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News for March 4, 2014

News for March 4, 2014

Minimum wage debate: Bill could halt group’s petition for increase

Weather puts American Indian center vote on ice

House defeats extension of movie tax credit

Native American cabinet position proposed in Okla.

Minimum wage debate: Bill could halt group’s petition for increase

By M. Scott Carter, The Journal Record

Oklahoma City attorney David Slane at the state Capitol last week.  (File photo by Brent Fuchs)

Oklahoma City attorney David Slane at the state Capitol last week. (File photo by Brent Fuchs)

OKLAHOMA CITY – A labor union’s effort to increase the minimum wage in Oklahoma City could hit rough ground if a measure that cleared a Senate committee becomes law.

Last week, members of the Central Oklahoma Labor Federation and attorney David Slane filed an initiative petition with the Oklahoma City clerk, seeking a public vote to increase the minimum wage in Oklahoma City.

Right now, the minimum wage in the metro area is $7.25 per hour. The labor group seeks to increase that to $10.10 per hour, a raise of $2.85.

Supporters said the petition would adjust the minimum wage annually for cost-of-living increases.

However, a bill currently awaiting a hearing by the Oklahoma Senate would prevent municipalities from increasing the minimum wage and could stop the union’s efforts in its tracks. Senate Bill 1023 cleared the Senate General Government Committee last week.

The measure, authored by state Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, would prevent municipalities from establishing their own minimum wage amounts and set aside any existing ordinances.

“No municipality or other political subdivision of this state shall establish a mandatory minimum number of vacation or sick leave days, whether paid or unpaid, or a minimum wage rate which an employer would be required to pay or grant employees,” according to the measure. “Any existing or future ordinances, orders or regulations in this field, except as may be specifically provided in this section, are null and void.”

The bill also includes an emergency clause, which would allow the measure to go into effect immediately after being signed by the governor.

Supporters of the bill, including the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, said it would prevent a blanket of different minimum wage levels in the state.

“Take Braum’s or Sonic,” Oklahoma Restaurant Association President and CEO Jim Hopper said. “If they have to deal with each city having a different minimum wage, then they would face a payroll nightmare. It would be difficult for a Braum’s in Oklahoma City to move an employee to Edmond or Norman.”

A discussion about the minimum wage, Hopper said, should take place at the state level.

“It’s a state-level issue,” he said. “It’s not something that should be done by municipalities.”

However, a legislator who supports the initiative petition said concern over different wage levels was a red herring.

“Restaurants in this state pay different tax levels, so a different payroll would be no different,” state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said. “It’s simply an accounting issue. They’re already doing it with taxes. They could do it with payroll.”

Increasing the minimum wage, Morrissette said, would have far more benefits than problems.

“Minimum wage earners need a raise,” he said. “Right now, the minimum wage is less than a single person can survive on.”

Hopper countered that an increase in minimum wage could cause problems for the state’s 4,000 restaurants. He said the state’s restaurant industry employs more than 165,000 Oklahomans.

SB 1023 passed the Senate’s General Government Committee by a 5-0 vote. The measure is expected to be heard by the full Senate soon.

Weather puts American Indian center vote on ice

By M. Scott Carter, The Journal Record

The unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City.  (File photo by Brent Fuchs)

The unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City. (File photo by Brent Fuchs)

OKLAHOMA CITY – A planned Senate vote on a proposal to fund the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum has been delayed, its Senate author said Monday.

State Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, said the weekend’s snowstorm prevented some members of the Oklahoma Senate from reaching the Capitol building, causing a delay on Senate Bill 1651, which would fund the center.

“Apparently Mother Nature doesn’t like the cultural center,” Loveless quipped.

Loveless said the measure could go to the Senate floor as early as Tuesday.

Loveless said the bill would earmark $40 million from the state’s unclaimed property fund to a trust fund for the cultural center project. Those funds, he said, would be matched with $40 million in private money.

Should the Senate approve the measure, it would then go to a House committee for review.

For almost two years, Loveless and others have pushed to finish the $170 million project. Authorized more than a decade ago, the center has sat unfinished while the Legislature debated funding methods and questioned how the agency in charge, the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, was being operated.

Last week Loveless told The Journal Record the bill contained built-in safeguards to ensure that the money is used properly and language that states the 2014 appropriation would be the final one to earmark public funds for the project.

“This is all they are getting,” he said.

Though the bill is expected to pass the Senate, the measure could encounter some resistance in the House of Representatives. Last week, Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said the initial reaction from the chamber’s GOP caucus was cool.

“Part of the issue is where the funds would come from,” Hickman said.

Hickman told the Associated Press that Republicans in the House were not sure 2014 would be the year to address the American Indian center.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said to the AP. “Because it’s a challenging situation and it should have been addressed long ago. I think it’s going to be difficult to explain to our corrections employees how we were able to put $40 million into a museum and yet couldn’t address the crisis there or the issues we have in (the Department of Human Services) or other areas of state government.”

On Friday, state Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, said he would sponsor the bill in the House. Dank said the center needs to be completed because it was an ace for Oklahoma City.

Blake Wade, the center’s executive director, said if the measure becomes law, construction on the center could be completed by 2017.

House defeats extension of movie tax credit

By Tim Talley, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma House of Representatives defeated legislation Monday that would have extended a tax credit program for the film industry after opponents argued that tax dollars that pay for the program would be better spent on core state services.

House members voted 48-43 for the measure – three short of the 51 votes needed to pass in the 101-member House. Its author, state Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, kept the measure alive by serving notice that he will ask the chamber to reconsider the vote in the future.

Thomsen said the state provides rebates to filmmakers amounting to $1 for every $3 they spend on movie productions in the state, up to a total of $5 million. The program is scheduled to expire on July 1. Thomsen’s measure, House Bill 2580, would extend the credit by 10 years to 2024.

The Oklahoma Film & Music Office, which works to attract the film, television, video, and music industries to Oklahoma, estimates that the incentive program had a direct economic impact of $35.1 million last year through spending on items such as catering, housing, set production and lighting for productions, Thomsen said.

Total economic impact, which includes economic activity indirectly related to movie productions, is estimated at $88.9 million.

“It’s been a successful program,” said Thomsen, who said the rebate program is modest compared to those offered by other states. “It is having a positive impact in our state.”

But opponents criticized the program as a wasteful use of tax dollars that could be better spent on such things as public safety and education.

“It’s not our money; it belongs to the taxpayer,” state Rep. Dave Dank, R-Oklahoma City, said. “Say no to Hollywood.”

The state film office was closed Monday because of a weekend snowstorm, and a telephone call to Jill Simpson, director of the office, was not immediately returned.

Dank and other opponents said August: Osage County, an adaptation of an award-winning play that was released in December, benefited from the credit. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts were among its big-budget stars, and George Clooney was a producer.

Dank said the state has a lot to offer but that the movie did not portray the state or its people in a constructive way.

“Don’t expect us to pay for a film about a dysfunctional family,” Dank said. “We don’t want any of that.”

State Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, called the program a “taxpayer giveaway” that takes tax revenue from across the state but benefits taxpayers only in the specific area where a movie is made.

State Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, said lawmakers were being asked to extend the rebate program when the state struggles to provide such basic services as park rangers for state parks.

“How else would you define pork-barrel spending?” Lockhart said.

Native American cabinet position proposed in Okla.

By Kristi Eaton, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY – A proposal to create a cabinet-level position focusing on Native American affairs within the governor’s office would be a positive step in improving the relationships between Oklahoma and its 39 tribes, tribal leaders say.

State Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita, authored a bill that elevates the Oklahoma Native American liaison to a cabinet-level position. The secretary of Native American affairs, whose salary would be capped at $65,000, would consult and advise the governor on tribal policy issues. The General Government Committee approved the bill by a 9-1 vote on Feb. 20.

“The tribes all want to work in partnership with the state and they desire a stronger government-to-government relationship, and they feel if the position is cabinet level it will provide a strengthening of that partnership,” said Hoskin, who is also chief of staff for the Cherokee Nation.

Alex Weintz, spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, said the governor’s office has not reviewed the proposal. In 2012, Fallin appointed Jacque Hensley, a member of the Kaw Nation, to a newly created executive branch position of Oklahoma Native American liaison after the Republican-controlled Legislature abolished the Oklahoma Indians Affairs Commission the year before.

Weintz noted Hensley already attends senior staff and cabinet-level meetings and meets with the governor regularly.

The abolishment of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission in 2011 initially drew opposition from some Native American lawmakers, though tribes later said they were pleased to be working directly with a liaison to the governor’s office.

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in a statement to The Associated Press that Hensley’s appointment has been a “positive development” and has enhanced the relationships between Indian nations and the state of Oklahoma.

He said the tribe is pleased to hear the Legislature is considering creating a secretary of Native American affairs post because “effective communication has long been the cornerstone of positive and productive relationships between Indian nations and the state of Oklahoma.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker echoed that statement, and added that tribes are a major contributor to the economy and culture of Oklahoma.

“When tribes do well, so does Oklahoma,” he said.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett said anything that promotes cooperation and a partnership between the state and Indian tribes is a positive step.

“If this new position would lead to a better relationship between the two and better understanding, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Barrett said the Oklahoma Indiana Affairs Commission, on which he served, was designed to be a rotating body of elected tribal leaders who have face-to-face relationships with directors of various agencies of state government.

“A cabinet post would be a very different kind of relationship than one body meeting with another body, but it would be an improvement,” he said, later adding: “We would love to see the governor herself occasionally.”

The measure is House Bill 1305.

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