Under Oklahoma’s Constitution, the regular legislative session cannot continue beyond the mandatory deadline of 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May. I want to tell you that in terms of policy and in the investment of public dollars through the budget process, this has been an incredibly productive session for the people of Oklahoma.
One of the boldest steps taken this session was to approve a $32.5 million increase in funding that will enable Oklahoma to eliminate the 13-year waiting list for some 5,000 people with developmental disabilities to get the home and community-based services they need. These are some of our states most vulnerable people and some of them have been on the waiting list their entire lives. This is huge for those individuals, their families and our entire state.
We’ve moved legislation across the finish line that will help us provide grants to some 21 colleges, universities and CareerTechs to help get more nurses in the pipeline. Oklahoma was already facing a nursing shortage even before the pandemic, but now it is much worse. This initiative will help us address this need.
Comprehensive legislation modernizing our state’s tag agencies to a franchise system we’ve named Service Oklahoma will ensure all citizens will have access to the same high level of customer service, with uniform hours of operation throughout the state.
We’ve also passed legislation to help Oklahoma better regulate the medical marijuana industry, including numerous bills aimed at strengthening and enforcing laws aimed at illegal grows. As part of this slate of measures, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority will be a stand-alone agency rather than a part of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Again, this will help our state better address both public safety and health concerns.
The budget we approved will boost pay for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers and agents with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and will increase funding for law enforcement training and academies. There are also resources to help Oklahoma better address crimes against children, like human trafficking, and to address mental health needs for members of law enforcement.
We’ve also approved legislation to help us build up the Oklahoma National Guard by ensuring our education benefits will also include fees, in addition to the tuition assistance already offered to those seeking a degree. This serves as an important recruitment incentive. Our retired military were also prioritized as we approved legislation to exempt military pensions from our state income tax. We want Oklahoma to be the first choice for members of the military to retire, and this is part of that effort.
I’m also extremely proud that once again, the Legislature was disciplined and did not spend all the funding authorized earlier this year by the state Board of Equalization. While we are seeing historic levels of revenues, we also know that we have a lot of one-time monies among our resources, including federal pandemic relief. Inflation also means higher revenue collections in several areas. But what goes up eventually comes down, so we are working to ensure our state emergency savings will better enable us to handle future economic downturns.
As we approach Memorial Day, it is my hope that all of us will pause to remember why this is a national holiday. It is a day to remember and honor all our military members who made the ultimate sacrifice protecting the rights and freedoms that have made the United States a beacon for democracy throughout the world. Freedom is not free, and we are forever indebted to those who have paid that price.
Please feel free to contact my Capitol office with any questions or concerns you may have about legislation or other issues impacting our state at 405-521-5628 or at Chuck.Hall@oksenate.gov.