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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers

By The Associated PressJune 4, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Oklahoman. June 2, 2019.

— Some gains, some disappointments in 2019 legislative session

There’s something to be said for a legislative session devoid, for the most part, of considerable rancor and this is what Oklahoma produced in 2019, when a flush treasury made for a much easier time than in recent years.

New Gov. Kevin Stitt brought the session to a close May 25 by signing a record $8.1 billion budget that he noted included a number of firsts. The list includes providing public school teachers with a pay raise for the second consecutive year, fulling funding the Reading Sufficiency Act, fully funding roads and bridges, and adding to the state’s Rainy Day Fund without being forced to do so by law.

That last piece is particularly significant. Some Democratic legislators grumbled about putting $200 million into the state’s savings account, instead of directing it to other needs. Yet the deposit was the prudent thing to do on the part of the Republican-controlled Legislature, because it puts the state in a better position to handle the next economic downturn. Stitt has said he would like to see the savings account reach $2 billion - here’s hoping that happens one day.

Here is a look at some of the bright and not-so-bright spots of the 2019 session:

— Teacher pay, education funding: The Legislature approved teacher pay raises averaging about $1,200, following through on a promise made by Stitt and GOP leaders that teachers would be a focus again. They were last year, too, receiving raises averaging $6,000, but those came in response to threats of a walkout if something wasn’t done (the walkout happened anyway and lasted two weeks). Lawmakers funneled an additional $157.7 million to common education, including $74 million into the funding formula for classrooms.

The Legislature provided higher education with about $25 million, or 3.2%, more than the agency received last year. That wasn’t close to what higher ed requested, but represented progress nonetheless. Lawmakers also gave CareerTech a boost of $18 million, or nearly 15%.

— State employee raises: The Legislature approved pay raises of up to $1,400 for state workers, many of whom have gone several years without a boost. Correctional workers will get raises of $2 per hour; those were badly needed. Overall, the appropriation to the Department of Corrections increased by about $38 million, or 7.4%, and now stands at $555.5 million.

— Strengthening the governor’s office: Lawmakers approved one of Stitt’s top priorities when they voted to allow the governor to name the director of five of the state’s largest agencies - the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services, the Department of Corrections and the Office of Juvenile Affairs. Oklahoma statutes leave the governor without much clout. This change was designed to change that, at least to some degree, instead of leaving so much power in the hands of the unelected board members who oversee these agencies.

— Help for nursing homes: The Legislature wisely approved and sent to Stitt a bill that closes the gap between reimbursement rates for nursing homes and the actual cost of care. Under the bill, providers must increase staffing and provide additional training and show that they have improved the quality of care. The coalition of elder-care advocates that pushed for this called it a “landmark reform” that will “dramatically increase the quality of care and quality of life” for nursing home residents.

— Expanding the pool for justices: Stitt signed a bill that will expand the pool of applicants for the state Supreme Court and Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. Previously, one justice was chosen from each of the nine congressional districts that were in place in the 1960s. Now they’ll come from the current five congressional districts, with four others being selected at-large from anywhere in the state.

— Addressing four-day school weeks: Close to one-fifth of Oklahoma’s school districts use four-day weeks, which have proven to help in recruiting teachers. However, in an effort to ensure kids in those districts are getting enough instruction, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 441, which requires schools to be in session for a minimum of 165 school days. Of those, 158 must be instructional days. Four-day districts will be able to get an exemption from the state by showing that they’re meeting school performance and cost-saving guidelines.

— Setting LOFTy goals: The Legislature approved Senate Bill 1, which creates a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency. LOFT, to be overseen by lawmakers from both parties, will conduct performance evaluations of agencies and programs, and make them available to the public. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat put it well when he said, “More transparency in agency spending and program performance will increase and enhance accountability of how tax dollars are used.”

— Additional strides on criminal justice reform: The session saw some additional movement in this area. Among other things, lawmakers provided additional funding for the Women in Recovery diversion program, drug courts, and “smart on crime” mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. It also reformed funding for district attorneys. However, it was disappointing that more wasn’t accomplished regarding reforms that would help drive down Oklahoma’s prison population. At some point, policymakers must be willing to act aggressively to remove a most embarrassing designation — the state that locks up more people, per capita, than any other.

— At-risk students left wanting: Lawmakers chose not to expand the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which gives low-income kids a chance to attend private schools instead of struggling in their assigned public school. Tax credit payouts are capped at $5 million annually and that has been reached each of the past two years. A bill sought to raise the cap and expand the program to all districts (instead of those with fewer than 4,500 students), but it was demonized by opponents and ultimately didn’t pass. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the session.

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Muskogee Phoenix. June 2, 2019.

— Blessings revealed in the wake of a flood

It’s amazing: the many blessings revealed by difficult times and disasters.

This event — one that undoubtedly will be remembered as the Great Flood of 2019 — will be no different. Perhaps the most astounding will be the fact there appears to have been no flood-related fatalities reported in the immediate area.

The National Weather Service reports that floods — flash flooding and river flooding — claimed more lives during each of the past three four or years than any other weather-related event in the United States. Considering the Arkansas River flood that crested 1.8 feet below the record set 73 years ago at Muskogee appears to have claimed none is, indeed, a blessing.

This fact also reflects smart choices made by area residents who heeded warnings of emergency managers, first responders and community. These first responders recognized the magnitude of the situation and acted quickly to disseminate information to residents, who made difficult decisions that kept them safe even as many of them left behind their homes and livelihoods.

The temptation to remain at home to protect personal items that have been collected throughout the years is powerful and oftentimes overcomes common sense. The same is true for motorists who approach barricades blocking their access to a destination because a road has been overcome by water.

Area residents resisted those temptations and heeded the warnings and advice of those we support with tax dollars to put our safety first. That freed them up to address of other important public health and safety issues as they responded to this flood, which will be a disaster for hundreds — if not thousands — of our friends and neighbors.

While challenges remain, we count as a blessing the fact that recovering from this flood will be clouded only by the loss of those things that are more easily replaced than the people we know and love. For that, we should all be thankful.

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Tulsa World. June 4, 2019.

— Cherokee Principal Chief-elect Chuck Hoskin faces many challenges

Congratulations to Chuck Hoskin Jr., who won this weekend’s election for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Hoskin, a former secretary of state and council member for the tribe, won nearly 58% of the vote in the unofficial, preliminary count. Election challenges are still possible and about 400 votes remain in question, but Hoskin’s margin of victory was substantial.

The campaign to replace term-limited Principal Chief Bill John Baker was rough and thoroughly litigated.

Initially, four candidates filed for the office. The tribe’s election commission removed Rhonda Brown Fleming, a California resident, because she did not meet a tribal requirement that she live in the Cherokee Nation — all of which is within Oklahoma — for at least 270 days prior to the general election. She challenged the ruling unsuccessfully in federal court.

David Walkingstick mounted a spirited campaign, but the election commission also struck his eligibility after questions were raised about potential collaboration between his campaign and Cherokees for Change, a third party limited liability company. Walkingstick’s name still appeared on the ballots, but he got less than 15% of the vote. The one remaining eligible opponent to Hoskin — Tribal Councilor Dick Lay — received a little over 27% of the vote.

With the victory, the real work begins for Hoskin.

First, he needs to unify the nation. Hard campaigns are a Cherokee tradition; but now that the election is over, the new chief-elect needs to convince all sides to pull together for the good of the tribe.

Continuing the tribe’s economic growth and its ability to serve Cherokee citizens is a must. That’s a mandate that goes beyond casinos to include support of schools, roads, health care and more.

Several cases pending in court with significant implications for the Cherokees are likely to be decided on Hoskin’s watch, including the multistate litigation against opioid manufacturers and the Patrick Murphy case, which could redefine the future of tribal sovereignty in Oklahoma.

The new chief is scheduled to be sworn into office Aug. 14 in Tahlequah. We wish him well for the good of the nation and Oklahoma.

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