May 6, 2016
From the desk of Sen. Rob Standridge
Under Oklahoma’s constitution, the Legislature must complete its work by no later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May. That means we have three weeks left to complete all action on measures dealing with state laws, proposed state questions and pass a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which begins this coming July 1.
Since February, we’ve debated and voted on hundreds of pieces of legislation. Among those bills supported by both chambers and signed into law by the governor were four measures which represent a significant step in criminal justice reform. Oklahoma leads the nation in the incarceration of women, and we’re the third highest in the nation for the incarceration of men. But many of those in prison were convicted of nonviolent offenses, and despite a Department of Corrections budget that has more than quadrupled in 30 years, our prisons continue to house far more inmates than they were designed to hold.
One of the most important roles of prisons is to make sure those individuals convicted of violent crimes are prevented from being able to claim more victims–the reform measures signed by the governor focus on how our courts handle nonviolent offenses. Those who break such laws will be held accountable, but these changes are aimed at making the punishments better fit the crimes. This in turn will help us begin to address our chronic prison overcrowding problem, and redirect savings to other core government services, including public education, healthcare and mental health—services that can reduce the number of individuals who would otherwise end up behind bars.
We also approved legislation that will give judges the authority to consider post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mitigating factor when making sentencing decisions for veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that eleven percent of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans and 15 percent of Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. However, that number could be higher—unfortunately many veterans do not seek treatment and therefore are never diagnosed. The whole idea is to make sure veterans who may have acted out and gotten in trouble with the law as a direct result of behaviors tied to PTSD can be directed toward treatment, rather than being sent to jail.
We’ve approved the Mark Costello Act, named for Oklahoma’s late Labor Commissioner. A son, who has struggled with mental illness for years, faces a murder charge in Commissioner Costello’s death. This new law will help families get assisted outpatient treatment for adult relatives with mental illness before a situation reaches a crisis. The bill was championed by Commissioner Costello’s widow, Cathy.
I was successful in getting the House and Senate to call for a Convention of the States. Oklahoma became the 29th state of the required 34 states to ask Congress for a convention. If such a convention is convened, my legislation calls for the consideration of amendments to the U.S. Constitution to control federal spending, stop federal overreach, and enact term limits at the federal level.
These are just a few examples of legislation we’ve been working on this session that will address concerns and needs in a variety of areas of public policy and state law. Of course the biggest challenge we face this session is how to deal with a $1.3 billion decrease in available state funding for the FY ’17 budget. Since before the session even began in February, meetings were taking place so we could begin the process of considering responsible options to reduce the budget gap and enable us to shield core services from devastating cuts.
This past week the House and Senate Joint Committees on Appropriations and Budget approved a slate of reforms that would generate approximately $190 million to help address the $1.3 billion budget shortfall. These bills reform various tax credits and incentive programs, generating new revenues for the state. Additional measures that will reform more of these programs will be voted on in the coming days.
Unlike the federal government, Oklahoma has a balanced budget amendment in its constitution that ensures the Legislature cannot appropriate more dollars than are available. The final budget will be balanced—and to achieve that, there will have to be some budget reductions. Our goal is to reduce the size of those reductions by reforming credits and incentives, as well as passing reforms that will improve the budgeting process so we can better protect public education, public safety, health care and mental health programs, and child welfare programs aimed at protecting Oklahoma’s most vulnerable infants and children.
To contact me at the Capitol, please write to Senator Rob Standridge, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 417A, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105, email me at email@example.com, or call (405) 521-5535.