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Capitol Insider: Oklahoma House Will Not Hear Senate School Choice Bill

Oklahoma state capitol
Jacob McCleland

In a surprise move for the first week of the legislative session, Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Charles McCall has announced a school choice bill authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat will not be heard in the House.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Shawn, we are just a few days into the legislative session and already Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat’s bill that would have allowed state education funding to follow each student to private schools and to their families that home school appears to have been killed by Speaker of the House Charles McCall. Governor Stitt said that that bill would be the greatest bill ever. So, what happened?

Shawn Ashley: Well, McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Treat were speakers Thursday at the Oklahoma Press Association’s legislative summit. In response to a question, McCall said he did not plan for the bill to be heard in the House. Now, keep in mind that at this point, the bill has not been heard by the Senate Education Committee, nor the Senate Appropriations Committee, to which it is double assigned. McCall said, “That topic is just not on the radar in the minds of our caucus as a priority. That's never been discussed in our caucus retreat as a priority for our members. I'm not trying to speak to the merits of the language,” he added, “I have personal views on just like the 148 people in the legislature.”

Dick Pryor: What are the arguments against Senator Treat’s bill and the philosophy behind it?

Shawn Ashley: Well, McCall contrasted the bill to last year's open transfer measure and funding formula reforms, as well as the state's largest ever appropriation to the State Department of Education. But McCall noted then that the House, the Senate and Governor Stitt’s office worked on those things together. But he said of Treat’s bill, the House has not been involved in any work on that particular piece of legislation over the interim.

Now, rural lawmakers I've talked to see the legislation and other bills like it as a double-edged sword. In rural school districts where students could take advantage of the program if it were passed, where there are private schools and other nonpublic education alternatives the concern is about both the loss of students in those public schools and the funding that would be tied to those students who seek other educational providers. That's one edge of the sword.

The other edge is the lack of educational alternatives in most rural districts. There just aren't private schools in many of those areas, and internet access may also be limited and prevents students from seeking online alternatives. So, a lot of rural members fear that Treat’s program would disproportionately benefit urban and suburban districts where students have access to private schools and broadband internet for online schools.

Dick Pryor: A bill that is moving would implement one of Governor Kevin Stitt’s State of the State proposals. It would ultimately eliminate the state sales tax on groceries. The version of the bill that has moved so far is not from a Republican – it is authored by House Democratic Leader Emily Virgin.

Shawn Ashley: Virgin's House Bill 3621 passed out of a House Appropriations and Budget subcommittee on Wednesday. It phases out the state's four-point five percent grocery tax over three years, cutting it to three percent starting on July one, then one-point five percent starting July 1st, 2023 and fully eliminating it beginning July one, 2024. In our live coverage of Governor Stitt’s State of the State speech, I mentioned that the revenue loss from eliminating the state portion of the sales tax on groceries, which is projected to be upwards of $300 million in total, was not reflected in the governor's executive budget. I asked one of his budget advisers about that Thursday and was told the governor wants to work with the Legislature to come up with a plan to eliminate the tax, and that could include phasing it out like Democratic Leader Virgin has proposed.

Dick Pryor: On Wednesday, State Auditor Cindy Bird released her office's audit of the state Health Department. It was completed last May. The Attorney General's Office received the report then but refused to release it. Auditor Bird released the audit report to comply with an open records request. Shawn, there were several concerning revelations, not the least of which was violations of the state Constitution.

Shawn Ashley: That's right. Auditor Byrd's audit outlines a series of system failures and improper decisions. The system failed when the State Department of Health did not have an emergency procurement plan in place to guide its actions in the chaotic early days of the pandemic. It also appears the department did not maintain proper records of the purchases being made and inventory of the products received and those that (they) did not receive.

The audit points out that some $5.4 million in products that were paid for were not delivered to the state. And it also notes that since then, Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge improperly authorized pre-payment for certain goods in violation of the Oklahoma Constitution and appointed someone from outside the agency to handle emergency purchases, contradicting Governor Stitt’s executive order that placed that authority in the hands of then Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye.

Dick Pryor: And, we'll be watching to see what happens next as a result of this Health Department audit. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And we would like to hear from you. Email your questions to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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