By Andy Rieger
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Education may move to the head of the line for the expected $200 million in new funding that will greet Oklahoma lawmakers when they return to the Capitol next week.
Four Norman legislators — two Democrats and two Republicans — listened to the Norman Chamber of Commerce’s legislative agenda and shared their thoughts on the upcoming session at a standing-room only breakfast Wednesday at the Hilton Garden Inn.
“There seems to be this loud chorus around the Capitol for more education funding,” said state Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman. “We’ve passed lots of reforms so now we need to fund them.”
Martin, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said he was excited about the session and believes Oklahoma’s economy has recovered from the recession. The rainy day fund, once down to $2.50, has been replenished.
Republicans, he said, have developed a strategic plan that will be unveiled at the Capitol today. Gov. Mary Fallin will give her State of the State address to lawmakers on Monday. Common education officials are seeking a $300 million increase and higher education wants an additional $97.4 million.
Martin said he expects the governor to seek a reduction in state income taxes, something that she failed to get passed this past session.
“I think we’re going to see a more moderate proposal from the governor, a smaller cut,” Martin said.
Chamber president John Woods presented lawmakers with the 10 general topic areas agreed upon by the chamber’s board and government affairs committee headed by former Mayor Bob Thompson.
Martin said long-delayed structural repairs at the Capitol might cost $150 million but needed to be done. He called the situation “embarrassing” for lawmakers, employees and visitors to the Capitol. The repairs will likely extend to many state properties.
“And we’ve got plenty of them in Norman,” Martin said. “I’m hopeful we can come to a solution. That’s going to be tops on my list.”
State Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, mentioned workers compensation reform and in-state tuition breaks. He said much of what the legislature does is “housekeeping,” fine tuning what was done the year before.
On workers’ compensation reform, Sparks said it’s become an annual chant from the state Chamber of Commerce.
“Every legislative session ends with the State Chamber declaring victory on worker’s comp even before the changes have a chance to take effect,” Sparks said.
He said the push for an administrative system rather than a judicial system has its drawbacks.
“I think we need to avoid making change just for change’s sake,” Sparks said.
State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she, too, is hearing education funding discussed more this year. “We’re talking about education funding more this time than in the last two years,” she said.
Funding the arts, too, is getting some attention after a bill was filed by a Tecumseh legislator that would eliminate $4 million in arts funding. That bill was sent to the Rules Committee and is not likely to make it out, lawmakers said.
“I feel like Norman is a huge recipient of Oklahoma Arts Council dollars,” Virgin said.
She said Gov. Mary Fallin’s rejection of an expanded Medicaid population in Oklahoma will hurt the state, sending federal tax dollars to other states and jeopardizing Oklahoma hospitals.
Virgin said she is working on legislation that would address teacher pay and the need for more special education teachers. She would also like to see lawmakers exempt groceries from sales taxes and work with federal policymakers on establishing a sales tax on purchases made online.
“I know it’s a federal issue but I feel like it’s also a local business issue that we need to address,” she said.
Newcomer Rob Standridge, elected to the state Senate to replace the term-limited Jonathan Nichols, said he was on a learning curve but had filed about 20 bills, many of which dealt with families and children.
Standridge, R-Norman, said he was concerned about entitlements taking much of public budgets. He wants to level the playing field for contractors who come into the state and underbid local contractors who are paying higher workers comp rates.
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