The Journal Record
From left, Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City; Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City; House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman; House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka; and Journal Record Legislative Report Manager Bo Broadwater participate in a panel discussion at The Journal Record’s First Week Forum Wednesday at V2 Events at Vast inside the Devon Energy Center in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Shaun Witt)
OKLAHOMA CITY – Education, criminal justice reform, medical marijuana and access to health care were among the issues legislators discussed during The Journal Record’s First Week Forum and reception Wednesday evening, and while both Republican and Democrat panelists were aligned on most issues, how they intend to tackle those issues varied.
Moderated by Journal Record Legislative Report Manager Bo Broadwater, the panel included Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City; House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman; Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City; and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
Education funding started the discussion with both Republicans and Democrats agreeing on the need for additional funding for classrooms beyond the $1,200 raise proposed by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
In his first State of the State address to lawmakers, Stitt said he planned to take $70 million from a budget surplus to give teachers a $1,200 pay raise across the board. The raise is in addition to the pay hike of $6,100 teachers received last year after a statewide walkout over education funding.
“I am very supportive of Gov. Stitt’s call for a $1,200 pay raise for teachers, and we have legislation prepared in the House,” said McCall. “We struggle with teacher shortages, just like every other state. Oklahoma needs to be on top of education pay.”
McCall added that educational outcomes should remain a priority as should reducing the size of classrooms. Virgin and Floyd both agreed that teachers deserved pay increases, but said the focus should turn toward funding classrooms themselves.
“This session, we think that a teacher pay raise is important, but we feel like we put a lot more money into teacher pay raises last year and less money into the classroom. That’s going to be our top priority this year – getting money into the classroom,” Virgin said.
“But as Speaker McCall said, you can’t reduce class sizes if you don’t have enough teachers. We know that teacher recruitment and retention is going to be a very big issue this year and probably many years to come.”
Floyd said she would like to see teacher pay raises continue, noting the state is still “10 years behind common ed and higher ed in funding.”
“I think one of our priorities as a caucus is getting a long-term plan,” Floyd said. “We need a plan that spans not just year to year.”
Treat added that the Republican caucus was interested in restoring the five-day school week to make sure that “kids get a quality education so all the focus should be on the child and their educational outcomes.”
The panelists also tackled Oklahoma’s decline in state health rankings, with Virgin and Floyd urging for the expansion of Medicare while Treat and McCall called for finding new avenues to ensure health care coverage for Oklahomans.
“Our caucus believes that this is the time for us to expand Medicare and bring all the dollars that are going to Washington and all the other states back to our state,” said Floyd. “It’s our money. We need to invest in health care for our state. The program has been in place for 10 years. There’s no logical reason to not accept Medicare expansion and bring all that federal money back.”
Treat said he has fought to get a differential rate for underserved areas in the state.
“We always get a poor high ranking on the uninsured, but the U.S Census Bureau counts people who have exclusive health insurance through Indian Health Services as uninsured,” Treat said. “We need to look at that number and dig down deeper. Poverty also has a factor on people’s health care, so anything we can do to create new job opportunities in Oklahoma will indirectly help our health care costs.”
Helping the rural hospitals and access to health care in rural areas was a priority for McCall, who said he wasn’t opposed to bringing federal dollars back to the state, but was concerned about obligating the state to a long-term liability that may be only funded short-term.
“I think the concept of creating hospital districts throughout the state that can apply for the federal monies directly through the 1115 waivers is a possibility,” McCall said. “These are solutions that need to be evaluated. We have to realize that there are different sets of dynamics, but we have to start moving down the road.”
Criminal justice reform
Criminal justice reform also brought both caucuses together in agreement for the need for resources for those leaving the prison system, additional funding for diversionary programs, and retroactive implementation of State Question 780, which reduced prison sentences.
Floyd said a priority would be to address how the criminal justice system is funded in the state and to stop sending people to prison on technical violations.
“The other thing my caucus supports very strongly are diversion programs like Women in Recovery in Tulsa,” she said. “If you just look at the financial impact, it is much cheaper to have a person in a diversion program than to incarcerate them.”
Virgin said the Democratic caucus wants to expand mental health and substance abuse services, especially for those leaving prison.
“When people re-enter society, there must be services for them to access because we know that most people who are incarcerated have mental health and substance abuse issues,” she said. “If we don’t have those services, then I fear that they’ll just end back up in the same place. We will be advocating for increased funding for mental health and substance abuse services along with diversionary courts.”
Treat and McCall also called for additional funding for diversion programs and the reduction of technical violations that result in prison time.
“The diversion programs are successful programs. We’ve got to continue to invest dollars on the front end there. This doesn’t only impact our prison budget. It impacts lives,” Treat said.
With the passage of State Question 788, which legalized medical marijuana in the state, the panel tackled the issue on whether or not cities and counties should have their own authority in implementing restrictions on dispensary locations.
“My caucus is fully supportive in making sure that the will of the people is upheld and that we don’t chip away at what the voters very clearly wanted when they enacted State Question 788,” Virgin said. “When you talk about having cities and counties be able to do different things than what we would allow the state level, I don’t think that was something that we would support because people in every county deserve access to medication that will work.”
A legislative working group on medical marijuana is working toward a proposal for guidelines and regulations for the state’s medical marijuana industry, including the testing of THC levels, proper labeling of medical marijuana products, and employment-related issues for medical marijuana.
“(The task force) had a huge impact on me. It showed the House and Senate can work together well when we want to work in a bipartisan way,” said Treat, adding he was looking forward to hearing recommendations from the group.
Medical marijuana was legalized when voters approved SQ 788 in 2018. Since implementation, dispensaries, grow-houses and other operations have boomed. However, the Legislature will tackle the vague regulatory language that was included in the state question.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation was the exclusive reception sponsor of First Week Forum and Reception. The Arnall Family Foundation, Cigna and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform were panel sponsors.