Sunday, March 13, 2011

Session Highlights from Last Week

House Votes to Reduce Taxpayer Cost of Highway Memorial Signs

Lawmakers voted this week to require groups requesting or sponsoring a highway or bridge sign to pay for them.

House Bill 1666 is designed to reduce the added expense to the state during the budget downturn. It passed 88-9.

The measure was amended to exempt situations honoring military heroes killed in action.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the state currently spends about $1,600 apiece for large signs on interstates and $400 per sign for those on other highways.

Board of Education Reform Advances

Legislation to reform the structure and responsibilities of the State Board of Education passed out of the Oklahoma House of Representatives this week.

House Bill 2139 modifies the administration of the State Department of Education. It transfers the administrative control and direction of the Department from the State Board of Education to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

House Bill 2139 also

• allows the State Superintendent to establish divisions and positions within the Department.

• removes the State Board as the governing board of the Department.

• requires the State Superintendent to prepare a departmental budget and submit division reports.

• clarifies and updates language relating to the administrative duties of the State Superintendent.

• establishes powers and duties of the Superintendent related to the Department.
The State Board of Education will remain in charge of supervising public instruction; overseeing curriculum and implementing education policies advanced by the Legislature.

The measure now moves to the state Senate.

Anti-Bullying Legislation Gets House Approval

Legislation giving Oklahoma school students increased protections against bullying passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives this week.

House Bill 1461 strengthens the School Bullying Prevention Act by adding violent assault and battery, homicide and suicide to the list of behaviors that can be linked to bullying. It also addresses cyber bullying, which has increased with the growth of social media.

The bill was inspired by the May suicide of 11-year-old Ty Fields of Perkins, who killed himself after being bullied.

House Bill 1461 passed the House 74-23 and now goes to the state Senate.

Bill Would Preserve Teachers Retirement Funds for Teachers

Legislation to ensure money in the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System is preserved for educators gained passage this week.

House Bill 1648 eliminates a provision in state law that allows individuals who leave the teaching profession for a private sector job (specifically, those who work for a local, state or national education association) to continue to accrue increased benefits in the teachers’ retirement system.

Advocates noted that allowing union officials to accrue benefits in the teachers’ retirement system ultimately diverts funds that should be going to practicing teachers.

House Bill 1648 passed the House on a 67-28 vote and now goes to the state Senate.

House Votes to End “Art” in Public Places Act

The Oklahoma House of Representatives voted this week to temporarily end a state law that requires millions of tax dollars to go to “art” projects.

House Bill 1665, by Osborn, would eliminate the Arts in Public Places Act for the next three years. Under current law, anytime the state has a building project or renovation costing $250,000 or more, 1.5 percent of the cost must be dedicated to “public art.” The cost of that “art” can be as much as $500,000 per project.

Those expenditures are occurring even as the state faces a $500 million shortfall just one year after grappling with a $1.2 billion shortfall.

Supporters said it is difficult to justify spending millions on public art at the same time schools are facing funding cuts and the Department of Corrections is furloughing workers.

The art law recently drew attention after the state paid a reported $450,000 to mount large rusted disc blades in front of the new Office of State Finance at 30th and Lincoln.

House Bill 1665 passed out of the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a bipartisan 69-20 vote. It now goes to the state Senate.

Lawmakers Approve Change to Agency Rule Process

Certain agency rules could not take effect without the express approval of the Legislature under legislation approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

House Bill 1044 strikes language under current law that gives the Legislature the opportunity only to disapprove rules, and replaces it with language that would make major rules void without legislative approval.

Under the current system, state agencies often enact fees and make large-scale changes without legislative approval. State agency rules are automatically assumed valid and have the effect of law if the Legislature fails to disapprove them within a certain time period.

House Bill 1044 passed by a vote of 94 to 0. It will now proceed to the Senate for consideration.

House Approves Cody’s Law to Strengthen Penalties for Social Hosting

Legislation approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives would strengthen the penalties for social hosts who knowingly and willingly permit individuals younger than 21 years of age to consume alcohol during social events taking place on their premises.

House Bill 1211, also known as “Cody’s Law,” was sought by Sareva Greenhaw, a Tulsa resident. Her son, Cody, died at the age of 16 from an alcohol and drug overdose in an alleged social host situation. At that time, there was no law in Oklahoma against social hosting.

The legislation would make a first violation of Oklahoma’s social host laws result in a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $500. A second violation would result in a fine of up to $1,000. Further violations could result in a fine of up to $2,500 or incarceration for up to five years. Finally, if bodily injury or death occurred, the social host could face a fine of between $2,500 and $5,000 and five years incarceration.

House Bill 1211 was approved by a vote of 98-0 and proceeds to the Senate for consideration.

Lawmakers Approve Long-Term Care Act

Lawmakers voted this week to increase access to long-term care counseling services to help Oklahoma’s elderly.

House Bill 1554 creates the Options Counseling for Long-term Care Program within the Department of Human Services Aging Services Division.

The bill states that “access to information regarding all components of a long-term care support system is necessary to empower the elderly and persons with disabilities in planning, evaluating, and making decisions to meet their individual long-term care support needs appropriately.”

Under the bill, the Options Counseling for Long-term Care Program would be designed “to allow for an integrated system that facilitates navigation of the variety of private and public resources available; minimizes service fragmentation; reduces duplication of administrative paperwork procedures; enhances individual choice; supports informed decision-making; and increases the cost-effectiveness of long-term care services and support systems.”

Because options counseling helps individuals avoid unnecessary institutionalization, the bill’s author said the legislation could result in fewer people entering nursing facilities while other residents may get assistance in transitioning out-of-nursing facilities.

Implementation of the program would be funded through federal grant money that does not require a state match.

The bill prohibits the program from being used to implement any provisions of the new federal health care reform law, informally referred to as “ObamaCare.”

House Bill 1554 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 94-4 vote. It now proceeds to the state Senate.
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