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29 Mar
0

RELEASE: House Dem Caucus – Environmental Protection Concerns

Environmental Protections Weakened By State/Federal Budget Reductions

You don’t have to be a “flaming liberal tree-hugger” to be concerned about the funding cutbacks in state and federal environmental programs.

President Donald Trump and his hatchet man, Scott Pruitt, want to slash the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31%. Doing so would, by default, shift responsibility for many environmental programs/services to the states.

But in Oklahoma, the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Republican Governor have cut the budget of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by 38.5% over the past three years.

As an example, DEQ had 39 field offices when the agency was established in 1993. That number has gradually declined to 22 now; two of those field offices closed in the last three years.

If the DEQ’s budget is cut again this year, virtually every Oklahoman could be at risk from various environmental hazards.

The Republican chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee recently advised state agencies to be prepared for budget reductions of 14.5%. And that was before GOP State Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger revealed that he “borrowed” $240 million from the Constitutional Reserve “rainy day” fund to pay bills; that money is supposed to be replaced by July 1, the start of Fiscal Year 2018.

However, the State of Oklahoma already faced a budget deficit of $878 million this year; if the Executive Branch raid on the state’s “rainy day” fund is included, along with $10 million in lottery proceeds diverted from public schools that have to be repaid, the budget shortfall is approaching $1.3 billion. And that comes on the heels of a $1.3 billion shortfall last year, a $611 million deficit in 2015, and a $188 million deficit in 2014.

Earlier this month House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said members of his caucus told him they don’t even want to start looking at tax increases – such as the proposed $1.50/pack cigarette tax hike, repealing the latest income-tax cut, raising oil and gas gross production taxes from 2% back up to 4% or 5%, and the governor’s plan to increase the motor fuels tax and expand the sales tax base – until after state expenses are examined thoroughly. (I thought that’s what the Legislature was supposed to do every year…)

So, Oklahomans of all ages can expect various environmental protections to be curtailed or eliminated entirely. Following are illustrations of what’s in store.

Water Quality Issues

Both the DEQ and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) have fewer resources to devote to water quality protection from maladies such as lead contamination and amoebic dysentery, a disease that can be spread via polluted water.

The OWRB’s Rural Economic Action Plan (REAP) allocation, from which grants are issued to local utility managers to help finance expensive repairs to or replacement of crumbling water and wastewater systems, has been trimmed in recent years.

The REAP was created by the Legislature in 1996 to help finance capital improvements in small communities. Initially the program was seeded with $15 million annually; however, the legislative appropriation to REAP has since been scaled down by 35.6%, to $9.65 million this fiscal year. The Water Board’s share of the REAP has been reduced by 26.7% in the last four years: from $1.62 million in 2014 to $1.19 million in 2017.

DEQ Executive Director Scott Thompson previously expressed concern about the state’s drinking water program.

His agency used to have 81 environmental specialists in field offices to monitor community water/wastewater systems, but now has approximately 55. DEQ has 11engineers on staff (interviews are under way to hire another) to oversee and lend assistance to 253 drinking water treatment plants and nearly 1,700 public water supply systems. DEQ engineers also provide emergency response, technical assistance, investigate complaints, respond to violations and threats to public health, etc.

Twenty-eight public water supplies that serve more than 64,000 Oklahomans have registered exceedances in lead since 2013, DEQ records show. Almost all of the public water systems that surpassed the maximum lead limit are in rural areas, the state agency reported. Many of the water systems flagged for excessive lead have fewer than 100 customers, including several mobile home parks, The Oklahoman newspaper reported in February.

Typically the problem is caused not by lead in the water supply, but by outdated pipes and plumbing fixtures that leach lead if the water is too corrosive.

Last fall the DEQ cited scores of public water systems throughout the state for being out of compliance with a water quality standard established by the EPA. All of the citations arose from a problem associated with the use of chlorine to disinfect water.

A byproduct of chlorine treatment of water when it mixes with some organic materials is trihalomethanes (THMs), which have been linked to bladder and colorectal cancer. The EPA has lowered the acceptable level of THMs from 100 parts per billion to 80 ppb.

In a related matter, the City of Stillwater notified the EPA recently after the municipality modified its water disinfection process, which resulted in a river of complaints about the taste and smell of the water pouring from faucets.

One Stillwater Facebook user’s 4-year-old son said his bath “smells like the YMCA pool…” City Water Resources Director Bill Millis said the elevated levels of chlorine are within levels authorized by the EPA and the DEQ.

Maybe so, but state Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said “…the reality is it smells like I’m drinking bleach.”

Millis said the more highly chlorinated water has to work its way through the entire municipal network, which means the taste and odor problems will persist for two to three more weeks.

In another case, The Oklahoman reported last November that a solvent used by a now-closed aerospace plant at Wiley Post Airport threatened to contaminate Bethany’s municipal water supply with groundwater pollutants detected in concentrations as high as eight times the federal limit, according to DEQ records.

In 2015 the water in Hugo made national headlines because of its turbidity. The DEQ had cited a litany of violations of the town’s water system in recent years, including malfunctioning disinfection equipment at the water treatment plant.

Tar Creek Superfund site

The area known as Tar Creek is part of the Tri-State Mining District, an area of 1,188 square miles located in Ottawa County (Picher and Cardin), Oklahoma; Southwestern Missouri and Southeastern Kansas.

During World War I, the region supplied 45% of the lead and 50% of the zinc used by the U.S. Advances in technology resulted in increases in production, and thus Ottawa County became the world’s largest source of lead and zinc.

“Between 65% and 85% of the lead fired by the Allies in World War II came from that mine field,” said Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami. “It saved our country; it saved the world. But now we don’t seem to care that it is still killing people.”

“If you want to see how Oklahoma handles the environment, look up Picher, Okla.,” wrote Zachary Austin Pearson of Oklahoma City.

Mining ceased in the 1970s, and chat piles – virtually mountains of scrap, actually – that were left behind by the mining companies contain lead dust that has blown around the area.

The Oklahoma portion of the Tri-State Mining District encompasses more than 40 square miles, five towns and an entire watershed, and more than 100 million tons of chat remain on the Tar Creek site, the DEQ reports.

Elevated lead levels in Picher children led to learning disabilities and other problems. The lead and zinc also seeped into groundwater, ponds, and Tar Creek, which flows into the Neosho River, a tributary that feeds Grand Lake. The EPA declared Picher to be one of the most toxic areas in the United States, and eventually the federal government bought out the landowners in Picher and Cardin, leaving both communities ghost towns.

The Quapaw Tribe has acquired large portions of that land in Ottawa County and is continuing efforts to clean it up, although a project of that magnitude will take years and billions of dollars to achieve. The tribe is making a dent in the chat piles by selling it to customers in other states for use as an aggregate substitute in hot mix asphalt.

DEQ’s activities at Tar Creek have included:

  • managing the remedial design and remedial action of residential yard cleanups in Ottawa County;]
  • hiring a consultant to take samples and create site-specific remediation designs for all residential yards that required cleanup;
  • starting the bidding process to hire a contractor to clean up residential yards in Tar Creek;
  • managing the cleanup of mine-waste contaminated properties that are non-tribal land within the Tar Creek Superfund site;
  • remediating seven properties along the Beaver Creek watershed that contain mine waste;
  • working with EPA to secure funding to start the cleanup of multiple contaminated properties in the Elm Creek watershed;

The agency claims on its website that DEQ also studied concentrations of heavy metals in fish from waters polluted by the Tri-State Mining District, including Tar Creek.

Experimental Paving Project Suspended

One of the state environmental casualties of the cut in DEQ funding and legislative raids on its bank accounts was an experimental road paving project.

Wagoner County Commissioner Tim Kelley said that in 2014 his staff helped the DEQ clear a dump in his district that contained more than 5,000 tires.

The next year the DEQ asked Kelley whether he’d be interested in participating in an experimental project in which used tires would be ground up and mixed with asphalt for paving roads. Tentatively the plan called for one section to be paved with a 5% mixture of rubber; another section, 10%; another section, 20%; and a control section paved just with pure asphalt, Kelley said.

The state Transportation Department, the University of Oklahoma and the DEQ planned to study the performance and durability of the alternative pavements. If successful, the project would create a new market for old tires and stretch the amount of asphalt available for paving.

Kelley said his road crews milled the old asphalt, built new driveways and replaced almost all of the drainage culverts along four miles of county roads – two miles on 257th between 131st and 111th, and two miles on 111th between 257th and 225th – and prepared an 8-inch aggregate base on the two sections. “We spent a lot of time and probably $200,000 just on getting the roads ready,” he said Tuesday.

The project was let out for bids and came in, under budget, at $833,000, Kelley recalled; the expense was to be borne by the DEQ. A contract was awarded, he said, but on May 26, 2016 – one day prior to a pre-construction meeting scheduled on the project, and the day before the Legislature adjourned last year – “we were called and told by the DEQ that they couldn’t do the project because the Legislature had taken their money.”

The Legislature siphoned $1 million from the used-tire disposal fund last year to help plug the state’s $1.3 billion budget hole, and diverted $2 million from the same fund the year before, ledgers reflect.

The experimental paving contract was canceled, Kelley said, because, “I couldn’t afford an expense like that.” Instead, he diverted $325,000 from “other projects I had planned” and put down a 2-inch asphalt overlay rather than the 4-inch asphalt/rubber mixed surface initially planned. Coupled with the preparation expenses, Wagoner County was out half a million dollars that otherwise would have been spent to pave other segments of the 400 miles of roads in Commissioner Kelley’s district, about half of which are unpaved.

The one thing DEQ did do was reimburse Wagoner County for expenses incurred in removing the 5,000 tires from a creekbank, Kelley said.

Fenton Rood of the DEQ said Oklahomans discard approximately one tire per person per year.

The agency recycled 3,791,170 tires in Fiscal Year 2016, according to Ferrella March, manager of the DEQ’s Tire Recycling Program. The vast majority of those were tires that processors collected from dealers, from dismantlers (such as vehicle salvage yards), and from communities that conducted clean-up campaigns.

It also included 84,241 tires removed from dumpsites, Ms. March said. She estimated that Oklahoma has fewer than 40 illegal dumpsites remaining today, compared to “at least a couple of hundred” that existed when she was hired at the DEQ in 2006.

The tire recycling program is financed with fees that are collected on each new tire purchased. The tires are shred or ground down to various sizes that are further processed into products such as artificial turf, playground mulch or molded rubber products, or are burned as an alternative fuel source.

Qualified applicants for collection and transportation of waste tires in this state include Oklahoma Tire Recyclers of Bristow, Four-D Corp. of Duncan and RTR Environmental of Noble, all of which grind tires into crumb rubber; Lone Star Industries cement kiln of Pryor and Holcim Cement Kiln of Ada, both of which burn used tires as a fuel; and Geocycle, also of Ada, which shreds tires. All of those companies collect and transport used tires.

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MIKE W. RAY
Media Director, Democratic Caucus
Oklahoma House of Representatives
(405) 962-7819 office
(405) 245-4411 mobile

27 Mar
0

Fallin Orders Two More 2017 Special Elections

Fallin Orders Two More 2017 Special Elections

Fallin has ordered special elections to fill the vacancies in Oklahoma Senate District 44, caused by the immediate resignation of Ralph Shortey, and Oklahoma House District 46, caused by Rep. Scott Martin’s decision to resign effective May 31.

The filing period for both special elections is May 1-3. The special primary election is set for July 11 and the special general election is scheduled for Sept. 12.

In the event a special primary election is not necessary, the special general election will be July 11.

27 Mar
0

RELEASE: Trump Immigration Actions Do Not Keep Us Safe

Tom Perez:

DNC Chair Tom Perez released the following statement on Trump’s dangerous immigration actions that undermine law enforcement:

“Local law enforcement know their communities best and the Trump administration is trying to undermine their role by threatening to take away critical funds that make our communities safe and keep criminals off the streets.  This administration not only is trying to bully law enforcement and make them ICE agents, but they’re trying to bully immigrant families. This is not who we are as a country.  We are a country that must protect families from being torn apart, go after criminals to keep our communities safe, and support our local law enforcement. Today’s actions do none of that.”

23 Mar
0

RELEASE: House Democrats Propose a Recurring Revenue Plan

House Democrats Unveil ‘Restoring Oklahoma Budget Plan’

OKLAHOMA CITY (23 March 2017) – House Democrats unveiled their “Restoring Oklahoma Plan” of nearly $1.4 billion revenue proposals that would plug the state’s $878 million budget hole, finance a significant teacher pay raise and balance the state budget – without raising taxes on middle-class families – Minority Leader Scott Inman announced Thursday.

For the last seven weeks House Democrats have been waiting for Republicans who control the reins of state government to propose a solution to the state’s recurring budget gap, Inman said during a State Capitol news conference at which he was flanked by several members of the House Democratic Caucus.

Public education, public safety, transportation and health care – all are “in crisis,” the Del City Democrat said. “Our citizens are suffering … and they’re waiting for their leaders in this building to lead.”

At the beginning of this year’s legislative session in early February, Republican Governor Fallin proposed $840 million in new sales taxes on 164 services that would “balance the budget on the backs of middle-class families,” Inman charged. Fallin’s proposal has received no support from either the House of Representatives or the Senate, nor from Republicans or Democrats in either chamber, he noted.

Republican Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb resigned from the Governor’s Cabinet because he disagreed with her posture on the tax issue, but has offered no recommendations for plugging the huge budget hole. “All he’s done is tell us what he doesn’t like,” Inman said.

The Speaker of the House and his Republican colleagues have proposed “less than $200 million worth of revenue,” Inman continued: a cigarette tax increase, changing the way state lottery revenue is calculated, and raising taxes on owners of electric vehicles.

Therefore, the 26-member House Democratic Caucus unveiled their “Restoring Oklahoma Plan” that would “balance the budget, fund a teacher pay raise, support rural hospitals, support public transportation and support public safety.”

Yesterday, the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus unveiled the Restoring Oklahoma Plan, and right now it's the ONLY budget proposed. You can learn more about it from Leader Scott Inman today during "Leader Inman Live" at 10:45 a.m.

Posted by Oklahoma House PAC on Friday, March 24, 2017

Measures proposed by the Democratic Caucus include:

  • Boosting the gross production tax on oil and natural gas from 2% to 5%, which would generate approximately $312 million.

“While we understand, and we agree, that oil and gas are important to our state’s economy, investment in our children and our infrastructure are mutually beneficial,” said Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita.

“Families that earn more than $8,000 a year are taxed at the 5% rate under Oklahoma’s income-tax schedule,” Inman said recently. “We see no reason why oil and gas companies can’t pay taxes at that same rate.”

  • Reversing the state income tax cuts on high earners would generate $204 million. The Democrats propose to reinstate the 6% bracket on single filers making $100,000 and joint filers earning $200,000, and adopting a 7% bracket for single filers making at least $200,000 and joint filers who earn $400,000 or more.

“A single mom who works at Wal-Mart or Home Depot pays the same percentage in income tax as the CEO of Devon Energy,” said Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa.

  • Eliminating the capital gains exemption would produce an estimated $157 million. The State of Oklahoma allows an income exemption for profits on the sale of real estate, investments and stocks. Studies have shown this exemption provides limited to no benefit to the state.
  • Converting itemized deductions to a credit would produce an estimated $112 million.
  • Ending the tax credit for production of coal that is “nearing the end of its usefulness” would produce $4 million, said Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City.
  • Eliminating a vendor discount on sales taxes: $26 million.
  • Capping the new jobs tax credit at $25 million annually would save taxpayers an estimated $27 million. The State of Oklahoma paid more than $57 million on that tax credit in 2016.
  • Requiring combined corporate reporting: $100 million. Oklahoma does not require businesses that have a nexus in this state to report all of their profits on state income tax forms. This effectively enables large, multistate corporations to harbor profits made in Oklahoma in other states that have lower corporate income tax rates.
  • Eliminating the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Credit: $1 million. (The cap has grown to $5 million in future years.) The state should not allow the credit to be claimed in any year where any fund for public education experiences a shortfall or failure, or when the amount of state appropriations is insufficient to meet the needs of a majority of public school students, Democrats contend.
  • Removing sales tax exemptions on specific industries: $290 million. These would include, for example, the sales tax exemption for use of electricity and water by the oil and gas industry. It also would include certain entertainment productions, such as motion picture productions. These exemptions are offset by tax credits that are available to those industries.

House Democrats oppose increasing taxes on services, but compromised on several services that Governor Fallin suggested in her budget proposal (see attached list). “We did this in an effort to find common ground and reach across the aisle without hurting middle-class families,” Inman explained

  • “Sunsetting” the wind industry tax credit at the end of this year.
  • Raising the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack: $160 million initially. In another effort to “reach across the aisle,” House Democrats agreed to support the cigarette tax increase proposed by Speaker of the House McCall “so long as it’s part of a broad-based revenue and budget package,” Inman said.

“We will support increasing the cigarette tax as a response to take care of our citizens’ health, thereby freeing up healthcare resources by instilling healthier habits,” said Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City. The increased revenue “must go to fund Medicaid provider rates, uncompensated care, or another critical health care, as it is not a reliable source of funding,” she said.

Republican State Treasurer Ken Miller has said the Republican-controlled Legislature erred in reducing the state income tax without replacing it with another source of revenue, and State Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger has conceded that Oklahoma needs to restore a reliable revenue stream, Inman noted.

“What we Democrats have proposed are sensible solutions to counter Republican tax measures that have siphoned nearly $4 billion from the state treasury through tax cuts, tax credits and tax rebates,” Inman said.

On the same day that House Republicans held budget meetings outlining what 14.5% budget cuts would mean to core services “and failed to offer any revenue solutions to protect Oklahoma citizens from those drastic cuts,” House Democrats “instead focused on finding revenues to invest in core services in order to restore Oklahoma’s prosperity,” Inman said. The GOP’s Oklahoma “looks like 14.5% budget cuts,” he asserted. “Our citizens cannot afford those. We have to restore Oklahoma’s future, and we can do that through revenues, not budget cuts.”

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23 Mar
0

RELEASE: House Dem Caucus Legislation Update

Legislation About Dyslexia, 4-Day School Weeks Passes House; AIDS/HIV Education Update Spurned; No-Mandates-Without-Funding Measure Shelved

OKLAHOMA CITY (23 March 2017) – Legislation that would require teaching candidates to receive training in the detection of dyslexia, and the education of students who are poor readers, passed the state House of Representatives.

Dyslexia, a reading disorder, can be managed through early identification, said state Rep. Ed Cannaday, a retired school teacher/administrator. “We have effective interventions, but first, educators must be able to identify the condition.” To address this issue, the Porum Democrat filed House Bill 1789.

That measure would require educators in kindergarten through third grade who teach early childhood education, elementary education and/or special education to receive quality training in “research-based …strategies for instruction, assessment and intervention for literacy development” for all students, including “advanced readers, typically developing readers and struggling readers who are coping with a range of challenges,” including English learners and students afflicted with “handicapping conditions and learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Dyslexia is characterized by trouble with reading despite normal intelligence. Different people are affected to varying degrees. Problems may include difficulties in spelling words, reading quickly, writing words, “sounding out” words in the head, pronouncing words when reading aloud, and understanding what one reads.

Two-thirds of Oklahoma fourth graders read below proficiency levels in 2015, he said; blame was attributed at least in part to suspected dyslexia.

“Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education are not adequately preparing our teachers to identify this serious disability,” Cannaday said. Consequently, HB 1789 declares, “It is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that teachers graduating from institutions within the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education have the knowledge and skills to effectively teach reading to all children.”

The bill sailed through the state House, 84-9, and was transmitted to the Senate for consideration.

A companion measure, House Bill 2008 by Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, would create the Dyslexia and Education Task Force. Over the next year and a half the 19-member panel would create a handbook that would “provide guidance for schools, students and parents in identification, intervention and support” of students afflicted with dyslexia.

That bill was approved unanimously by the House, 96-0, and was delivered to the Senate.

4-Day School Week Report Required

Every school district that adopts a four-day school week would be required by House Bill 1684 to submit a specific plan to the State Board of Education.

The report would “detail the goals sought to be achieved” by enacting a shorter school week, the “intended educational and fiscal benefits,” and the “anticipated impacts our outcomes the plan will have” in the school district, “including a discussion of any potential disadvantages that have been identified…”

Opponents argued that the measure was tantamount to an unfunded mandate.

Opponents also emphasized that school districts have scaled back to four-day school weeks to trim expenses because their state funding has declined dramatically in recent years. At last count, 218 sites in 97 school districts have enacted four-day school weeks.

Because of the latest in a series of state revenue failures, state school funding for the current fiscal year is more than $100 million lower than it was last year. In fact, the Legislature’s appropriation for public education for the current Fiscal Year 2017 is less than the appropriation was in FY 2009, fiscal ledgers show. During that same eight-year period, student enrollment grew by almost 49,000, to 693,710, according to records of the State Department of Education.

Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding for public schools fell 26.9% between FY 2008 and FY 2017 – the deepest cuts in the nation.

HB 1684 failed on a 45-43 bipartisan vote March 14, but squeaked by, 53-38, on reconsideration Tuesday night and was delivered to the Senate.

AIDS/HIV Education in Schools

Legislation that would have required updated curricula and medically accurate materials for AIDS and HIV education in public schools was proposed in House Bill 1538.

The original curriculum used in Oklahoma’s public schools was introduced in 1987, but since then scientists and researchers have made great strides in discovering the causes of the disease and developing medicines to treat it, said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, principal author of the bill.

Nevertheless, the House rejected the legislation Wednesday, 41-47. Supporters of the measure numbered 23 Democrats and 18 Republicans, including Majority Leader Jon Echols, Appropriations and Budget Committee Chair Leslie Osborn, former school teacher/administrator/coach Dennis Casey, and former school teacher Rhonda Baker. All of the “no” votes were cast by Republicans.

No Mandates Without Money to Implement

House Bill 1115 would have barred the Legislature from enacting any measure that creates a new mandate, or amends an existing mandate, “in a way that increases costs” on public school districts unless the Legislature first appropriates sufficient funds to underwrite the mandate “or another source of funding is … provided to pay the cost” of the edict.

However, the bill failed to “make the cut”. HB 1115 passed the Appropriations and Budget Committee but was not brought up for a vote by the full House before the deadline for voting on bills and joint resolutions in their house of origin expired today. The proposal remains alive but dormant.

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MIKE W. RAY
Media Director, Democratic Caucus
Oklahoma House of Representatives
(405) 962-7819 office
(405) 245-4411 mobile