What to watch for during Oklahoma's 2023 legislative session
The first Monday in February marks the beginning of the Oklahoma legislative session. And Oklahoma lawmakers are gearing up to consider more than 3,000 bills.
Our reporters will be there to cover them. Here’s what they’ll be watching for leading up to the convening of the 2023 legislature.
Tax cuts and spending will be big focus of Oklahoma GOP
Tax cuts are a major goal for Oklahoma Republicans. With a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, they’re likely to be a focus for lawmakers, too.
Right now, the state has almost $3 billion in savings. That means Republicans are likely to explore many budget options.
Last session, leadership in the House, Senate and Governor’s Office had disagreements on what exactly should or shouldn’t be cut. Gov. Kevin Stitt made calling for an end to Oklahoma’s grocery tax a major priority.
A call to end the grocery tax is almost 40 years old but is generally more popular in election years.
The nuts and bolts of tax cuts and general spending will mostly play out during budget negotiations, a process that’s largely secretive as leaders in the House, Senate and Governor’s Office craft a budget behind closed doors.
Bills including big spending — like a suite of education measures proposed by Edmond Sen. Adam Pugh — offer a peek behind the curtain on priorities. But perhaps the biggest early indicator will come on the first day of session when Stitt unveils his priorities during the annual State of the State address on Feb. 6.
Education legislative priorities look to attract teachers, control classroom instruction
Oklahoma lawmakers have several educational focuses this spring, but two areas are getting especially heavy focus: making the state a more attractive place for teachers and managing what should be taught in the classroom.
While Senate Education Chair Adam Pugh already unveiled his educational priorities earlier this month — which includes a $3,000-$6,000 teacher raise — other lawmakers are also making moves to attract and keep teachers.
Sen. Kristen Thompson’s Senate Bill 466 would give special education teachers a raise of at least 10% above the prevailing wage paid to other teachers. Other bills look to protect teacher sick leave and health insurance coverage.
There’s also a focus on making teaching in Oklahoma more doable for teachers with families: SB364 mandates 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, SB16 would create a pilot program for school employee childcare, and HB1343 would pay for 30% of health and dental coverage for teachers’ dependents.
As with last year’s session, there’s also a renewed focus on what’s being taught at school. Sen. David Bullard’s SB867 is one of a handful of bills on teaching America’s founding. That bill would charge social studies teachers with additional instruction on America’s founding, specifically its “Christian heritage,” including influence of the Ten Commandments and the Bible.
Outside of history class, lawmakers want parents to opt-in for sex education and any education about gender or sexual orientation — though one bill would do away with sex education at any grade level altogether. Similarly, several bills address which books can be allowed in libraries and outline a review and grievance process for parents who object to the material.
Abortion and new mothers are a major focus for health policy
Oklahoma banned virtually all abortion last year. Lawmakers filed several bills in its wake. Some proposals update the abortion ban while others focus on improving social services and health coverage for new and low-income mothers.
House Majority Leader Jon Echols filed House Bill 2088, which amends the state’s abortion ban to clarify that it doesn’t apply to evacuating a terminal pregnancy.
Senate Bill 834, filed by Sen. Julie Daniels, makes several changes to the law that established the ban. It makes some clarifications about medical emergency exemptions, for example stating that ectopic pregnancy evacuations are legal. It also creates exceptions for sexual assault and incest, but it requires victims to file police reports to get the exemption. Critics note that some victims, such as children who are assaulted by family members, might not be able to file a police report on their own.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat filed Senate Bill 694, which would allow pregnant people to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That’s a cash assistance program that helps low-income families make ends meet. Under current law, pregnant people only qualify if they already have children in the home. Senate Bill 694 would ensure new mothers have access to the program, as well. Last year, Gov. Stitt created a task force on policies to support mothers with unplanned pregnancies, and this policy was among its recommendations.
Senate Bill 182, filed by Democratic Sen. Carri Hicks, would require Medicaid to cover breast pumps. These small machines allow mothers who breastfeed to build up a supply of milk the baby can eat when the two are separated. It can also help mothers who want to breastfeed their babies but are having a hard time with it. Another bill, Senate Bill 245 by Sen. Julie Daniels, would require Medicaid to cover donor milk if a doctor prescribes it.
Expanding internet access in rural Oklahoma
Oklahoma lawmakers are looking to get the ball rolling on broadband internet expansion plans.
However, the Broadband Governing Board has struggled to find a director. The board previously expected to fill the role by early August, but appointed Kirk Martin as interim executive director in October 2022.
During September’s special legislative session, former Rep. Logan Phillips, previous co-chair of the state’s broadband expansion council, said the challenge behind finding a director is that the job position is competitive, as many states are looking to fill a similar role and the $150,000-$170,000 salary range being offered.
Various sources could fund Oklahoma’s efforts to improve internet access, including $382 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds and $167 million from the state’s ARPA Capital Project Funds.
The work on broadband projects will continue this session with legislation like:
- Senate Bill 457, authored by Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, would ease regulations to allow electric companies to more easily provide broadband services to customers.
- Senate Bill 472, authored by Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, would allow rural electric cooperatives to use their existing electricity utility easement to expand access to broadband internet services.
- Senate Bill 499, also authored by Paxton, would encourage internet service providers and public entities to share information with the Oklahoma Broadband Office.
Proposal would preserve Southeast Oklahoma’s pristine rivers
Only two rivers in Oklahoma have flowed free and undammed since statehood. Proposed legislation aims to keep them that way.
In 1968, the United States Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to conserve rivers across the country with unique beauty, ecology or cultural importance. These waters receive special federal protections against damming, pollution and development. Although over 78,000 miles of rivers flow through Oklahoma, none of them are federally recognized and protected as Wild and Scenic.
Sen. Bullard filed Senate Bill 14, which would introduce the Charlotte Hearne Heritage River Act, an effort to protect Oklahoma’s unique and pristine rivers at the state level. Named for a southeastern Oklahoma water advocate, the bill would designate and protect the state’s Heritage Rivers, which it defines as any river that’s been flowing free and undammed since Oklahoma attained statehood in 1907. Only two rivers in the state still meet this criterion: the Blue and the Glover, both in southeastern Oklahoma.
The bill would prohibit anyone from damming a Heritage River or selling its waters in the future, but it includes language to accommodate existing water rights and land use. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board would be tasked with managing the river and protecting it from “public and private nuisances.”
Oklahoma does already have six state-designated scenic rivers under the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act. But in 2016, the state legislature voted to dissolve the commission that oversaw those rivers’ protection and transferred oversight to the Grand River Dam Authority, which funds itself by selling water and hydroelectric power.
Other water-centric proposed legislation includes a bill to prohibit public water supplies from adding fluoride and two bills to regulate cannabis growers’ water use.
Recreational cannabis referendum looms over potential medical marijuana reforms
A special election on March 7 will determine if recreational cannabis can be purchased by adults 21 and older in Oklahoma. State Question 820 would also allow some people with drug convictions the opportunity to have their cannabis convictions reversed and criminal records expunged.
The passage of SQ820 would certainly be a surprise since several of the state’s top elected officials have already spoken out against the ballot initiative.
Last year, the legislature took up many provisions to reign in Oklahoma’s marijuana business licenses, as well as push through bills that would bolster enforcement of laws. This year several pieces of legislation are taking aim at the industry again - some with providing language to protect people who have medical marijuana licenses from discrimination.
Other legislation looks to amend licensing requirements, and direct Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority employees to collect and submit samples for testing.
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority was removed from the Oklahoma Department of Health’s jurisdiction in 2022, therefore making the OMMA its own entity.
How Oklahoma could lower incarceration rates and aid with re-entry
Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in both the country and in the world.
Efforts to change this statistic over the past years have included reclassifying simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor in 2016 with the passage of State Question 780 and Gov. Stitt’s U.S. history-breaking mass commutation of over 400 inmates in 2019.
Addressing mass incarceration involves considering how to decrease the number of people sent to jails and prisons, but it also involves focusing on criminal rehabilitation and reentry.
In the upcoming legislative session, that focus can be found in Senate Bill 11 filed by Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, which would amend the Oklahoma Higher Education Tuition Aid Act to allow incarcerated people to receive state tuition aid and House Bill 2433 filed by Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, which would delete certain eligibility requirements from the Oklahoma Drug Court Act.
While Oklahoma’s rate of juvenile incarceration has significantly decreased in recent years, attention to juvenile justice can still be found in Senate Bill 153 filed by Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City. The measure would prevent minors from being sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Senate Bill 77, filed by Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, would amend the Youthful Offender Act to make mandatory fees to be paid by the family of the offender to the Office of Juvenile Affairs optional.
How lawmakers could impact access to the ballot box
Election season never really ends.
Lawmakers are looking to pass more voting-related bills ahead of the next big election, the 2024 Presidential run.
Those measures could take many different forms. But, one recent law has led to the implementation of post-election audits in Oklahoma. The first post-election tabulation audit was conducted in 2022.
This year, lawmakers are considering tweaking state questions. State questions, by Oklahoma law, gives people the power to propose laws and amendments to the state Constitution and to enact or reject laws at polls independent of the Legislature.
A bill by Senator Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, would allow state questions only on odd-numbered years, which would prevent questions from showing up around the same time as a gubernatorial or a presidential election, which are on even-numbered years.
Senate Joint Resolution 5 would also prevent state questions or amendments that "removed a right of residents of this state," unless a majority of electors statewide and if a majority of electors in two-thirds of all Oklahoma counties vote in favor of the ballot measure.
It is unclear what removing “a right of residents" means, but the language of the law would certainly make votes in rural counties with lower populations more meaningful.
Other voting measures being introduced in 2023 related to voting can be found here.