As February begins, so too does another legislative session in Oklahoma. This year I had the honor of giving my sixth State of the State address, delivering my executive budget and outlining an agenda for forward progress and economic growth.
These are the topics I addressed and the priorities I believe our legislative session should focus on.
Education Is Biggest Priority
Oklahoma’s future sits in the classrooms of today. The education of our students remains my biggest priority in my budget, even in fiscal climates like this. My budget does have some good news for education – it appropriates $178 million in new money for a permanent $3,000 teacher pay raise for every teacher in this state. And we can do it without raising the state sales tax rate to the highest level in the nation.
It’s also time to merge the administrative costs of the state’s underperforming K-8 dependent school districts by putting them into existing Pre-K-12 school districts. To be clear, this does not mean closing rural schools. This would get more money to classrooms and can enhance educational outcomes in a more effective way. We must ensure that our students are provided the highest quality instruction through advanced curriculum and facilities.
Lowering Mandatory Drug Possession Sentences
Oklahoma’s drug possession sentences haven’t deterred substance abuse and have filled our prisons to over capacity. These sentences, while well intentioned, tend to send some nonviolent offenders into prison for years and years, where they live alongside violent offenders whose bad influences can make nonviolent offenders worse. This session, I’m calling for lowering Oklahoma’s mandatory drug possession sentences.
– First, let’s allow district attorneys to have the discretion to file any first drug offense as a misdemeanor.
– Next, we lower the mandatory sentence from two to 10 years in prison, to zero to five years in prison.
– For second felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from two years to life, to zero to 10 years.
– And for third felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from six years to life with no probation to zero to 15 years.
Fixing Oklahoma’s Unsustainable Budget Trends
The oil price collapse and decades-old structural problems with the budget have caused almost a $1 billion dollar budget hole. How we respond will define our future more than anything else.
It makes necessary cuts that will require continued efficiencies from agencies, prioritizes spending and lessens those reductions in our core service areas wherever possible. It modernizes our tax code to make it more consistent with 21st century commerce. Because this budget proposes using recurring revenue, it uses zero one-time revenue. There is no one-time money in this budget. It doesn’t even use the Rainy Day Fund.
The sales tax code in Oklahoma today isn’t much different than it was in the 1980s despite huge changes in the way commerce is conducted and the way consumers purchase goods and services. Reading our sales tax code is like watching a movie on a VHS tape when you can use Netflix. Modernizing the sales tax code means keeping the same low rates and applying them in ways that better reflect today’s commerce and consumer behaviors.
My budget proposes increasing the personal consumption tax on cigarettes. Smoking is Oklahoma’s leading cause of preventable death and it costs our state $1.6 billion in related health costs each year. Our smoking rate has dropped 19 percent since I took office, but one in five Oklahomans still smokes. This is the most important thing we can do to improve Oklahoma’s health ranking.
Finish Repairing, Renovating the State Capitol
Lawmakers approved legislation two years ago that authorized a $120 million bond issue to begin restoring the state Capitol. The issue was a start, not a finish, and contractors estimate it will take another $120 million to complete the work.
In 2017 we will celebrate with a party this building’s 100th birthday. No one should want to stop construction. Interest rates remain low, and the new bond wouldn’t be issued until 2018, when 40 percent of our existing bond principal rolls off the books, so we can do this in a way that doesn’t affect next year’s budget. This is a legacy opportunity. Let’s finish the job right.