Monday, June 03, 2019

OCPA column: A notable contrast in legislative priorities


A notable contrast in legislative priorities
By Jonathan Small

The 2019 legislative session passed many good reforms, but its failures provided a glimpse of lawmakers’ priorities that should disturb Oklahomans.

Rather than act, lawmakers chose to sideline two measures that would have addressed some of Oklahoma’s most pressing needs in education and health care.

Lawmakers failed to raise the cap on the successful Equal Opportunity Scholarship program, which uses tax credits to inject millions of private dollars into public schools and private-school scholarships. Independent evaluators have concluded the program actually saves taxpayer money even as it increases student opportunity. Yet lawmakers chose not to expand this successful program, leaving thousands of children with special needs, kids struggling with addiction, and students living with the challenges of poverty unable to attend the schools that can best serve them.

Similarly, lawmakers failed to give voters the chance to direct state tobacco settlement payments to rural health care needs through a constitutional amendment. As rural hospitals close, lawmakers chose to instead leave tobacco dollars in a fund that pays for walking paths and advertisements that tell people to drink water.

But legislators did find the will to double the “Hollywood handout” film rebate, a de facto voucher program that sends millions out of state. Consultants hired by the state Incentive Evaluation Commission concluded the film program does nothing to permanently boost the Oklahoma film industry and does little for the state’s image. They recommended the program be ended.

Instead, lawmakers doubled program payments this year and even voted to allow some filmmakers to get payments from the Oklahoma Quick Action Closing Fund. Apparently, they concluded that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world are more deserving of Oklahoma taxpayer cash than homeless children or elderly rural patients in need of care.

The Legislature did advance some good reforms in other areas, including proposals OCPA has endorsed for many years. Those measures, if implemented correctly, should result in better oversight of government, less waste, and greater freedom for citizens.

Those measures include legislation giving the governor the ability to name the leaders of five major agencies, creation of a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency to conduct performance evaluations of agencies, boosting state savings by $200 million, and requiring state agencies to report the use of all federal funds in a transparent manner.

Other worthwhile bills that became law provided for Oklahoma Supreme Court redistricting that increased the pool of potential jurists by hundreds in some cases, further criminal justice reforms, free speech protections on college campuses, and lawmakers’ commendable decision to not expand Medicaid and keep their focus on aiding the truly needy.

Put simply, the Legislature did some good this year. But when it was bad, it was really bad.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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