By TEDDYE SNELL
The end of the Oklahoma legislative session is looming, and lawmakers are scrambling to get last-minute bills on the floor.
Following Monday’s devastating F5 tornado in Moore, state representatives approved taking $45 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to provide disaster relief.
According to Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, a move is also being made to increase salaries for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers.
“They are starting to bend on getting troopers pay raises,” said Brown. “I can see a last-minute effort to get that done.”
House Speaker T.W. Shannon on Tuesday said the quick response by OHP troopers during the aftermath of the storm highlights the need for the increase. Brown had a a slightly different view of the situation.
“We’re still not willing to help the teachers who evidently are willing to sacrifice their lives to save our children,” said Brown. “I was sickened by the House Republicans’ press release yesterday saying they were solely responsible. If you have to grab that much glory, God have mercy on you.”
Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, said the Senate, too, voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for relief.
“From the looks of things, the $45 million will come with matching federal funds,” said Garrison. “It looks like we’ll end up with close to $500 million, all total, for disaster relief, which will be good for those folks.”
Like Brown, Garrison is also disgusted that teachers have yet to receive a raise.
“Whether we fund OHP trooper raises or not, there are other folks out there – like the teacher, the true heroes, who go above and beyond to protect those kids. There was one teacher who covered children with her body and ended up impaled. That’s the first thing that hit me: We have a lot of heroes, not just troopers.”
Shannon announced he is reviving House Bill 2145, which initially called for a 16 percent increase for troopers.
Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation increasing fees for driver’s licenses, as well as a bill reducing the state’s top tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent in 2014. Senate Bill 652, increases the cost for a Class D new or renewed driver’s license by $12, bringing the total cost to $33.50 for a four-year license. Fees for other types of licenses are also increased under the legislation, which is expected to raise $8.7 million for the state.
Garrison opposed the measure, and Brown said people need to wake up and figure out what’s going on.
“We see pretty plainly who is paying,” said Brown. “The balance has shifted from lowering taxes to increasing fees. We’re set to lose $136 million in tax revenue from the tax cut, and we’re raising fees to compensate. We’ve seen actions like that amount to $500 million in fee increases the past nine years, so you see how they’re transferring the burden. If you’re a trucker, your fees have tripled. Yet the top earners get a triple deduction. People need to wake up to that.”
Garrison said fee increases amount to a tax on the poor.
“They’ll say driving is a privilege; well, it’s not a privilege for the single mother who has to drive to work to earn money to take care of her kids,” said Garrison. “If you’re going to run on no taxes, you’d better run on no fees, too. I voted against the measure and will continue to do that. It may not seem like a lot of money to some folks, but it is to those who have to count every nickel they earn.”
Garrison said funding Insure Oklahoma is still a big issue.
“The speaker shot down using tobacco tax money to fund that, but there are about 30,000 Oklahomans who would benefit from it,” said Garrison.
On Monday, Shannon put a halt to the governor’s plan to save the program, saying those left without health insurance would be in their predicament as a result of President Barack Obama’s policies.
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