by Gus Blackwell
At the beginning of last week all the House bills went to the Senate for consideration and vice versa. This gives a little time to stop, consider, and evaluate what was accomplished during the first half of the session on the House side.
The House passed tax cuts that featured a permanent cut in the top income tax rate from 6.65 to 6.25. Included in this package was also a $100 million tax rebate to taxpayers in 2005. This package also included a sales tax holiday on back-to-school purchases if a municipality chooses to participate. It also includes an expansion of the income tax exemption for retirees from $7,500 to $10,000, and extension of the capital gains tax elimination on Oklahoma-based property, and an expansion of the estate tax exemption to include collateral heirs.
The House also passed a comprehensive Workers Compensation Reform package that is estimated to save the state up to $150 million dollars. This bill reduces legal costs and medical costs while increasing benefits to workers and increases marketplace competition for workers' comp insurance.
The House also passed lawsuit reform, which was authored by Speaker Todd Hiett in HB 2047. Although there are some parts of the bill that need adjustment, it represents as a whole an attempt to bring down the high cost of medical practice insurance.
HB 1218 provides the beginning of a solution to the funding of roads and bridges in the state of Oklahoma. It funnels about $30 million more money into ODOT for maintenance of roads each year for the next 5 years. This will result in an increase of $170 million over the next five years without increasing taxes. Although the critics of the bill complained that the bill did not do enough, it is a beginning. It marks the first substantial increase in the funding of ODOT in the last 15 years.
There were also several educational reforms that were passed. Two bills increased the core curriculum standards and the other created an Academic Excellence program. HB 2047 was a key piece of legislation that protects teachers from frivolous lawsuits. It enables teachers to have the peace of mind in disciplining students to know they won't be sued for just doing their job. Another bill allows school districts to give zeros for work missed during out of school suspension. My bill allows school districts to decide on half day or full day kindergarten depending on what is best for them.
Several health care initiatives rounded out the key bills passed to move Oklahoma forward. One bill creates a statewide solution to provide prescription drugs for uninsured Oklahomans. Another bill, HB 1848 (of which I am a coauthor) would establish health savings accounts for both the private and public sector. A very important bill for our area is HB 1411. This bill offers scholarships as incentives for more clinicians to serve in rural communities in our state.
The House passed the historic higher education $500 million bond bill and also funded common education at a historic high level in the General Appropriation bill. All of these bills combine to form a great start in helping Oklahoma and Oklahomans have a better and brighter future. Hopefully, now that the turmoil in the Senate is over, the Senate will move quickly to approve these measures and send them to the Governor.
Boise City News