Oklahoma legislators have returned to work, and House and Senate members have been introducing and listening new bills since early February.
As part of the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce's monthly Legislative Focus, several local legislators visited the Tahlequah Armory Municipal Center Friday to discuss work being done at the state capitol.
Oklahoma ranks poorly in overall health - 47th in the nation, according to the United Health Foundation's annual America's Health Rankings. The state also has the second-highest number of uninsured citizens. So lawmakers were asked what initiatives are being proposed to improve those areas.
State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, said "not much." He added that the House Rules Committee passed a bill that would take $40 million out of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust to be used for a rural health care fund.
"The author of the bill had a hospital in his area that is fixing to close, because they don't have enough funds and they're going under," he said.
Meredith said he plans to fight bill once it reaches the House floor. He would rather see progress toward Medicaid expansion, which would amount to around $1.2 billion in federal funding.
"The other side says, 'We don't want to take the federal dollars, because we don't know what will happen. What if they don't pay?'" said Meredith. "We take federal dollars every day, folks. We just passed a bill the other day to take federal dollars for drones, but we can't take federal dollars to help put health care all across Oklahoma; $1.2 billion is what we could be getting. I think it's sad."
State Rep. Chris Sneed, R- Muskogee, and State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said there are other ways to use federal funding that would not require Medicaid expansion. Pemberton said a bill passed in the Senate Heath and Human Services Committee would have the state accept federal dollars to help the poorest Oklahomans buy their own private or individual health insurance. He said it would accomplish the same thing, but without expanding Medicaid or Medicare.
"If you expand Medicaid and the federal dollars do go away, which they eventually will, then you're left with maybe a $140 million-a-year cost," said Pemberton. "If the federal dollars go away by purchasing private insurance plans, those do not have to be replaced."
Two proposed bills would impact virtual charter schools. Representatives were asked if they supported H.B. 1395, calling for virtual charter schools to meet financial reporting requirements, and if they supported S.B. 153, which would increase funding for virtual charter schools.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is eyeing Epic Charter Schools for multiple allegations of wrongdoing. Pemberton said he is the Senate author for H.B. 1395 and has worked with State Rep. Sheila Dills on the bill to require virtual schools to lay out their records and financials, "so the people of Oklahoma will know where every taxpayer dollar is spent." Epic took in more than $41 million in education funds in 2017 and is set to received a reported $112 million in 2019.
"Since the investigation of OSBI on Epic schools, I think it's brought to light some of the concerns some of us already had, and others now are getting concerned about it," said Pemberton. "So I think you're going to see a big push for a lot of legislation as we're going to tamp down on Epic schools over the course of the next several weeks."
Pemberton added he favors cutting funding for charter schools.
State Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell, agreed with Pemberton and said he wants the majority, "if not all" of education funding, to go to public schools.
He also questioned whether online charter schools are a viable option.
"You may be getting an education, but are you dealing with today's society?" said Hardin. "We have to learn how to deal with problems. If you stay sheltered in the house for 12 years, learning online, then when it's time to go get a job and you walk out to the real world, are you actually ready?"
The first bill signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt last week allows citizens to carry guns without permits. The only legislator who attended Friday's event and voted against the bill was Meredith. He said he is pro-gun and owns a lot of guns, since he's a former law enforcement officer, but this was one bill he could not get behind.
"With this bill, someone can walk up and down the streets of our schools - next to our schools - carrying a gun. And there's not one thing - they can have an AR, shotgun, whatever they want to have - there's not one thing law enforcement can do about it," he said. "They cannot go up can ask them one time what they're doing there without violating their civil rights, because they're doing nothing wrong. In the world we live in today, folks, that's scary."
Meredith said that "a blind person can start carrying a gun," and called the whole process of how the big was fast-tracked "sad."
"The one thing we kept hearing was, 'It costs too much money to go get that permit,'" said Meredith. "Folks, it cost $1.25 a month to have that permit. I asked the author of the bill how much it costs for a funeral when someone shoots somebody by accident, because they don't know what they're doing. They all got up in arms."
State Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, said that while speaking to former Grove Police Chief Gayle Wells, he learned Wells was for the constitutional carry provision and told his wife to carry a gun without a license.
"I said, 'You tell her to carry and she's not licensed?'" said Shaw. "He said, 'Well, it's a misdemeanor, $25 fine, and you get your gun back. It's not a big deal.' I was interested because he had been law enforcement all his life and that was his perspective."
Many legislators argued that gun restrictions will only hinder law-abiding citizens from acquiring guns, while criminals will continue to get them. Shaw was among that group.
"I still hold the adage that we saw on bumper stickers years ago: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns," said Shaw. "So it's not the bad people. You say, 'What about the bad people?' They're going to have guns regardless. My biggest concern has to do with the mentally ill and that's an issue I don't have an answer for."
The constitutional carry bill passed through the House, the Senate and governor's office in less than three weeks. It was Stitt's first bill to sign. And Pemberton said it was either the constitutional carry bill or a medical marijuana bill that would be first, adding that the governor did not want it to be the latter.
"There's no doubt that the governor did not want the first bill he signed as governor in the state of Oklahoma to be a marijuana bill, so he did want the constitutional carry," said Pemberton.
Pemberton said the bill is polarizing, but involves a simple concept.
"The whole concept behind constitutional carry ... is the Second Amendment of the Constitution gives you the right to keep and bear arms and shall not be infringed," he said. [!?] If you listen to that 'shall not be infringed,' that's where the constitutional carry comes. Should you have to pay to be able to exercise your constitutional right? That's what constitutional carry is about."
The next Legislative Focus event is April 5, at 7:45 a.m. at the Restaurant of the Cherokees. For more information call 918-456-3742.