people is making it where school bond money can be used for more than just buildings and capital expenses. They need to be able to use that money however the taxpayers of each community deem acceptable. Oklahoma is not a poor state. We manage to send $30 million a year to the federal government so we’re not that poor. It’s how we’re utilizing our resources.”
Moore says healthcare is becoming even more of a burden on Oklahoma residents this year.
“The federal government has a tax that’s going to add about three percent to healthcare providers, and House Bill 2406 was passed and signed. It said it would have zero impact, but it looks like it’s going to have an impact of about $260 million this year. Everyone with a plan is getting hit by about $2 per person per plan to pay the insurers so they can make enough money to lower their cost so they can spend money to try to attract younger people to the exchange,” explained Moore. “This doesn’t sound very good. I don’t think we should be subsidizing a company that found a way to lose $180 million. I will encourage you to say something to your representatives to try to stop this.”
Brian Maughan, overseeing Oklahoma County District 2, says his biggest focuses recently are addressing ongoing problems with the county jail and roads throughout the area.
“The DOJ is still leaving us alone, which is a good thing, because we don’t have to worry about a federal takeover and we can make some progress. We finally got some judges on board to help us out, because when a bondsman is complaining it takes seven or eight days to get a prisoner out of jail after they post bond that’s extra time the tax payers have to house, feed and take care of any medical needs. That’s frustrating for the taxpayer, but also that person who has had their life disrupted for a minor offense. We need to get these people processed and released, and not turn every offense into something that can end up ruining your life. If you miss work for a week unexpectedly, for most people you’ll lose your job,” said Maughan.
“We started this effort a couple weeks ago, and we’re finally able to start expediting the process. Because our problems at the jail aren’t going to be solved just by new brick and mortar. My SHINE program has done wonders for this cause, and it has assisted these communities out here. Instead of 30, 60 or 90 days in jail if we can get people sentenced to 100, 200 or 300 hours of community service the taxpayers will greatly benefit. We use the offenders to help out our road crew, clean out ditches and tinhorns, trim trees and remove graffiti. Dealing with the root cause and also delayed release, I think we’ll see a great decrease in problems at the jail. It was built in 1991, and the size of the metro area has doubled since the 1980s. So we’re trying to redeem as much of the taxpayers investment as possible.”
While the jail has been a troublesome headline for the county for some time, MAughan says his biggest headache has come from east Oklahoma County.
“The most frustrating thing I’ve had to deal with since being county commissioner is the Triple X Road issue. We now have aerials of this area going back five decades and this river has shifted several miles over that time, and it’s up and decided to move some more. Unfortunately, good people who have farms and homes in that area are at the mercy of mother nature. The rivers are under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, and that means we’d need the cooperation of the feds to resolve the problem,” said Maughan.
Triple X Road between NE 36th and NE 50th was recently closed permanently.
“As of now the only option is to move the road west, and take out a sod farm. That would fall under the jurisdiction of the City of Choctaw, and it would be up to them to acquire that land from the farmer. However, our engineers believe the river could end up ripping right across there anyway. It could take five years or the river could correct and move back it’s really a big unknown. So we’re really at a standstill,” explained Maughan. “I understand it’s a huge problem, and we’re working on it and have the feds working on it. It’s just real discouraging to know people are going around the barriers and really putting their lives in danger by choosing to do that, because there is a huge cavity under the road and when the pressure gets just right it will collapse.”
Another issue Maughan discussed was the county’s limited ability within the city limits of municipalities over 5,000 in population.
In the past county crews had been able to assist cities and schools with reduced labor costs, but that has recently come to an end.
“Unfortunately, any city over a population of 5,000 we’re only allowed to assist them if they repay us back at full cost. That puts us directly in competition with the private sector for bids,” said Maughan. “In the past we had been able to go into those communities and at least help the school districts, which would reimburse us for material costs. But the new DA came out and said they have to reimburse us the entire cost at 100 percent. They’re not always going to get the lowest bid from us so unfortunately we haven’t been able to assist out here like we once were. The DA has been extremely clear on this throughout his three districts.”