The New Year has arrived, which means many Oklahomans have made resolutions and personal goals for themselves for 2016. Include me among them.
I’m working on goals for the upcoming legislative session, and in next month’s column I’ll outline some of my plans for the state. But for now I’d like to go over just a few of the successes my administration had in addressing challenges facing Oklahoma in 2015.
If you recall, one of my key goals has been that Oklahoma make improvements in three areas: educational attainment, incarceration and crime, and health. Work still needs to be done in these areas, of course, but inroads have been made this past year.
In education, I held nine meetings across the state on “Oklahoma Works,” my initiative to boost educational attainment and better align workforce and education in Oklahoma by developing partnerships between schools, local businesses and other key partners.
I also signed legislation that allows school districts across the state the ability to create charter schools, rather than limiting such innovative education models to Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. As a result of that legislation, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers released a report late last year showing that Oklahoma jumped in the rankings for states’ charter laws from 37th place to 10th.
Lawmakers also made some changes to Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act. The law, which I have long championed, has helped elementary school students bolster their reading skills. State fourth graders improved their reading scores by five points in 2015, putting Oklahoma above the national average with the most significant gain. Changes to the law included the formation of a committee to help students who are struggling to read at their grade level, while increasing the minimum reading level for students to be promoted to fourth grade beginning in the 2016-17 school year.
In our criminal justice system, we continued to focus on “smart on crime” policies. We passed legislation that allows judges to impose shorter sentences for some nonviolent crimes. The Justice Safety Valve Act is an attempt to divert more nonviolent offenders such as those with substance abuse addiction into alternative programs and away from the state’s overcrowded prisons. The state provided judges with greater discretion in other drug cases involving mandatory life sentences for repeat drug offenders. Another new law makes it easier for offenders to get a job after they are released from prison by creating a path to obtain a commercial driver’s license.
On the health front, I signed legislation to address Oklahoma’s prescription drug abuse problem. The new law requires doctors to check a Prescription Monitoring Program database before prescribing potentially addictive drugs like oxycodone. The database can help doctors reduce the likelihood patients are seeking prescription drugs from more than one physician.
Legislation also was passed making it illegal to text while driving in Oklahoma and requiring all Oklahoma schools be tobacco-free.
Despite these successes, Oklahoma still faces substantial challenges, particularly the state budget.
It will take everyone working together to deal with a $900.8 million appropriated budget hole caused in large part by a 70 percent drop in oil prices over the past 18 months. Another issue we must address is how our state budget is developed and structured. The state has so many revenue streams and spending accounts, yet the governor and the Legislature have spending and decision-making control over only 45 cents of every dollar the state takes in. That’s because over the years legislators and state ballot questions have taken state revenue off the top of the budget to dedicate those funds to certain state functions – in essence taking away over half of all decisions on how money is allocated for government.
Looking back at 2015, we already made some progress in budget reforms, switching state agencies to performance-informed budgeting techniques. That moves Oklahoma from funding programs that might work to funding programs that do work. We also are moving forward with regular evaluations of tax incentives offered to businesses, while requiring all future incentives to contain measurable goals.
In 2016, my New Year’s resolution, then, is a simple one: Guide Oklahoma towards a bright and prosperous future.