MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

February 23, 2014

State Senate sends big-ticket bills to House

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Senate wasted no time this legislative session sending some big-ticket items to the 101-member House, including a $160 million bond proposal to improve the Capitol and a bill to completely overhaul the retirement system for new public workers.

A separate plan to tap $40 million from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund to complete a long unfinished Native American museum in Oklahoma City also is moving quickly through the Senate, along with a tax-cut bill that mirrors Gov. Mary Fallin’s call for a .25 percent reduction to the top personal rate.

But whether any of these proposals ever reach the governor’s desk is yet to be seen and hinges primarily on how they are received in the House, which is being led by newly elected Speaker Jeff Hickman, who had no idea when the session began that he would be in charge of wrangling a consensus from a 72-member-strong GOP caucus.

Hickman, R-Fairview, was elected speaker a week after the session began when former Speaker T.W. Shannon stepped down to focus on his U.S. Senate race, forcing him to hit the ground running, put his leadership team together and prepare for three-way negotiations with the Senate and governor’s office.

There seems to be broad support among House Republicans for changing the retirement system for newly hired state workers from a traditional defined-benefit pension to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan, but the bond issue for Capitol repairs and $40 million museum plan will undoubtedly be tough sells.

And getting the House and Senate to agree on a plan to cut taxes while the legislators already have about $188 million less to spend on state programs this year will also be a major challenge.

Hickman already signaled last week that the Senate-backed plan to tap $40 million from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund to help complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum along the banks of the Oklahoma River is facing heavy resistance from House Republicans.

“The initial reaction from the caucus was not overwhelming in terms of embracing that idea,” Hickman said Thursday. “I think it’s going to be difficult to explain to our correctional employees how we could find $40 million for a museum, yet we couldn’t address the crisis there or the issues we have at the (Department of Human Services) and other areas of state government.”

And while Hickman said there is broad consensus among Republicans that repairs to the Capitol are needed, they are still discussing ways to fund it. Besides the Senate-passed $160 million bond proposal, Hickman said there are discussions about whether to send the proposal to a vote of the people or tap some of the $535 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

“We’re looking at all those options, and I’m trying to determine from our House members, in the short time that I’ve been in the speaker’s office, what they want to do and what they feel like the best option would be to repair this building,” Hickman said.

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