By JOSH NEWTON
Area legislators covered an array of local, state, national and worldly topics during this month’s Legislative Focus, held Friday morning at Heritage Elementary School in Tahlequah.
Muskogee Sen. Earl Garrison, a Democrat, told attendees the Legislature recently passed a bill allowing for horses to be slaughtered in the state.
“I voted against that bill,” said Garrison. “The aggravating thing to me ... is we get so much emotion involved in issues that aren’t really going to make a whole lot of difference to the average working person, and I wish we would spend more time talking about how we can stimulate our economy more, because the jury’s still out on whether horse slaughtering is good for Oklahoma.”
Garrison said he doesn’t believe the slaughter of horses in Oklahoma will be good long-term. He said he loves horses, but also voted against the bill because of the substances used to calm horses down for transportation purposes. Garrison said the horses will go to places like Texas, Japan and France, and said he doesn’t want contaminated horse meat to make its way into other countries and cause illnesses.
“[Some countries] don’t have the wherewithal to monitor meat production like we do here in the U.S.,” said Garrison.
During a question-answer session, local business owner Josh Hutchins said he believes the bill is important because it deals with citizens’ rights.
“The horse slaughter thing seems unimportant to a lot of people, but fundamentally, isn’t it a deal with property rights? A horse is my property, a cow is my property, so what gives you the right to determine what I do with my property?” he asked.
Garrison said the bill isn’t about a person’s rights.
“Whether it passed or not, you can still dispose of that horse the way you want to,” Garrison said.
Instead, Garrison agreed with Hutchins that the criticism over the bill was based on emotional arguments. Legislators told attendees most farmers in the state supported the bill, but the majority of the push-back came from animal-rights activists and people in other states.
Tahlequah Rep. Mike Brown, a Democrat, played “devil’s advocate” and said he understood why farmers support the bill.
“The slaughter bill was a salvage bill, not a pro-slaughter bill, so to speak,” said Brown.
Brown said farmers who have horses face large expenses to have a horse “put down” by a veterinarian.
“My son is a veterinarian; he has to go out on a daily basis and put someone’s animal down,” said Brown. “It costs them $200 just for the medicine to put that horse down, whereas he could take the horse to a buyer, the buyer would give him $400 or $500 for the horse ... and he doesn’t have to bury it or spend $200 or $300 on medicine to put the animal down.”
Brown also said all parts of a horse can be used for some purpose. The U.S. imports more horse meat than it exports, he said, and the meat is frequently used here to feed zoo animals.
Wayne Shaw, a Grove Republican senator who represents parts of Cherokee County, also briefly discussed the horse slaughter bill.
“The amount of time spent on something indirectly is proportional to its importance,” said Shaw. “It became a very passionate issue and I think there are a whole lot of things that are more important out there than this.”
State budget talks loom
Legislators spoke at length Friday morning about the efforts to put together a state budget.
“We have roughly $212 million new dollars, and our economy is starting to rebound,” said Brown. “We had about a 3 percent increase in growth, and $212 million is what we’ve received over and above. That’s basically what we’re going to build a budget on – those are the dollars we’re going to look at.”
But even with the added $212 million, Brown said the math won’t add up for state agencies that will request far more than they’ll be given.
“And, out of the $212 million in new dollars, we have to subtract anywhere from $47 million to $60 million for that tax cut that we’re talking about,” said Brown.
Brown said it looks as if a proposed income tax cut in the state will take $50 million to $60 million from the budget.
The state must also start spending millions of dollars as a result of a recent lawsuit over the Department of Human services. Brown said about $25 million per year will likely go toward that issue.
Common education is requesting about $280 million, but will likely get about $75 million, Brown said. Corrections could receive $15-$20 million; and the health care authority typically asks for $50-$60 million, but may get $20 million.
Higher education could use as much as $90 million, but may only see $5 million. And like all the agencies listed by Brown on Friday, others will need funding as well.
“When you do the add on all of those, we are short, even with the $212 million, and we haven’t even talked about teacher pay raises, we haven’t talked about any retirement [Cost of Living Adjustments], paid employee pay raises, funding extra in health care needs – it’s going to be tough,” said Brown.
Brown said he doesn’t believe now is the time to consider a reduction to the state income tax level.
“You can never have core services without funding, it just doesn’t happen,” said Brown.
Garrison said a cut to state taxes would leave a “devastating” hole for important services, including education.
“For every quarter-percent you drop, you lose about $139 million,” said Garrison. “Now the idea is to do away with enough tax credits to make everything neutral, but somehow, that never worked out in the past. And once you’re tax base is gone, there’s no way to get it back. Our schools are already suffering.”
Shaw said it’s clear the eastern part of the state has its problems, and it may occasionally look as if representatives in Oklahoma City “draw a line over here on the eastern part of the state and they forget us.”
“On the other side of the coin, though, I think you have to understand that sometimes rocks can either be stumbling blocks or stepping stones,” said Shaw.
“We have a good work force, tech centers, good highways. We have some opportunities, and we hope and pray that we can see some development.”
Brown said tax credits that were established several years ago are coming back to haunt the state, which got to the point it couldn’t afford to pay for them all.
Shaw believes tax credits can serve a purpose and help bring new business and money to the state, but also said legislators should look at limiting the length of credits.
Needy families and health care issues
Brown said one proposed piece of legislation would take money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and put it into a state marriage initiative. TANF receives about $43 million in federal funds, and $2.8 million of that is used for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, he said.
“That $2.8 million is set aside in order to promote marriage, to help consult couples that are going through troubling times in a young marriage, and now they want to take more of the $43 million and spend it on billboards and campaign advertising to promote more on marriage,” said Brown. “Nobody could tell me where they’re spending $2.8 million. So, when you take money that is now being spent for milk and diapers, it doesn’t seem like that’s pro-life to me at all.”
Jeannette Wilson asked legislators whether there is any truth to a rumor she heard that an introduced bill would require doctors “to go to heroic measures to maintain a person’s life, even if that person has an advance directive.”
Shaw said he knew of one bill tossed around that would require hospitals to carry out the wishes of a family.
“My particular belief is the family needs to have the say,” said Shaw.
“I’m pro-life, OK? But I remember [a man who was hospitalized] who had a ‘do not resuscitate.’ ... They put a ventilator on him, which was against the DNR he had. He had a pacemaker that was making his heart beat, a ventilator – we were just waiting for it to flatline. That’s not life; that’s extending death. That’s my personal opinion. And I believe a family needs to have something to say.”
Cherokee County Republican Party Chair Shannon Grimes asked a follow-up question to Wilson’s.
“Could this be one of those [bills] where somebody asked their representative or senator to carry it, and they carried it to make them happy, knowing and hoping that it would just go ahead and die in committee?” Grimes asked.
Legislators said it is possible that happened.
Garrison explained those scenarios play out “a lot,” with the author of a bill sometimes making it clear he or she doesn’t really want a hearing on it, but has introduced the legislation to please a constituent.