The 57th Legislature has officially finished its business! Although we completed our floor work one week early, we did not officially adjourn sine die until Friday, May 29.
The Oklahoma Constitution requires that we wrap up by 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May, but in years when we finish ahead of schedule, we often wait to officially finish until we are sure there won’t be any reason for us to need to return.
With the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, we faced an unprecedented session this year, including have to pause for a month to help slow the spread. However, we were still able to focus the majority of our time on balancing the budget, which had a deficit of $1.3 billion dollars, making it the largest deficit in recent state history.
Constitutionally, presenting a balanced budget for the next fiscal year is the only required duty of the Legislature, and thus is our main priority every year. Many were projecting that there would be no choice but to make double-digit cuts to state agencies that provide core services.
However, we were able to balance the budget without raising taxes on Oklahomans, and most government agencies received cuts of about 4%. Education received a 2.3% cut, which is actually mostly offset with the federal dollars given to them via the CARES Act.
These minimal cuts were thankfully made possible by good stewardship in years past. In years when we had some additional money in the budget, we put it toward the state’s Rainy Day Fund. It built up to about $1.1 billion total, making it the largest in state history at the time and putting us in a good position to navigate economic downturns just for times such as these that we are currently facing.
We had to spend more time this year than in most years working on the evolving state budget for Fiscal Year 2020, which ends June 30, and the next budget for Fiscal Year 2021, which begins July 1. This was due to the economic decline and the hits faced by the oil and gas industry as a result from COVID-19. This disruption resulted in large budget deficits that we were not anticipating, so we needed to find ways to fill this hole without making drastic cuts to necessary services Oklahomans need.
Once we passed the balanced state budget, the Legislature turned its focus to other policy bills. This year, legislators filed 2,201 bills to consider; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were not able to complete the normal legislative process and had to decide which bills were our top priority due to time constraints. In total, only about 170 bills were passed by both chambers.
I had eight bills that passed the House, two of those bills made it through the Senate and were signed into law by the Governor.
House Bill 3270 modifies the “Keep Your License Plate” law that became law in 2019. Current law states that when a vehicle is sold between two individuals that do not use a dealer, the seller can keep the existing license plate and the buyer has five days to get a new plate.
HB3270 will extend the timeframe to get a new plate from five days to fifteen days. Constituents, local bankers and a local tag agent explained to me how the current law’s five day time period isn’t always a long enough period to get a new license plate for vehicle buyers, which results in many new owners being forced to park their cars until they can get the new plate.
Extending this time period 15 days should take care of the majority of these issues. The Dept. of Public Safety and the OK Tax Commission approved of this change as well. The bill also will give the vehicle owner the ability to redact the home address information printed on the registration certificate that is required to be in the vehicle.
Another bill I authored, House Bill 3271, allows county governments in Oklahoma the option to use online bidding for projects. The state already has this ability, so the bill gives county governments the same flexibility allowed to the state government. When the current law was written, there weren’t online bidding options for county governments at the time. Implementing the online bidding process comes at no cost to the county and is a proven way to attract more project bidders, resulting in increased competition, lower cost, and wiser use of personnel resources.
I was also the House author of Senate Bill 1403 that was signed into law by the Governor. This bill directs the State Auditor to perform an operational audit of each circuit engineering district upon completion of each fiscal year. Currently, the eight CED districts across Oklahoma receive around $120M in state allocations for road and bridge projects. We need to ensure these funds are being audited annually by our state auditor so we know the funds are being used according to the intent of the state statutes and that the Oklahoma taxpayers are getting the best return on investment for those dollars.