Capitol Insider: "Education Savings Account" Bill Hits Bipartisan Roadblock
A bill that would direct tax dollars into an account to help parents pay for private school tuition met stiff opposition, and defeat, in the Oklahoma Senate.
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, a busy deadline week at the Capitol was highlighted by the defeat of one of the most discussed bills of the legislative session. SB 1647, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat and Representative Chad Caldwell, would allow parents to use their tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. The bill failed in the Senate by three votes. The opposition consisted of Democrats and rural Republicans, something we don't see often. Why did that happen on this bill?
Shawn Ashley: I think that really illustrates the primary concern about the bill. Rural Republicans are concerned the bill would not benefit their constituents and potentially negatively impact schools and their districts as part of the overall education funding is diverted to private schools. And that latter point is the Democrat's key concern. The diverting of funds to private schools will undermine public school funding, something they have promoted for years and years. Combined, obviously, it led to the defeat of the bill.
Dick Pryor: Governor Stitt is a strong supporter of this bill, and President Pro Tem Treat says he is going to keep pushing the idea.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, Stitt and Treat said Thursday they were disappointed by the bill's failure, but Treat said he believes giving parents a choice of educational providers, and at least partially funding that choice if it is a private school, could be transformative for families and their children. He said it was his second highest priority, behind only ending abortion in the state. So, he plans to continue to pursue it this year, and if he's not successful this year into the next legislative session.
Dick Pryor: Another bill we're closely watching would reclassify felony offenses. We've seen similar efforts to reclassify crimes and shorten the criminal code over the last 30 years, and they've ended in failure. Is this bill any different than those previous efforts, and importantly, are the conditions more favorable for passage this time?
Shawn Ashley: I think so. First, the bill is the result of nearly three years of work by a task force, the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordinating Council, that included prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement personnel, social agency representatives, legislators, and others. A lot of input went into these recommendations, which were made in 2021. Second, I think there's a bit more willingness to at least consider criminal justice reform ideas, such as commuting sentences for low level drug and property crimes that were previously approved, and changes to the fines and fee structure for criminal offenses that are currently being considered. But that's not going to be easy, like we've seen in the controversies in the past, and it certainly won't be unanimous, which is what we saw when the bill was considered by the Senate and approved.
Dick Pryor: Various tax bills have advanced to the next step in the process. The one closest to final passage would eliminate the corporate income tax. Why is that one moving the fastest?
Shawn Ashley: Well, first of all, it's a priority for House Speaker Charles McCall. The speaker won approval of a bill that cut the corporate income tax rate by one third during the 2021 session, and he has said that he wants to see it eliminated. And like we've talked about previously, this bill passed with its title on, which is the requirement in order for it to go to the governor and to be signed into law, a point which House Minority Leader Emily Virgin took notice of during floor debate of the measure. That means it only needs a vote on the Senate floor before it can go to the governor. I suspect, however, that it will go to a Senate committee where its title will be stricken and ultimately it will end up as part of the budget negotiations with a big push from the House speaker.
Dick Pryor: The first social policy bill of the session has made it to the governor's desk. Senate Bill 2. Its language “prohibits anyone of the male sex from participating in sports designated for females.” The purpose is to limit participation by transgender athletes. How did this bill make it to the governor so quickly?
Shawn Ashley: Well, this was a carryover bill from the 2021 session. It was a Senate bill that had been amended by the House in 2021 and was not taken up again by the Senate. Now remember, bills need to pass both chambers in the same form with the same language, a title, and an enacting clause before they can go to the governor. This bill was sitting there, and the Senate chose Thursday to accept those House amendments and vote on it - passing it and now sending it on to Stitt for his consideration. That's why it's important to remember all those carryover bills from the previous year's session, as well as the new bills that lawmakers are currently considering.
Dick Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.