Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Legislators Talk About State Budget, Legislation

Sequoyah County’s state legislators spoke to members of the Sallisaw Chamber of Commerce at the annual Legislative Luncheon Wednesday. At the speakers’ table are, from the left, Jeff Mayo, incoming chamber president who presided; State Rep. John Bennett, District 2; State Senator Mark Allen, District 4; and State Rep. Ed Cannaday, District 15.

Sequoyah County legislators talked about the state legislative session and the state’s budget at the annual Sallisaw Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon Wednesday at People Inc. in Sallisaw.

Chamber members heard from State Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw); State Senator Mark Allen (R-Spiro); and State Rep. Ed Cannaday (D-Porum).

Allen told the chamber members why he did not vote for a proposed $1.50 fee per package of cigarettes, which was approved to raise money for state coffers. Allen said other legislators do not take the state’s border counties into consideration, and residents in border counties will travel and take their money outside the state, such as to Fort Smith, to buy cheaper cigarettes. And while doing so they will spend more money on other merchandise and services, such as eating at Fort Smith restaurants.

Bennett asked the public to “Please be patient with us. We are doing the best we can.” Bennett was speaking about the state legislature’s search for income to boost the state’s coffers. He said legislators’ attempts to “balance the budget” are being challenged in court and could lead to a special legislative session on the budget. And a special session, he said, “Will mean more cuts.”

On a positive note, Bennett noted that money was found for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP), which will allow the OHP to hold a new recruit academy and lifted the 100-mile restriction for troopers, enacted earlier due to lack of funding. He noted he was able to get a bill killed to sell the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA), which sells power to Sallisaw, and, in exchange, the GRDA is providing for better communication for rural law enforcement.

Cannaday noted that he is term limited, and next year will be his12th and last year in the State House. He complained that the state budget was not vetted by the committees that are supposed to work on the budget for various agencies. Cannaday serves on the Education Appropriations Committee and complained that his committee did not get to see the education budget.

“I will be introducing legislation to correct that,” Cannaday said. The budget process “needs to be a more open process.”

Cannaday said low teacher pay is responsible for the teacher shortage. He added that local school boards do not have enough money coming in to give teachers pay raises.

All three legislators said they were for teacher pay raises. But, Allen said, he would not vote for the raises “until we have sustainable funding for them.”

Cannaday said, “The tax cuts always go to the richest. There is money there.”

Bennett explained that tax increases have to be approved by a three-quarters vote of both the State House and Senate, which won’t happen.

“I’m for a teacher pay raise,” Bennet said. “The money just isn’t there.”

The three legislators said there isn’t much they can do about Social Security, since it is a federal program. Bennett said he supported a bill that allows residents to go outside the state to buy health insurance. He said the Affordable Care Act has resulted in only one health insurance company in the state. Allowing buyers to go outside the state to buy insurance could make it more affordable.

Bennett said legislators will continue to work on balancing the state budget, and have identified a lot of waste they hope to curtail. Reducing tax credit for wind power and legislation changing the incentive rate from 1 to 4 percent for production from horizontally-drilled wells should being additional income to the state in the future, he said.

Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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