With only a few weeks left in the legislative session, Oklahoma House and Senate bills have finished being debated in committees and are ready to be debated on the floor.

“We’ll probably spend the next three weeks on the floor,” said Sen. Jim Wilson. “And spend the rest of the time in conference on bills.”

At the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce’s April legislative breakfast, held Friday morning at Tahlequah City Hospital, Wilson, Rep. Mike Brown and Rep. John Auffett spoke about issues that were currently making their way through the legislature.

“Anything to do with money will typically wait until May,” said Wilson. “The House wants to keep the budget the same as last year and give tax refunds. The Senate wants to support things like mental health and schools and use the money we have towards those programs.”

Wilson said disputes over the budget between the House, control by Republicans, and the Senate, controlled by Democrats, would probably lead to a special session.

A political button issue being debated in the legislature is tort reform.

“Neither party wants tort reform,” said Wilson. “But during election season, it becomes a political idea to campaign on.”

Wilson said one provision of tort reform being debated would require law suits against insurance companies be filed in the companies jurisdiction.

“You would have to go to the company’s home state to file suit,” said Wilson. “For lawsuits over $75,000, it would be a federal suit. It’s a real difficult issue.”

Wilson said Republicans in the House just wanted to pass a tort reform bill to make a political issue of it.

One issue Brown said he is working hard on is teacher pay raises.

“I place great value on the educators of Oklahoma,” said Brown. “It’s sad when teachers can go across the border to Arkansas and make $6,000 more a year, or $10,000 more a year in Texas. We need to bring our teacher pay up to at least the regional average.”

Following an economic downturn several years ago, state employees stopped receiving raises, something Brown said needs to be rectified.

“State employees have not received a raise in four years and two months,” said Brown.

Oklahoma’s status as the last state to ban tattooing may finally come to an end, if a bill passes through the legislature that would legalize and regulate the industry.

“You can almost get a tattoo legally,” said Brown. “The bill will regulate tattoo shops and require training and will help in the field to eliminate hepatitis. It will clean up shops that are operating illegally across the state.”

Tattooing has been illegal in Oklahoma since 1965, but tattoo parlors openly advertise. Artists claim there is a loophole in the current ban, which ban permanent tattooing, since tattoos can now be removed.

A bill to assist firefighters who have been battling wildfires across the state since November was finally passed through the legislature, but lawmakers say it didn’t provide as much assistance as they had hoped.

“We passed a watered-down version of the bill,” said Brown. “It’s not a comprehensive bill, but we worked to provide those guys some relief.”

Auffett doesn’t like the way education is being handled by the legislature. The legislature passed a bill that would require high school students to pass four of seven end-of-instruction exams before receiving a high school diploma.

“There are some folks that think we can test ourselves to success,” said Auffett. “It was a very partisan vote and I didn’t understand that because this is not a partisan issue.”

Auffett said the requirement would have a negative impact on marginal students who are already on the verge of dropping out of school.

“This is beyond a certain percentage of kids,” said Auffett. “They’re going to be disgusted with school and drop out sooner than they would have if they didn’t have to pass those tests.”

Jeanette Wilson told Auffett and the other legislators that she would like to see House Republicans take the end-of-instruction exams to see if they could pass them.

Auffett also agreed with Wilson that a standoff between the House and Senate over the state’s budget would result in a special session.

“The idea that state government shouldn’t grow is ridiculous,” said Auffett. “Inflation is there and the government needs to grow to respond to that.”

What’s next

The next Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast will be held at the Cherokee County Election Board and Cherokee County 911 at 7:30 a.m., Friday, May 5.

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