1.22.24 – KOSU
The first Monday in February marks the beginning of the Oklahoma legislative session. And Oklahoma lawmakers are gearing up to consider thousands of bills.
The 2023 Legislative session was riddled with in-party fighting among Republicans, particularly around education issues. Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat publicly criticized the school choice bill championed by Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, with Gov. Kevin Stitt’s support.
Tensions were particularly high around last year’s education budget, which included the use of obscure procedural moves and calls for public negotiations. The 2023 session started out with thousands of bills, but only 408 were signed into law during the regular session. The majority of them made their way through committees, opposite chambers and eventually to the governor’s desk — although several of them he vetoed were overridden.
Stitt believed so little got done that he called for two special sessions. The first in October was adjourned by the Oklahoma Senate on the same day it began and another begins the last full week of January, just days before the regular session, to talk about tax cuts.
Our reporters will be there to cover whatever comes next. Here’s what they’ll be watching for leading up to the convening of the 2024 legislature.
What will be done about taxes?
Stitt has called three special sessions in the last two years to cut taxes. The first two were unsuccessful and the third is unlikely to yield results either in the lead-up to the regular session when it starts next week.
Oklahoma’s massive savings account has ballooned to more than $3 billion in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which featured a major infusion of federal funds.
Stitt has repeatedly advocated for tax cuts and is currently trumpeting a plan that calls for eliminating Oklahoma’s income tax. He is garnering support from Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. House Speaker Charles McCall has filed several bills cutting income taxes.
According to reporting by The Tulsa World, the cuts would reduce low-earning Oklahomans’ tax bill by $15, middle-income earners by $93 and the top 1 percent by $2,300. It would cost the state about $230 million.
Education will again be a hot topic
While this year’s session likely won’t see the magnitude of education funding increases that last year’s session brought, lawmakers are still looking for ways to target the state’s teacher shortage with incentives aimed at getting more educators in classrooms.
Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) chairs the chamber’s Education Committee, and he’s introducing another teacher raise through Senate Bill 1313 that would boost salaries by $1,500 to $3,000, depending on years of experience. He also wants to revisit last year’s historic teacher maternity leave policy and add adoption to it with Senate Bill 1315.
Lawmakers are also targeting teacher training programs through offering financial assistance. Sen. Ally Seifried (R-Claremore) is proposing a Teacher Recruitment Academy in Senate Bill 1342, which would pay tuition and fees for Oklahoma students who pursue a bachelor’s degree to teach in critical shortage areas identified by the state. Seifried is also looking to lessen the financial burden on future teachers in Senate Bill 1213 by providing a $3,000 stipend during their student teaching internships.
Following Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order limiting the scope of diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the state’s higher education institutions, Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) is hoping to take down DEI programs outright. He’s introduced three bills — Senate Bill 1303, Senate Bill 1306 and Senate Bill 1305 — to get rid of DEI offices and policies.
One bill sure to make waves if passed is Pugh’s Senate Bill 1395, which would take the State Board of Education from its often-unanimous seven members to 11 members. And instead of the governor getting sole appointing authority, it would be divided between the Senate Pro Tem, the Speaker of the House and the governor. It also would allow members to be removed due to “malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance” of Board duties or by missing three successive meetings without just cause.
Lawmakers will consider further abortion restrictions, prevent gender-affirming care
Although abortion is virtually illegal in Oklahoma, some lawmakers want to further restrict travel to obtain it and medications that could induce it.
Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader (R-Piedmont) and Rep. Jim Olsen (R-Roland) filed House Bill 3013, which would make it a felony, punishable by $100,000, for a person to deliver, possess, offer or advertise abortion-inducing drugs.
Senate Bill 1778, filed by Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Broken Arrow), would allow district attorneys or the attorney general to prosecute anyone who helps an unemancipated minor procure an abortion or abortion-inducing drugs without parental consent. The crime for “abortion trafficking” could be two to five years in prison.
Some lawmakers want to grant legal protections to embryos. Sen. Dusty Deevers (R-Lawton) filed Senate Bill 1729, which would allow mothers to be prosecuted and charged with murder for getting an abortion. Olsen also introduced a constitutional amendment saying personhood begins at conception. A similar amendment failed in 2012, and the current one would require legislative and voter approval.
Senate Bill 1777, also authored by Dahm, would prevent providers from receiving certain reimbursements and funding if they provide gender-affirming care, including things like puberty blockers and surgeries. This comes after a district court upheld a gender-affirming care ban on minors after a lawsuit from the ACLU of Oklahoma. The ACLU’s case was recently heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Senate Health and Human Services Chair Paul Rosino (R-Oklahoma City) authored SB 1344. It would authorize state health agencies to seek funding for educational and health care services related to nonopioid alternatives. They can also assist local groups in developing and administering services funded by opioid settlement grants.
Voting access and election conduct
Lawmakers will again tackle measures relating to elections including registration, voter identification, technology use and more.
Sen. George Burns’ (R-Pollard) SB1414 would require voters to have a photo identification card when they head to the polls. The bill directs Service Oklahoma to develop a voter identification card and provide them free of charge to voters. The Brennan Center for Justice finds that strict ID requirements impact as many as 11% of eligible voters who do not have the kind of identification required by states. Senior citizens, minorities, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students are even more likely to be affected.
Burns is also tackling election technology use in SB 1515 which would add a new section to existing law that says the secretary of county election boards may use GPS to ensure a voter is assigned to the right precinct.
Another piece of legislation, SB 1374, by Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Broken Arrow) would put tighter restrictions on absentee voting by requiring the State Election Board to mark each absentee ballot with a special watermark. If the ballot does not contain the special mark, it will be rejected.
Senate Democrats are also submitting legislation related to elections – Sen. Julia Kirt (D-Oklahoma City) is calling for elections of county officials to be nonpartisan. SB 1544 would require all county elections to be nonpartisan beginning in 2025.
Proponents of increasing nonpartisan elections for positions like county officials say political parties should be irrelevant to the services local governments provide.
Lawmakers to consider foreign land ownership, other agricultural topics
Foreign landowners’ possession of agricultural land is a hot topic in Oklahoma and across the nation.
During this legislative session, at least six land ownership bills have been filed. Some are geared toward foreign land holdings and others look to reduce the amount of land owned through the state and federal government.
SB1953, authored by Sen. George Burns (R-Pollard), would prevent people who are not U.S. citizens from leasing agricultural land directly or indirectly through a business or trust. But if a business is active in regulated interstate trade, it is exempt. Any lease in violation of this rule would be invalid and the land rights will go back to the lessor. This would not apply to noncitizens living in the state.
While legislators look into land, they will also consider lunch programs. The topic of school lunch has been circulating in media outlets, especially since Stitt turned down USDA funds for a summer food assistance program.
Sen. Jessica Garvin (R-Duncan) is introducing Senate Bill 1473 to make an Oklahoma Farm to School Program where producers would receive grants to grow farm-fresh products for school districts.
Although there are many bills filed with complete language focusing on everything from invasive species to industrial hemp, there are at least 19 agricultural shell bills. These types of bills are submitted with little or no important language as a placeholder for legislation to be filed later. Meaning, that what may ultimately be considered is unknown.
Criminal justice issues to watch
Lawmakers have filed multiple bills that seek to bring justice to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat introduced Senate Bill 1470, titled the Oklahoma Survivor’s Act, which would allow defendants to provide evidence they were victims of domestic abuse within the year they committed a crime. If the court finds the defendant was a victim of abuse during the relevant period and the abuse was a substantial contributing factor to the crime, their sentence could be reduced.
This bill revives proposed legislation from last year’s session which was passed unanimously by the House but ultimately lost momentum in the Senate after language allowing for the sentencing reform to be applied retroactively was removed.
Notably, sentences of life without the possibility of parole would be reduced to 30 years or less, and sentences of life with the possibility of parole would be reduced to 25 years or less, meaning criminalized survivors like April Wilkins could be eligible for release from prison immediately if the bill is passed.
The bill has been praised by the OK Survivor Justice Coalition, an advocacy group for incarcerated survivors of domestic violence.
Two senators have filed bills that address strangulation — a common red flag of escalating domestic abuse. Republican Senator Kristen Thompson’s Senate Bill 1211 would increase the maximum sentence for strangulation to 10 years, and Republican Senator Darrell Weaver’s Senate Bill 1236 would reclassify strangulation as an 85% crime, meaning those found guilty of the crime would be required to serve at least 85% of their sentence before being considered for parole.
Senator Weaver filed two other bills related to domestic violence, including Senate Bill 1710, which would authorize the court to order a defendant accused of violating a protective order to wear a GPS monitoring device prior to trial on a first offense. On a second offense, the court would be authorized to order the defendant to be held at county jail without bond until trial.
He also filed Senate Bill 1722, which would require peace officers who learn about another peace officer committing an act of domestic abuse to provide written notification to the supervising officer.
Water issues to watch
Oklahoma lawmakers are thinking about several water issues in the state, ranging from stream conservation to groundwater management.
Spring Creek in Northeastern Oklahoma is just 35 miles long, but it passes by dozens of poultry farms. Residents of the watershed have called for more public involvement as chicken-feeding operations continue to move into the area. These facilities grow chickens until they’re big enough to send to processing centers and be shipped off to grocery stores. Waste from poultry farms has polluted waterways with phosphorus and other chemicals in the past, and residents say that’s starting to happen at Spring Creek.
Sen. Tom Woods, (R-Westville) authored Senate Bill 1398, which would create the Spring Creek Watershed Water Quality Advisory Group to recommend policies and programs to conserve the waterway. That group would work with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission to develop a watershed management plan to “improve and protect the water quality and aquatic habitat in the Spring Creek watershed.”
Rep. David Hardin (R-Stilwell) authored House Bill 4118, which would relax existing rules about managing chicken waste. Hardin’s amendments would remove sections saying poultry farmers cannot create environmental or health hazards by contaminating waterways with chicken poop. Poultry farmers wouldn’t be liable — civilly or criminally — for their waste disposal practices, as long as the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry approves their management plan.
As the legislature considers water quality in Northeastern Oklahoma, they’ll also look at water availability in Western Oklahoma. Sen. Brent Howard (R-Altus) authored Senate Bill 1341, which would give the state more power to regulate groundwater use. Amidst rising concern about Oklahoma’s underground water stores, the bill would allow the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to meter existing wells or to stop issuing new well permits within well-studied aquifers in danger of running dry.
Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
Kateleigh Mills was the Special Projects reporter for KOSU from 2019 to 2024.
Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma’s education reporter.
Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma’s health reporter since August 2023.
Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.