Now that the first session of the 58th Legislature has ended, lawmakers can sit back and review the work done over the course of four months.
Prior to the session, legislators were not sure what kind of funds they would have to allocate to state agencies, after facing a $1.3 billion shortfall heading into last year’s session. State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said thanks to a fiscally conservative approach in 2020, the Legislature passed the largest budget in state history this year, while other states continue to struggle financially.
“The FY 2022 budget not only restored cuts that had to be made to agencies last year, but increased most of their budgets to ensure core state services were protected,” he said. “We also returned state savings to $1 billion to protect us in future emergencies and disasters, as well as provided tax relief to all Oklahomans.”
Pemberton hailed the work to expand broadband services for rural Oklahomans, as it’s critical for individuals, students, businesses, and health care facilities to have access to high-speed internet. It’s been a major push over the past two years to provide more funding for broadband connectivity, since the state ranks 47th in the nation in broadband.
“Our statewide commission has been studying the needs of communities and how best to get internet to all Oklahomans,” Pemberton said. “Based on their recommendations, we approved a $42 million tax rebate for providers who expand broadband in underserved and unserved areas. This will be life-changing for so many and will help attract more companies to our state who depend on connectivity.”
The Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition named State Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah, as the Rural Senator of the Year. One of his bills that passed extended the Wildlife Diversity tax check-off, while he also helped pass numerous bills to improve telemedicine in rural communities.
“You don’t always get everything you want, but this was a fantastic session,” Stephens said. “I learned a lot, and it was great serving the people in my district and the state of Oklahoma. We got so much done that I thought was impossible to get done, starting out with a $1.3 billion hole.”
There is also a tradition at the Capitol for lawmakers to pile all bills run during the session onto a freshmen legislator’s desk on the last day, for which Stephens was selected. The stacks of papers towered high above his head, and many of them he helped co-author.
“A highlight of this session was the signing of the Second Amendment Sanctuary State Act into law,” Stephens said. “I was a co-author of this measure that ensures Oklahomans will always have the right to keep and bear arms. Any firearms or ammunition that are currently legal will always be legal in our state – even if future federal policies overreach the right to keep and bear arms in the Constitution.”
Another freshman lawmaker emerged out of Tahlequah this year, as State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah, said it was a pleasure to serve his first year in Oklahoma City and represent Cherokee County residents. He highlighted three measures related to agriculture that were approved this year, one of which prohibits anyone from labeling a bovine product as “Oklahoma Certified Beef,” unless the produce was bred, born, raised and slaughtered from within the state.
“We also passed Senate Bill 775, which authorizes ODAFF [Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry] to create and maintain the Livestock Offender Registry, which will contain a list of all persons convicted of stealing livestock,” Culver said. “This important measure will help ranchers know if who they are hiring could be a detriment to their operation.”
A third agriculture measure that received approval was House Bill 1620, which outlines lawmakers’ intent to protect Oklahomans’ rights to engage in agritourism activities, and prevents any city, county, state government agency or political subdivision from banning such activities.
“Agritourism is a booming economic driver for many parts of our state, and we need to do what we can to promote it, not prohibit it,” Culver said.
The Legislature plans to reconvene in a special session in September to complete congressional redistricting and make any necessary adjustments to legislative districts upon the release of final Census data. Two virtual town hall meetings on the congressional redistricting process are scheduled for July 13 and Aug. 3. To learn more, visit www.okhouse.gov.