by Gus Blackwell
Friday at 4:50 the House adjourned sine die which usually means that the House will not meet again until the first Monday in February. However, about an hour before the adjournment, the House and Senate were called into a special session that will continue to meet next week to finish work on a worker's compensation insurance bill. Even though there wasn't enough time to get done with that bill during regular session, there were plenty of bills that passed during the last week of session.
The last week of session the House considered and passed bills that dealt with funding for all agencies, a $200 million bill for hospitals, a supplemental appropriation for education, a tax reform package, and other miscellaneous bills. Several of the bills that passed the last week of session will help our area directly.
Because of the lack of a general appropriations bill, it was critical to get the funding bills through with the emergency clause to get needed funds to every state agency. These bills went through each day during the week to allow members time to review the bills and the amounts spent on each budget. The budget gives a record increase to education, but funnels mandated teachers pay raises through the formula which will hurt some of our ad valorem rich school districts. I asked for and received permission to do an interim study to see how this funding mechanism affects our schools. The schools also received a supplemental funding of $11.4 million to fund the amount schools would be short this year for the pay raise enacted in 2000.
The biggest topic during the week however, was a bill that would send $200 million to hospitals and capture $134 million of federal matching dollars from Medicaid. There was much pressure during the week before session to enact a $93 million dollar tax in order to get this money. However, the Speaker of the House was able to craft a bill that used $63 million that had been re-certified from the oil and gas fund. This projected receipt of money throughout the year will be backed with actual money that will be left over at the close of the fiscal year 2005. This money can't be spent and would go into a special cash fund, but now will be placed in this revolving fund to make sure that enough money is available to get federal matching dollars. If the oil and gas money does come in as predicted, then there will be enough money in this account to get the same amount of federal dollars next year. This money will be a tremendous boon to our rural hospitals.
This bill also put into place a task force to study the administration costs of our state's health care system and find ways to save money. It is also charged with finding fraud and abuse and ending money lost from the system through that avenue. The bill also provides a commitment to keep the OSU medical school intact as a teaching hospital for the next four years at a minimum.
The House also passed the largest tax cut package in Oklahoma's history by a vote of 87-12. HB 1547 reduced the top income tax rate from 6.65% to 6.25% as a permanent reduction. It also increased the standard deduction on state income tax rates from $2,000 to $4,000. It also provided cuts for disabled veterans, military pensioners, and for Oklahoma charities. Overall, this was a very successful session. Of course there were some agencies, like the Department of Corrections, that will need a supplemental in the spring. However, as a whole the session was very successful in addressing many of the concerns that have accrued over the past 15 years and especially during the past two years.
Boise City News