11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 11

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I have been telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ve found this exercise insightful.
The first page of HB 2763.

The first page of HB 2763.

Today, we conclude the series with House Bill 2763, which takes certain tax revenues and diverts them to a state savings account that can be tapped to avoid future budget shortfalls.

When it became apparent that the state would be facing a $1.3 billion shortfall caused by a sudden and steep drop in energy prices, the crisis at hand began to dominate my thinking. There was obviously the challenge of addressing the shortfall as we prepared for a budget year that would begin July 1st. But it also seemed to me that it was a natural response to simultaneously ask ourselves, “How do we stop this from ever happening again?”
The reality was that this budget crisis was entirely predictable. Not the timing of it, perhaps, but its arrival was as inevitable as thunderstorms in Spring . The nature of energy prices is that they rise and fall. As Oklahomans, living in a state where the energy sector still dominates the economy, this was a pattern we knew all too well. And yet, somehow, it caught us off guard?
It just struck me as remarkably short-sighted that the state didn’t have adequate savings to smooth out these inevitable dips. So, I began to think about the problem. And I believed strongly that thinking about it in 2016, even in the midst of a crisis, was exactly the right time. Because, eventually, some part of the answer would be to save more money. But not spending money is the hardest thing government does. Trying to push that sort of proposal in a fat year might be impossible. Pushing it in a lean year, however, might be doable, because the downside of not saving enough was staring us in the face.
When considering reform, the obvious place was look was the state’s Rainy Day Fund. An excellent response to the 1980s oil bust, the Rainy Day Fund was a good thing. If it did not exist, the shortfall would be even worse. But it was also proving woefully inadequate to the challenge at hand. The Fund simply wasn’t big enough. This failure raised several interesting issues.
The first problem with the Fund is that it’s not getting enough money. The Rainy Day Fund is pretty much only funded when more tax revenues come in than the state was expecting that year. That is a slow way to build up a Fund. If we were perfect at estimation, the Rainy Day Fund would never get any money at all.
The second problem is that the Fund is capped at 15 percent of the total appropriated budget. That is actually up from 10 percent, the cap originally placed on the Fund. But the appropriated budget is less than a third of the total state budget. The total state budget had been something of a mystery until 2015, when for the first time the Legislature passed an annual budget that accounted for all dollars spent by the state. That number – $24 billion – ended up shocking a lot of people. But the appropriated amount (the amount the Legislature has discretion over each year) was only around $7 billion. And that $7 billion was the number that the Rainy Day cap was measured against. Wouldn’t it make more sense to measure the Rainy Day cap against the total state budget of $24 billion?
The third problem with the Fund is the downside of one of its greatest upsides. It is part of the state’s Constitution. By being part of the Constitution, it cannot be amended without a vote of the people, and therefore it is protected from desperate legislators seeking to loosen its purse strings. That’s the upside. The downside is that it cannot be reformed easily.
The inability to reform the Rainy Day Fund has led many to propose statutory savings funds that would act in concert with the Fund. Statutory savings funds would exist only in law, not in the Constitution, and so they could be adopted by the Legislature without a vote of the people, and could be amended by the Legislature as well. This flexibility could be good or bad, depending on the wisdom of the Legislature.
My first choice to try and reform our state savings plan was to keep it simple: Maintain the Rainy Day Fund as the state’s primary savings account, but make it better. Raise the cap and then find a way to fill the Fund. But both tasks would require a vote of the people, so it wasn’t easy to accomplish. Nevertheless, it was worth the effort, so I introduced Senate Joint Resolution 44 to call for a vote of the people in November to measure the Fund’s 15 percent cap against the total state budget, rather than the appropriated budget. This would have the effect of raising the cap on the Fund from around $800 million to over $3 billion. My thought was to get that done first, then turn to filling the Fund in 2017. I had learned after six years in the Legislature that stuff like this had to be attempted one little bite at a time.
SJR 44 passed the Senate almost unanimously and went to the House, where Rep. John Michael Montgomery of Lawton was my House author. John is young, in his early 20s, and has already established himself as someone who thinks creatively about policy solutions. I’ve spoken in previous episodes about how most bills are suggested by lobbyists. John is one of those legislators who also introduces bills that are original and reflect his own vision of where the state should be going.
On the House floor, SJR 44 died. Thirty members didn’t even vote on it either way, and it fell seven votes short of passage. This was disappointing. But it was not the end of this story.
As it had turned out, I was not the only one who was thinking about these issues before the commencement of the 2016 legislative session. Rep. Montgomery was as well. So too was Senator Mike Mazzei of Tulsa. They had filed similar concepts, and they had decided to take the statutory approach. Their bills created new savings accounts that would divert revenues away from the gross production tax (a special tax placed directly on oil and gas exploration) and the corporate income tax. The resulting savings account would be an additional account the Legislature could turn to in years of shortfall. And John’s bill went even further. It attempted to create a legacy account that would work to build up enough savings to prepare for the day that Oklahoma no longer has natural resources. A legacy account had also been proposed for years by Senator John Sparks of Norman.
The Oklahoma Legislature is often (appropriately) criticized for its lack of long-term planning. The idea that we would think decades ahead and put in place measures that would take our own spending dollars away and give them to future legislators to protect the state from budget shortfalls is so foreign to our culture that it was refreshing to see so many legislators proposing to do just such a thing. But often, such high-minded proposals fall by the wayside as reality sets in.
For Senator Mazzei’s proposal, reality hit early. Due to term limits, Senator Mazzei was facing his last year in the Legislature. He had many legacies he still yearned to leave. The budget crisis presented him with opportunities for tax reforms he had sought to implement for years. Time is the most finite resource in the Legislature, and though Senator Mazzei’s bill made it out of the Finance Committee he chairs, he chose not to pursue his long-term savings bill on the Senate floor and instead focused on the tax reform issues.
Rep. Montgomery, however, had less on his plate and was doggedly pushing his proposal. He managed to get his bill, HB 2763, through the full House on a 72-22 vote. But he had to strike title. I explained in previous episodes how striking title sends the signal that a bill is still a work in progress, and so some legislators will vote for a bill with “title off” that they might not have voted for with “title on.” This willingness is partly because passing a chamber with title off means it has to come back and pass with title on. Each session, it is not uncommon to see bold proposals pass one chamber with title off, and then not advance further. Such small victories are what keep dreamers like me fighting another day.
With HB 2763 now in the Senate, it was in my hands. As John was House author of my SJR 44, I was Senate author of his HB 2763. He had joined my SJR 44 in January, but he had not asked me about HB 2763 until March, which was pretty late in the game to be getting a Senate author. He asked me via a text, which ends up being about the only way I can ever communicate in the hectic legislative sessions. And with a text that literally said “Sure, I’ll be your Senate author”, I casually and somewhat unwittingly joined a cause I’ll probably be proud of to my dying day.
To this point, I had not followed HB 2763 for obvious reasons. I was not even the official Senate author of it until the day it passed the House. So I was totally in the dark about its origins and evolution. When I signed up as Senate author, I was just endorsing the idea that we would do some long-term savings. At that point, SJR 44 had not yet died, so I still viewed that as my first choice. Now that I had HB 2763, it seemed like it could be a vehicle for any number of ideas in the area of long-term savings. Rep. Montgomery’s bill still included a legacy fund, so it occurred to me that perhaps Senator John Sparks might want to be a part of the conversaton. And the Pew Charitable Trust had entered the picture as well, with ideas of its own. Pew, a national non-profit and nonpartisan think tank, had hired a lobbyist, Gwendolyn Caldwell, to help push the idea of improving Oklahoma’s long-term savings plan. This was a rare case where a bill that didn’t benefit any particular business interest had a paid lobbyist working to support it. As I’ve said in previous episodes, lobbying support significantly increases the chances that a bill will make it through the process. With Pew’s help, the Governor and her budget advisors were also engaged in the conversation.
So now I had the bill. With so much at stake and so many parties involved, I knew this bill was probably going to conference committee, if for no other reason than to buy time to work everything out. I also knew that this bill had ramifications so great that the chances of it actually making it through to the end were probably no better than 20 percent.
HB 2763 was first assigned to Senate Rules Committee. This was because it had language in it that expressed what the intentions of the Legislature were. For whatever reason, about three or four years ago, the Senate got worked-up about what it called “intent language,” and created a process where such language would cause a bill to automatically get assigned to Rules. Rules is where bills are sent to definitely fail or definitely succeed, but rarely anything in the middle. I could get the bill reassigned to another committee (in this case, the natural fit was Finance), but only if I showed the Floor Leader a new version without the intent language. And so I did.
Meanwhile, it seemed like I was getting new versions of the bill from Rep. Montgomery almost every day. I began to call him the mad genius. I would get e-mail upon e-mail from him with all new concepts. Each e-mail would even promise at the end the things he expected to change in the next version he was going to send me. It got to where whenever I saw his name appear in my inbox, I would just smile. I loved that he was so excited about this concept, but I also knew that we were a long ways from the finish line and really weren’t at the point where the substance of the bill mattered all that much. I knew this bill was going to conference. If I could get it that far.
The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Senator Mike Mazzei. As I mentioned, Mazzei had already passed through the committee a similar concept, so he was certainly willing to hear HB 2763. And since they had embraced his bill, I felt pretty good they would embrace mine. But on April 5th, as I stood before them in Room 535 of the Capitol, things didn’t quite go as planned.
I told the committee this was clearly a work in progress. I asked them not to get too attached to whatever was actually in HB 2763 today, because it was likely to change. I wanted them to think of this as a vehicle for a better long-term savings plan, details to be worked out later. But it began to be obvious some members of the committee were not too excited about the core idea. Several of them expressed concern that we might save money before we had returned spending levels to where they had stood before the energy downturn. I said that was good feedback and I would try to include that protection in a final version. But the questions kept coming. By the time it was my turn to make my final plea for passage, I was all but begging. Actually, I was begging. As the vote was called, several members said “nay.” Those who said “aye” included some of my 2010 classmates, who seemed to be throwing me a bone and delivered their “ayes” with the enthusiasm of a parent buying cotton candy for a whiny child. When Senator Mazzei delivered his “aye”, it made the count 6 to 5.
I have often thought back to this committee meeting as a great example of how often the Legislature skates along the edge of failure, frequently crossing over but occasionally skating back to success. In this case, 25 years from now, when a teacher keeps their job because our savings account kept the state from making budget cuts, they’ll never know that in an alternate universe somewhere, they are losing their job because one of my friends walked out of Finance Committee on April 5th, 2016 to use the restroom.
Having experienced this close call, I began to think to myself, “This bill isn’t going to become law.” And conditioned by so many previous unsuccessful efforts to make bold changes, I was probably more accepting of this than I should have been. Nevertheless, I soldiered on.
Meanwhile, the new versions of HB 2763 kept flying over from Rep. Montgomery. I grabbed one of them as they flew past and made it a floor substitute. (As I explained in previous episodes, a floor sub is simply a new version of the bill.) Though I planned to keep title off and send HB 2763 to conference committee, it still made sense to pass whatever was the latest version coming out of Rep. Montgomery’s laboratory. Also, I had to make sure the floor version dropped the legacy fund and just focused on the savings account. Mazzei didn’t want to pursue the legacy fund, and his voice was influential on this bill. So, on April 21st, I presented the new version on the Senate floor. This time, Gwendolyn had lobbied the Senators for days leading up to the vote, and that groundwork paid off with a far less dramatic 46-0 vote.
Not only that, Senators were now walking up to me to tell me how excited they were about this bill. Some were grabbing co-author slips. As I explained in a previous episode, signing up as a co-author doesn’t give you any authority over a bill, it’s just a way of saying you really like it. For the first time, I began to think there was something here; that maybe this could actually succeed.
As I explained in a previous episode, conference committee is just like starting over. You can completely redraft your bill, and then you go through committees again and both chambers. You just do it all in a far shorter amount of time.
Now that we were in conference, it was finally time to get serious about the substance of the bill. I began to shuttle between Mazzei and Montgomery while taking in feedback from the Governor’s budget staff, Pew, and legislative staff. Mazzei and I both saw the fundamentals in the same way. The versions of HB 2763 that had passed thus far were too complex and diluted. For example, the savings account could be spent on budget shortfalls OR capital infrastructure. The Governor’s budget folks believed (correctly) that the state doesn’t do enough to fund infrastructure, and they saw this as a way to start. But Mazzei and I saw it as a dilution of the key concept. This bill should be about budget shortfalls and nothing else. So we started to drive the conversation towards simplicity.
At the same time, my other legislative projects were starting to dwindle as the session neared its conclusion. I was sensing that the bill had real traction, and I had become a believer, like Rep, Montgomery, that HB 2763 was historic and important. On a list of bills I was still working on, I wrote the words “highest priority” next to HB 2763.
Then, as is so often the case in the Legislature, cold water came crashing down on us. The morning of May 2nd, I was having breakfast in the Governor’s Mansion with the Governor and other legislators. Moments after she spoke highly of HB 2763, Montgomery texted me an image of an e-mail Gwendolyn (the lobbyist for Pew) had received from Senator Mazzei. He expressed strong concerns with the bill as currently written and concluded by saying he was too busy with tax reforms and could envision “no scenario” where he would support this bill in 2016.
Technically, we didn’t need Mazzei’s support, if you just viewed him as one vote. We were already past the point where his willingness to give it a hearing mattered or not. But he had been a part of this endeavor from the beginning and his voice would be so influential on this topic I could envision “no scenario” where we could pass the bill over Mazzei’s objections.
Montgomery was upset by the e-mail, and I wasn’t thrilled, but I was also infused with the confidence that six years in the Senate provides. Having pulled a few miracles out my hat through the years, this problem seemed manageable. My office in the Capitol adjoins Mazzei’s, so I paid him a visit. I told him that I would do whatever it took to satisfy his concerns, and if his time management was the issue, then I would be his right hand and run down whatever he needed. He seemed satisfied, and I reported to Montgomery that we should be fine. Ultimately, I felt that when Mazzei wrote that e-mail, he was feeling what a lot of us feel during session: overwhelmed. All he needed was for me to offer to be his lifeline on this topic, and he would return to us. And he did. For the remainder of the process, he was an enthusiastic supporter.
Drafts continued to fly as we pared HB 2763 down to a simple but powerful concept. We now had a bill that did exactly what we wished someone had done for us 20 years ago. HB 2763 created a Revenue Stabilization Fund. It would be filled by dollars that came in through the gross production tax and the corporate income tax that exceeded the five year average of each of those two funding streams. If there was a revenue failure (when the state doesn’t even bring in enough money to fund the budget it adopted), then the director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) could spend a quarter of the fund (particularly useful if the Legislature is out of session). The Legislature could also spend a quarter of the fund if there was a revenue failure. And then to address an upcoming year’s budget shortfall (i.e. the $1.3 billion hole we faced this year), the Legislature could spend up to half the fund. No savings would occur until revenues had returned to their recent high water mark of 2015.
There followed a few days of hammering out obscure but important details of the bill, because even though the concept was simple, I’m glossing over extremely complex issues related to implementation that only the state’s best budget experts would understand. But with that work done, our version of HB 2763 was simple and effective at its core. Pew had modeled it and felt it could eventually create hundreds of millions of dollars in savings available to smooth out the fluctuations in energy prices. It seemed that everyone involved liked where the bill had ended up. Senator Mazzei seemed especially thrilled and we exchanged some hearty handshakes of mutual congratulation.
So, it was time to take it to the conference committees. Rep. Montgomery got his signatures and then I got mine. As I explained in previous episodes, Senate conference committees have seven members, including five Republicans and two Democrats. I briefed the Democratic Caucus personally on the bill, but they declined to sign the conference report. I was not concerned though, as I knew they would do the right thing, and ultimately they did largely support it on the floor.
Being that it was a House bill, the House had to consider it first. On the second-to-last Friday of session, Rep. Montgomery got it through on an 86-3 vote. On the last Tuesday of session, I ran it in the Senate. By now, and without me even trying, it had 14 Senate co-authors. It passed 42-2. The only two “no” votes were Democrats who felt the savings should not commence until the revenues were even higher than they were in 2015.
The Governor’s folks had been at the table, so we had no concerns about a veto. And she signed it on May 27th, the final day of the 2016 legislative session.
I had to sit back in a bit of amazement at what we had done. For much of session, I had little confidence this bill would become law, partly because it was so bold and forward-thinking. But it had, thanks especially to the persistence of Rep. Montgomery. And I knew that even though no one would ever remember our names, we had accomplished something that would benefit the state for the rest of its days.
This is the final episode of #11BillsIn11Days.  To read all the episodes, click here.

11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 10

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of HB 3024.

The first page of HB 3024.

Today, we continue with House Bill 3024, which created a civil liability (translation – you can get sued) for those who engage in online impersonation, a practice known as “catfishing.” HB 3024 provides that someone may successfully be sued for the damages that are caused by such behavior.

In Episode 9, I related the story of SB 1257, my bill that criminalized the practice of “revenge porn.” That Senate bill ended up being authored (or “carried”, in the legislative lingo) by Rep John Paul Jordan. He was also the author of HB 3024, and since it bore some passing similarities to SB 1257, in that both bills involved forms of Internet abuse, he asked if I would be his Senate author for HB 3024. I was happy to do it.
This discussion of SB 1257 and HB 3024 is a good time to note the difference between criminal liability and civil liability. SB 1257 criminalized revenge porn, meaning that if one was convicted, they would face prison and fines. HB 3024 created civil liability for catfishing, meaning that you could be sued for damages in a court action between two private parties, but you wouldn’t face prison or fines based on this statute alone.
As I’ve discussed in previous episodes of this series, when you are the author of a bill in its second chamber, your influence over it can vary widely, but you never have influence at the outset. And that was the case here. Without need of my assistance, Rep. Jordan passed his bill easily, first through committee and then through the full House, 86-7 on February 23rd.
Then HB 3024 came to me. Immediately I was approached by Google’s lobbyist about adding a clause that protected Internet providers from liability. This made sense, and it was a clause we had included in the revenge porn bill. Why they had not taken this issue to Rep. Jordan was probably just a reflection of just how rushed everything is at the Capitol. Lobbyists are often scrambling to keep up with the whirlwind of bills. I often wonder what hope the people of Oklahoma have of following the process if the people who are paid to do it every day can barely keep up.
I also had someone Tweet at me that the bill seemed intended to target satire, which was not the case. But in reading it, I was concerned that it didn’t seem to adequately protect parody and satire.
It also bothered me that the statutory language used the word “catfishing” without defining it. My concern was that the word is a colloquialism whose relevance may fade. As comparison, though I often call SB 1257 the “revenge porn bill”, I never once used that phrase in its actual language.
So, I worked to draft a committee substitute to address these issues. I’ve discussed in previous episodes the fact that sometimes the changes are so many that it’s best to just do a wholesale substitute (or “sub”, in the lingo) rather than amendments. In the case of HB 3024 (in contrast to the procrastinating I discussed in Episode 4), I was able to find the time to draft this sub in time for committee consideration.
I still needed to talk to Rep. Jordan about this, however. Original authors aren’t always ecstatic about the second author messing with their bill, and any amendment would force him to present it again in the House. Sometimes, original authors are so scared of presenting their bill a second time that they will beg the author in the other chamber to keep it a “clean bill” without amendments.
This bill was really Rep. Jordan’s vision, it had no lobbyists pushing it (as I’ve said in previous episodes, that is something of a rarity), and we were in communication on this and SB 1257 (as I’ve also said in previous episodes, House and Senate authors are not always talking). So, I ran the changes past him. He knew he needed to add the language protecting Internet providers, so he was under no illusion that he was not going to see the bill again in some amended form. That made the rest of the conversation easier. He also agreed to the protection for satire. However, he didn’t want to lose “catfishing” completely, so I agreed to keep it in the title of the bill but take it out of the language.
With my committee sub ready, it was time to present it. The bill was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, and the chairman was inclined to grant it a hearing. To his credit, Rep, Jordan was so passionate about this bill he had approached the Senate Judiciary Chair well in advance of the session about his bill.
In committee, one Senator who is a practicing attorney was very concerned about the damages paragraph. He just didn’t think it was written the way it should have been. I now had a bill I liked, and the issue wasn’t one of substance, so I took out my pen and offered to make the amendments he desired on the spot. This is actually not the usual custom. Committee meetings usually move fast and amending on the fly, though possible, is rarely done. However, I wanted to not put off till tomorrow what I could do today, so I pushed the Senator a bit to work with me in that moment. He replied that he would prefer to do it later, and asked if I would simply strike the title of the bill to show that I was willing to work on the bill in good faith. Knowing that this meant the future drafting of a floor amendment and a restore title amendment (for which I would need the committee chairman’s permission), I responded with a dramatic “Fiiiiine.” The bill passed unanimously, with title struck.
If I look now at my text history with Rep. Jordan over the rest of April, it’s a series of exchanges illustrating our efforts to get the two of us and the Senator in question together to receive his suggestions for changes. I simply cannot exaggerate how busy it is during the legislative session. There is nothing like it. I frequently find myself going hours on end without the ability to even use the restroom. As it turned out, the best we could do was to get Rep. Jordan and I together in one room while the Senator spoke to us on speaker phone.
We made his changes and in this case they were limited to just one section of the bill, so I filed an amendment, not a floor substitute. I presented the bill on April 19th, adopted the amendment, restored title, and it passed 44-0. On the same day, the revenge porn bill passed the House. Rep. Jordan passed HB 3024 again through the House on May 5th, 74-3. It was signed by the Governor on May 11th. It takes effect November 1st, as many bills do.
HB 3024 is a good example of updating our statutes to keep up with modern life. It empowers citizens to recover what they lose when people commit fraud online. It will be interesting to see how much use people make of this new power.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with the final episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 9

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of SB 1257.

The first page of SB 1257.

Today, we continue with Senate Bill 1257, which criminalized the nonconsensual dissemination of sexual images, also known as “revenge porn.”

Revenge porn usually occurs when someone shares intimate images with a trusted partner, the relationship ends, and then that partner shares the images on the Internet in revenge. Since there is no demand being made in return, existing blackmail laws are not adequate. And since the images were initially consensual, though their dissemination was not, Peeping Tom laws don’t really work either. Revenge porn is a purely destructive act that should be a crime, but it wasn’t in Oklahoma. Addressing it required legislative action.
As I’ve explained in previous episodes of this series, ideas come from everywhere. In this case, back in August of 2015, I received an e-mail from Jan Peery, head of the YWCA Oklahoma City, which serves as our community’s primary service provider to victims of domestic violence. My wife Rachel was once a victim’s advocate for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the issue has always been important to me. Two years ago, I had carried the legislation with Kay Floyd that required law enforcement to ask questions of domestic violence victims that could save their life. Jan is a friend, and she knew I would be interested in the topic she e-mailed me about, which was the idea of criminalizing “revenge porn” in Oklahoma.
My first reaction to Jan’s suggestion was this was a topic that could easily get graphic. I was immediately concerned that my conservative colleagues may just rebel against the whole thing due to its explicit nature. But at the same time, I recognized this was important, it was prevalent, it targeted women disproportionately, it was often an aspect of a domestic violence situation, and it was a modern crime that our statutes had simply not kept pace with.
So, I filed the bill as SB 1257, but I worked with Senate staff to amend a version of the concept from another state to be a little less sexually explicit in its language.
This was an example of an outside organization proposing an idea, but the YWCA doesn’t have the resources for a lobbyist, so I was on my own. But pretty soon, I got the help of a different kind of lobbyist: the media.
Days before the 2016 session began, Maureen Wurtz of KTUL – Tulsa’s Channel 8 e-mailed me. She explained that she had been working on a story about revenge porn. This included candid conversations with a courageous victim – Heaven Taay. Maureen had come across my bill and wanted to talk to me about it. She did and ended up doing a great story about it. Her interest and the stories she continued to produce throughout the session gave me ammo I needed. But first, I ran into a roadblock.
The bill had been assigned to two committees, meaning that it had been “double-assigned,” in the language of the Legislature. The committees were Judiciary, because it created a crime, and Appropriations, because when you create a crime, you theoretically cost the state money. Judiciary would have to hear it first, but the chair didn’t want to. However, he wasn’t bitterly opposed (he later voted for it repeatedly, in fact), so he allowed me to ask the Floor Leader to un-assign it from Judiciary, and that request was granted. In exchange, he asked that I keep title off throughout Senate consideration. This would have the effect of ensuring that the bill came back to the Senate for one more vote. I don’t want to act like making an arrangement like this and getting a bill un-assigned from a committee is routine, it isn’t. I’m not sure I’ve ever done a maneuver quite that like that before, but this was a bill worth expending political capital on. With that hurdle conquered, I just had to get SB 1257 through Appropriations.
In Appropriations, I ran into more trouble than I expected. As I explained in previous episodes, the titles of all bills are struck in Appropriations, so that was done immediately. But I still got some challenges from other senators. One senator in particular expressed concerns that this was draconian. The clear subtext was “boys will be boys.” Obviously, if I agreed with that attitude, I wouldn’t have been running the bill. There was also a subtext, often present in regards to this bill, that the victim shouldn’t have allowed her trusted partner to have the pictures in the first place. To me, this was reminiscent of the way domestic violence victims are sometimes viewed – “If he’s beating you, why don’t you leave him?”
Nevertheless, SB 1257 had something else going for it. At the end of the day, it’s a hard bill to publicly vote against. And so only one member of the Appropriations Committee did.
The power of having one of those untouchable bills was a good thing in this case, but you also don’t want to abuse that power. You still want to make sure it’s a responsible bill. And so I took the comments made in committee, and some other thoughts I had developed and went back to work.
The senator who opposed the bill came to visit with me to try and make his case for essentially dropping the whole thing. I didn’t find his arguments compelling.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America had approached me seeking intent language in the bill, meaning that the perpetrator would have to exhibit some intent to harm the victim. I did a little investigation of that issue online to see if it had been discussed in other states, and it had. I even sought out the counsel of a state senator friend of mine in Wisconsin, Leah Papachristou Vukmir, who I had discovered had authored revenge porn legislation there. I ultimately decided that though intent language added a burden to prosecution, it was probably appropriate to include some, though I made it very broad.
So, I filed a floor substitute, which I’ve explained in previous episodes is just a whole new version of the bill for consideration on the Senate floor. Theoretically, you could file a bunch of amendments, but it just gets hard to understand what you’re doing to the bill when you have a list of disconnected phrases presented on a separate piece of paper. It is simply more comprehensible to present a “floor sub” (in the legislative lingo).
On the floor, there were no serious issues. I adopted the floor sub and sent it to the House on a 42-2 vote.
In the House, I had secured Rep John Paul Jordan as the House author. I immediately got Maureen from KTUL in touch with him. She brought Heaven to the Capitol, and on camera, Heaven met with various House Representatives that Rep. Jordan introduced. That kind of media influence can be very helpful in creating the best environment for success around your bill.
Meanwhile, we got the word that the Governor had an issue. Sometimes bills are based on a good idea, but the micro idea comes into conflict with a macro trend. And the macro trend we faced was that the Governor was trying to push criminal justice reform and soften our state’s prison requirements. Creating a new felony, as SB 1257 did, ran right into that principle. So, Rep. Jordan did what we felt we had to do to keep it moving and ultimately to keep it from getting vetoed. He took out the felony for a second offense. Now, it would just be a misdemeanor for a second offense (it was already just a misdemeanor for a first offense). He also tinkered with the intent language and added a concept that the judge could order the images removed if that’s still within the power of the perpetrator.
With those amendments, he passed committee unanimously. He also restored the title of the bill. Now it was on to the House floor. I had explained in previous episodes that once you have passed Senate committee, it is the custom that a floor hearing is generally yours if you want it. This is not the case in the House. There, it’s a struggle from beginning to end. And Rep. Jordan let me know in early April that SB 1257 was being denied a floor hearing because it was believed the Governor would veto it. I felt pretty confident that was not the case, especially after we removed the felony, so I reached out to senior staff in the Governor’s office. They confirmed they would not veto it, and they communicated that to the Speaker’s office. And we were back in business. On April 19th, it passed the House 81-0.
It came back to me for one more vote, because it had been amended and title had been restored. I was happy with the product, and so there was no need to take SB 1257 to conference. All I needed to do was accept the House amendments and send it to the Governor’s desk. On April 28th, I did that and the bill passed 39-0. The Governor signed it May 5th. It takes effect November 1st.
The most meaningful laws I have authored are those that you know will really make a difference in people’s lives. I really have to believe that criminalizing revenge porn will decrease its likelihood of happening. Of course it will still occur, just as murders still occur, but it will occur less because there are consequences. And when it does occur, victims will have a recourse. In a state where men kill women more than they do in 44 other states, this is important progress.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills in 11 Days – Episode 8

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of SB 1327.

The first page of SB 1327.

Today, we continue with Senate Bill 1327, which made updates to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act.

Like I have in many of these episodes, I again encourage you not to give up just because your eyes glazed over at that last sentence. Most of this stuff ultimately matters to someone’s daily life, and it’s always interesting if you know a little about it.
In this case, this bill presents an interesting look at uniform laws. There is actually a Uniform Law Commission of the United States (incidentally, I was recently appointed to it) that drafts laws intended to be enacted in every state. These are kind of like model bills (discussed in Episode 4), but many of them are more than suggestions. They really need to be adopted in all 50 states, and they need to be uniform to the greatest extent possible. It’s important to remember that though we are 50 separate states, important functions like interstate commerce depend on some uniformity across our boundaries. I don’t believe that adopting uniform laws is a sacrifice of our state sovereignty. It’s simply an acknowledgement that some functions we rely on themselves rely on predictability and uniformity. In this case, the important function at issue is the collection of child support payments.
The UIFSA updates were drafted by the Uniform Law Commission with the intent of keeping up with modern trends, and specifically the need to collect child support not just across state lines, but international boundaries. Adoption of the act was considered so important that Congress made its adoption by every state in 2015 or 2016 a requirement to continue receiving federal funding that facilitates the collection of child support. In Oklahoma, that amounted to at least $50 million.
In 2015, at the request of the Department of Human Services, I authored the bill to make the updates to the UIFSA. In the legislative parlance, this made that bill a “request bill.” You’ll often hear legislators describe a bill as a “request bill” from such-and-such entity. As I’ve stated here in previous episodes, very few bills are not requested by somebody, often a paid lobbyist. I pride myself on introducing a lot of bills that reflect my own ideas and my own vision for where the state should be headed, but there’s no denying that bills requested by an outside entity that has hired a lobbyist are going to have the most success in the process. In this case, DHS is not represented by an independent paid lobbyist, but is instead assisted by state employees who serve as liaisons between the agency and the Legislature. They may not make political donations or do other things lobbyists are known to do, but inside the Capitol, their functions are very similar. They request bills and they help shepherd those bills through the process.
With the threat of losing $50 million, failure to pass the 2015 legislation was simply not an option. And we got it done, but it was not easy. This was because such bills are generally assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the chair opposes all uniform laws and will not hear them. So we had to get Senate leadership to intervene and move the bill to a different committee at the last minute to get it through the process. Additionally, many legislators voted “no” because the bill mentioned the U.S. making agreements with other countries to collect child support. No one could ever explain to me why that was an issue exactly, but I got the impression some people don’t like to acknowledge that there are other countries. Or something.
Anyways, I was glad to be done with that project. But then the DHS liaisons came to me before the 2016 session with some bad news. They had made errors in the legislation and needed to run it again to get the updates correct. This was a reminder of the human element inherent in legislating, especially when we don’t have an army of staff and the process is so rushed.
So, I filed SB 1327 to do it all over again. Since this was a request bill, I advised the DHS legislative liaisons they should probably work with the Floor Leader (who assigns bills to committees) to make sure the bill is not assigned to Judiciary. But it was. And so again, with the intervention of Senate leadership and the blessing of the Judiciary chair, the bill was withdrawn and reassigned to Appropriations.
Title was struck in Appropriations (see previous episodes for a discussion on striking title), not because it was a work in progress (changing even a word of this uniform law would have defeated the purpose) but because all titles are struck in Appropriations as a matter of practice. This is theoretically because bills assigned to Appropriations cost money, and the practice of striking title gives more power to the chairman of the committee to control the progress of the bill. I have not mentioned this in a previous episode, but it is the practice in the Senate that to restore title to your bill on the Senate floor, you must have permission from the committee chairman. In this case, that permission was granted and I presented the bill and an amendment to restore title on the Senate floor on March 7th. It passed 38-8. It was my preference not to get into the issue of the potential loss of $50 million, because part of me thought that information would make people angry and willing to vote against the bill just to spite the federal government. I kept my explanation of the bill to the merits. As it turned out, that was enough.
In the House, we had secured Rep. Randy Grau as the House author. I talked in Episode 7 about how you can author something one time and then the issue becomes yours forever. That was the case here, as Rep. Grau had been the House author in 2015.
Randy had less trouble with the bill and passed it through the House, 81-0. The Governor signed it April 21st.
Failure of SB 1327 would have exacerbated our state’s budget shortfall this year to the tune of at least $50 million. Its passage also facilitates the collection of child support payments, a good thing for kids here and everywhere. As I’ve said in past episodes, some of my bills get attention and some don’t. SB 1327 is representative of the latter, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t significant.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 7

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.

The first page of SB 1016.

The first page of SB 1016.

Today, we continue with Senate Bill 1016, which makes continuing progress toward full implementation of an online voter registration system.

In 2015, I introduced a package of ten bills intended to increase voter turnout, which has fallen to woeful levels in Oklahoma. One of my bills that year, and also one of the bills I expected to be most difficult to pass, gave Oklahomans the ability to register to vote online. Previously, the only option was a paper form that you mail, and in this day and age, it’s pretty antiquated and discouraging to have that as your only option. I was very pleased that by the end of the 2015 session, we had passed the bill authorizing an online registration system, and it had total support from the Election Board Secretary, Paul Ziriax. But though legislative authorization was a major hurdle, it was also a major hurdle to fund and implement the change. The good news was, we always had funding identified. There are still federal Help America Vote funds that can be used only for projects just like this. But implementation still loomed. And as is often the case, it was eventually determined that more legislation was needed to facilitate implementation.
SB 1016 is what is often referred to in the Legislature as a “clean-up bill.” All session long, you will hear legislators describe something as a clean-up bill, usually following upon some major initiative passed in a previous year. I have learned that once you take on a cause, and especially if you succeed, you have also bought yourself years of running clean-up bills.
Before session began, Paul Ziriax came to me and said he was working on a bunch of legislative fixes related to the implementation of online registration, and some of them also involved the Department of Public Safety. As such, he didn’t have final language for a bill yet, but he had some. So we moved forward with what he had, and unlike my usual approach of trying to pass something as fast and as easily as possible, we resolved from the beginning we would take SB 1016 to conference committee so that Paul would have the full four months to finalize his language.
With Paul’s support, the bill never hit any snags. He has a lot of credibility at the Capitol, and usually the only question legislators would have was, “Does Paul Ziriax support this?” That’s a good lesson for lots of issues. Because legislators vote on literally hundreds of bills every session, most of which they couldn’t possibly have expertise on, trusting in others is often a necessity. When it comes to election law, Paul has that trust.
SB 1016 passed committee and the full Senate unanimously, with title struck. I have discussed striking the title in previous episodes. In this case, I didn’t need to get title struck to demonstrate to someone that I understood this was a work in progress and that I would need to amend it to get their support. I struck title because it truly was a work in progress, so much so that I needed it to go all the way through the process without a title so it would head to conference committee, where we would finalize the language.
I secured Rep. Gary Banz as my House author. He had carried the online registration bill in 2015, and like me, had therefore bought himself indefinite ownership of all future clean-up bills. Gary had no trouble passing the House. He amended it slightly, or it would have gone to the Governor’s desk without title and be ineligible to become law. These are the rules of the game, and though they get a little obscure, you’ve got to remember them as you navigate the process.
Now, we were in conference committee. Paul finalized his language. His final bill had various technical fixes, including language to ensure that when the Elections Board verifies the information submitted by an applicant with the Department of Public Safety, that DPS would not turn over its records to the Election Board. These are not highly controversial issues, but statute can be detailed (somewhat to my chagrin, as I think we micromanage too much), and lots of issues have to be addressed one way or the other.
This is a bit of a digression, but it is worth noting here that assuming you can still pass the bill, one can theoretically introduce concepts into conference bills that have not been raised the entire session. A lot has been done to make sure conference bills are thoroughly vetted (especially after past scandals related to provisions quietly snuck into them), but the possibility for mischief still remains. I have had people come to me requesting insertion of a 10-page bill into a two-page conference report, and I have always rejected those proposals. If there is some urgent need that came up late in session (the oral sodomy court case this year is a perfect example), then that might be acceptable, but I think conference committee bills ought to be on the same topic they were as they progressed through the process all session.
Returning to our tale, as I explained at length in Episode 4, conference committee is like starting over, except that in the Senate the committee doesn’t meet. The author just walks around and collects signatures. For an hour the second week of May, Paul and I walked around the halls of the Senate and gathered our signatures. With this bill, unlike in Episode 4, I even had time to get the signatures of the Democrats. Online registration had always been a bipartisan initiative, and I wanted to maintain that.
Rep. Gary Banz did his work on his side, passed it through conference committee, and then I presented my bill on the Senate floor on May 17th and passed it 46-0. Then it went over to the House, where Rep. Banz passed it 78-3 on May 19th. As I’ve stated before, unanimous votes in the House seem impossible to obtain, and on this vote, even my own House Representative, who has publicly stated support for improving voter turnout, voted “no.”
Gary Banz is term-limited this year, and SB 1016 was his last bill to present. After its passage, Gary told me he got into politics registering people to vote, and that he really liked that he went out of politics still helping people to register. SB 1016 then went to the Governor’s desk. I sent the Governor a letter explaining it, and Paul checked-in with her office as well. She signed SB 1016 on May 24th.
SB 1016 was mostly technical, definitely a “clean-up bill,” and its content was entirely driven by a state agency (the Elections Board). Its passage was also entirely necessary to maintaining progress on an initiative I have championed, namely online voter registration. And with passage of SB 1016, I remain hopeful you will see that system in place by 2017.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 6

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of HB 2423.

The first page of HB 2423.

Today, we continue with House Bill 2423, which ensures that Oklahoma’s banking laws apply to savings and loans as well.

I’m not going to lie to you. This bill is as obscure as it gets, and it’s definitely from the “belt and suspenders” philosophy. Here’s the background:
Regular folks generally just think of places to park your money and to get loans as banks. If you do business at a credit union, you may realize that is a different legal entity, but you probably have a hard time telling the difference. The reality is that they are very different, and there are also other types of financial institutions, including savings and loan associations. There are a handful of such savings and loans in the state, and their customers very likely think of them as banks. But the law sees them differently.
There is a section of Oklahoma law applicable to only savings and loans, but it says that savings and loans can also act like banks. Specifically, the statute on savings and loans states:
“In addition to other provisions of this act relating to deposit accounts, an association may exercise the powers and authorities applicable under the provisions of Article IX of the Oklahoma Banking Code, Sections 901 through 907 of Title 6 of the Oklahoma Statutes.”
That is pretty straightforward language that seems to say that savings and loans can use the banking laws as well as the savings and loans laws, but when lawyers get involved, nothing is straightforward.
At some point, for no specific reason I am aware of, the attorney for the Oklahoma Bankers Association grew concerned that someone might sue a savings and loan and allege that it could not take advantage of the sentence quoted above for banking laws passed after the enactment date of the sentence above.
I’m sorry, what did I just say? Allow me to try to unpack that.
Let’s pretend I said to you on Monday, “Hey, you can borrow any of my books anytime.” You would take that to mean that you could borrow any of my books anytime. But what if I bought a book on Tuesday, and then you tried to borrow it? And what if I then said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I told you on Monday you could borrow any of my books. I obviously only meant the books I owned as of Monday, not any books I may buy after I made that offer.” This type of literal communication would make ordinary life unbearable, but it’s the world lawyers live in every day.
So, the lawyer for the bankers association, which also lobbies at the Capitol for the savings and loans, had a fear. The fear was that the law allowing savings and loans to use banking laws may one day be interpreted by a court as merely a “snapshot in time.” That a court may say, “Well, sure, you can use the banking laws like it states here, but only the banking laws that existed at the time this allowance was given.” Why would a court do this? Why would someone sue a savings and loan over this issue? Why doesn’t Donald Trump try reading a book sometime?  These are all unanswerable questions. But two of these three questions ended up being a part of my life this session.
In February, the representative of the bankers and savings and loans came to me and me and said they had a bill in the House that would ensure the handful of savings and loans in the state can take advantage of the state’s banking laws. Okay, sounds great, I must have said. And so I agreed to be the Senate author of HB 2423, by Rep. Bobby Cleveland. I’ve talked in past episodes about being the author of a bill that originates in the other chamber and the frequent lack of communication between a House author and a Senate author. Those trends were in full effect here. I had no involvement in HB 2423 until it reached the Senate, and I never spoke once to Rep. Cleveland about it.
And so, after HB 2423 passed the House 84-0, it arrived on my desk, and I began to fully appreciate what I had inherited from the House. First of all, the bill was six words long. Literally, the operative language of the entire bill was six words. Those six words were being added to the sentence I quoted above, so that it would now read:
“In addition to other provisions of this act relating to deposit accounts, an association may exercise the powers and authorities applicable under the provisions of Article IX of the Oklahoma Banking Code, Sections 901 through 907 of Title 6 of the Oklahoma Statutes, as amended from time to time.”
“As amended from time to time.” That was it.
I called the lobbyist for the bankers into my office, and pretty much delivered a one-man performance of the Saturday Night Live “Seriously??” sketch.
“Do we really need this? Is this really necessary?” I asked.
“Our lawyer thinks so,” he replied.
So I insisted we get her on the phone.
In fairness, she was absolutely sincere in her fear that a court some day might interpret the current law in a hyper-literal fashion.
And so I faced a decision. If I were having this conversation in January as the potential original author, and the question was whether to introduce this bill at all, I simply would have said no, or more politely, suggested a different author. It wasn’t necessary, or at least it was highly unlikely to be necessary. But, that wasn’t the situation. It had already passed the House. Eighty-four House members had weighed in, and it was already half way to the Governor’s desk. Additionally, it was absolutely harmless. I would have killed it in a heartbeat if it had a downside, but it didn’t. Even if the six words weren’t necessary, they certainly did no harm. And it certainly wasn’t controversial, so there was no way it would tie up precious legislative time with questions or debate. The Governor was ultimately going to sign almost 400 new laws, why not this one, too? And maybe, just maybe, in an alternate universe, we didn’t pass HB 2423, and twenty years from now, the Oklahoma Supreme Court causes a bunch of mischief for some poor savings and loan by using a hyper-literal statutory interpretation. So, with a sigh, I said, “Let’s proceed.”
And we did. Not surprisingly, the consideration of HB 2423 in committee and on the Senate floor probably took a combined two minutes. It passed the Senate 41-0 on April 11th, and the Governor signed it April 18th. It takes effect, such as it is, on November 1st.
Since I was elected in 2010, I’ve authored 60 new laws as a Senator. Virtually every single law was very meaningful to me and my constituents. I’ve authored laws that saved lives. I’ve authored laws that created jobs. Virtually every single one took time, energy, and represented the culmination of my life experience. But HB 2423? Not so much. Having said that, lots of laws considered by the Legislature would actively do harm to our state, so if the worst thing I can say about the most inconsequential law I ever passed is that it didn’t harm anything, it wasted no time, and it might even help a savings and loan some day, well, I guess that’s okay.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 5

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of HB 2358.

The first page of HB 2358.

Today, we continue with House Bill 2358, which updated Oklahoma’s cable television statutes and added a clause to maintain fairness in an increasingly competitive market.

I’ve discussed in past episodes two concepts that came into play with HB 2358. One is what it means to be the author of a bill in its second chamber (as opposed to being its original author). I was the Senate author of HB 2358, which was obviously a House bill. This meant I wasn’t involved in the original drafting of HB 2358. And I wouldn’t have had a lot to contribute anyways, as it was a pretty technical bill, amending sections of statute that are relevant only to people who operate cable television companies. And as it turned out, I saw no need to make changes when it arrived in the Senate.
The second concept discussed in a previous episode that comes into play here is the concept of a lobbyist-driven bill. Bill ideas come from lots of places, but many come from lobbyists. Especially a very technical one like this. As I said in Episode One, I don’t mind working with lobbyists, as long as I agree with their idea. To agree with their idea, I have to approve of it philosophically and I have to believe it is good for my constituents. In this case, nothing proposed in this bill appeared to undermine fairness or the free market. And if it brought stability to the cable television industry, that was good for my constituents, as I feel comfortable saying they like cable television and want to see it continue.
Representatives of Cox Communications approached me before session began about being the Senate author of what would become HB 2358. They indicated they were interested in me because I was one of the more tech-savvy members of the Senate. I think that just means I don’t have my assistant print out my e-mails so I can read them.
To be the author of this, I wanted to run some traps first. One of the first things I did was make sure that the cities approved of the bill, because it was in the section of law that related to the way cable companies interact with cities. You may or may not know that cable companies have to make what is known as a “franchise agreement” with cities in order to bury their cables underneath public streets. The cities had been part of the drafting process, and so they were fine.
I also approached Cox’s competitors, because when one company approaches you, it’s my job to make sure this isn’t an attempt to use statute to gain a business advantage against competitors. But AT&T’s representatives said they supported the bill as well. I then approached Google.
Most of the bill had to do with very technical updates. For instance, even though in this piece I keep calling HB 2358 a bill related to cable television, I recognize that is an increasingly outdated phrase, and one of the updates in the bill was to delete that phrase from statute and substitute “video services.” But one substantive change in the bill was clearly focused on Google, and I wanted to make sure they had no concerns. That was a section I would call a “me, too” clause. It stated that when one provider struck a deal with a city, other providers could get the same deal. That seemed fair, but I knew what it was aimed at. There is a perception among Google’s competitors that Google Fiber gets sweetheart deals from cities simply because Google has done a great job marketing Google Fiber and creating demand from cities and their residents. And as I knew, Google had just announced it was bringing Google Fiber to Oklahoma City. I didn’t necessarily see a problem with the provision, but I wanted to make sure Google didn’t either. They told me they were fine.
And so the bill, authored by Rep. Weldon Watson, proceeded through the House process.
Incidentally, and I discussed this a bit in Episode 2, sometimes your fellow author in the other chamber becomes like a brother or sister as you push forward together, and sometimes you never speak to them. In this case, Rep. Watson and I never spoke about this bill or anything else this session. It was just not necessary, and when time is as finite as it is during the legislative session, unnecessary conversations never occur.
Meanwhile, HB 2358 had reached the House floor. This moment in the life of HB 2358 is a great example of the downsides of our process.
It goes without saying that probably no one in the Oklahoma Legislature is an expert on cable television law. And yet here we find ourselves, standing on the floor, debating it, with no lifeline to someone who does have expertise. And the rushed nature of the process maximizes the potential for error. And so, on Feb. 29, even as the vote was being held for HB 2358, rumor spread on the House floor that the bill would require Netflix and other video streaming services to make agreements with cities. This was not true, but having witnessed these hysterias personally, I can attest they are hard to control once they take hold. And suddenly, this non-controversial bill had failed, 36-48.
In the Legislature, both chambers have provisions for reconsidering a bill that has failed, and so the lobbyists went to work. On March 1st, HB 2358 was voted on a second time, and it passed 83-2.
Now, HB 2358 was in the Senate. The chairman of the General Government Committee agreed to hear it. As I’ve explained in previous episodes, committee chairmen have absolute authority to hear or not hear a bill. It is highly unusual then to see a committee chairman vote against a bill in their committee. But this particular committee chairman has articulated some distaste for the power given to chairmen, and so he has been known to hear bills even though he ends up voting against them. And that was the case here. Committee votes are generally cast orally, and the last person to vote is always the committee chairman. And so though HB 2358 passed 6-1, the one “no” was the last to be cast, and it came from the chairman. I asked him why afterwards, but I’m still not sure I understand why. Sometimes people just like to vote “no.”
The bill uneventfully passed the full Senate on April 5th by a vote of 42-2. The Governor signed it April 12th. It had an “emergency clause” (something I discussed in Episode 2), and so it immediately became law.
HB 2358 is a perfect example of the many bills that go through the legislative process that are not particularly controversial, but are important to the maintenance of our commerce system. But ensuring such bills are not controversial requires a little bit of legwork, and in this case, the lack of actual controversy didn’t help the bill much when the perception of controversy took hold in the House.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills In 11 Days – Episode 4

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.
The first page of HB 2703.

The first page of HB 2703.

Today, we continue with House Bill 2703, which significantly amends the ability to access birth and death records. As I said yesterday after I uttered the words “municipal utility billing,” don’t stop reading. You’ll find this stuff is interesting once you know a little bit about it.

A few years ago, the statutes regarding access to birth and death certificates were, as I understand it, pretty loose. In the interest of transparency, I don’t really have a problem with this, but there is another school of thought that there is personal information contained in such records that some families don’t want people to know, even perhaps relatives. There has also been a growing concern about how access to those records facilitates identity theft. So, in response, the Health Department pushed through legislation that pretty much closed those records off to everyone but the subject of the record.
In 2014, a constituent, Chris Powell, approached Rep. Elise Hall and I about swinging the pendulum a few feet back the other direction. Elise and I share portions of Northwest Oklahoma City, Warr Acres and Bethany (something that came up in Episode 3). As the law existed in 2014, a genealogist really couldn’t EVER access the certificates of relatives. This seemed too extreme to me. Chris was active in that kind of work, so he asked Elise and I to try and open the records back up. Negotiating with the Department of Health, we passed SB 1448, which made birth certificates a public record that anyone could obtain 125 years after the birth and made death certificates a public record 75 years after death. Chris wasn’t thrilled with those waiting periods, but he was appreciative that SB 1448 at least opened up the records eventually. I agreed with Chris and would have preferred shorter waiting periods, but this was what we were able to achieve without total opposition from the Health Department, a battle we might have lost.
However, I still noted in the back of my mind that some day I might make an attempt to revisit the issue. In fact, there are lots of policy goals buried in the back of my mind, because you never know when they might find their moment. Was this specific issue the most important issue facing the people of Oklahoma? No, and that’s why I wasn’t relentlessly filing bills and working on it, but I also knew that making this a little better mattered in the interest of transparency, it would be greatly appreciated by genealogists, and that there was a better solution than the one we had reached.
And so two years passed.
Recalling her previous involvement in this topic, the Health Department, to its credit, approached Elise previous to the 2016 session about a bill that would further open up access to birth and death certificate information. In response, she introduced HB 2703. This bill proposed a system by which the Health Department would respond to inquiries from certain entities (i.e. doctors, life insurance companies) seeking confirmation of a death. It also proposed creation of an online database where people could verify a birth or death 25 years after the event. In neither case would these new options allow for further access to the actual birth and death certificates, but there was certainly value in providing new ways to get information.
For reasons I don’t know, it was assigned to Rules in the House, then withdrawn. Then it was assigned to Appropriations, then withdrawn. Then it was finally assigned to Public Health. On February 24th, it passed, and I signed up as Senate author. The Health Department felt like it made sense to get the team back together, and I was happy to oblige. In Episode 2, I talked a little about the role of the author in the second chamber once the bill has passed the first chamber and is in the second author’s hands. The extent to which you exert influence over the substance of that bill can vary wildly, as I discussed in Episode 2, but I didn’t talk much about the role of the author in the second chamber during the early stages of a bill’s progress in its first chamber. That’s because there is no role. On February 1st, the first day of session, I didn’t even know this bill existed. And yet here I am writing a blow-by-blow account five months later. Such is the legislative process.
On March 1st, Elise got HB 2703 through the House on a 83-4 vote. As illustrated by that vote, this is not the tale of a bill that was hard to pass, as was the case of the bill in Episode 3. This is a tale of the efforts we make to ensure a bill is the best it can be, even when its shortcomings are not necessarily harming its passage.
With House consideration complete, I now had HB 2703 in my hands. And I kind of didn’t love it.
First of all, the section of statute HB 2703 amended was becoming a bit of a mess. Throughout my time in the Legislature, I have legislated with the goal that statute should be readable and understandable to the layman. I assure you that hardly any of it is today, but I’d like to think my bills are. In my opinion, the wording and organization in HB 2703 was threatening to make the section less understandable to anyone but Health Department employees. I wanted to rewrite the bill for the sake of rewriting it.
Additionally, I had some policy goals I wanted to accomplish. First, I wanted to lower the waiting period for birth and death certificates, as our constituent had wanted two years before. And now I was sitting on a vehicle that the Health Department wanted to pass, so maybe they would work with me. (By the way, a lot of times in the Legislature we call bills “vehicles”, as in “I have a vehicle that would accomplish that,” or “Have you found a vehicle for your amendment yet?”)
I also wanted to make sure people who needed those certificates could get them, like parents, lawyers, funeral directors. And at the same time, the Department of Corrections was approaching me with their desire to see a clause added that would allow them to request birth certificates on behalf of inmates. In addition to all this, I also wanted to accomplish the Health Department’s initial goals for HB 2703, though I wanted those sections to be written more clearly.
I told Rep. Hall that I wanted to do these things, and she responded that was fine, to just keep working with the Health Department. And so, while working on 1,000 other things, I set this on a corner of my desk and said to myself, “I need to draft this bill myself and I will get to it very soon.” And then I didn’t. And I waited so long to do anything that by the time I even requested a hearing for it in the Health Committee, the chairman told me that he really didn’t have time in his final meeting before the deadline to hear it. I sort of begged, and I said I would take title off anyways since it needed work. On April 4th, he heard it and I explained to the committee that this was a “work in progress” intended to finally find the right balance regarding the issue of access to birth and death certificates. A couple of comments were made by an attorney on the committee seeking access for attorneys working on probates. I noted that comment. The bill passed unanimously.
And then I set it on the corner of my desk again. Occasionally, the lobbyist for the Department of Corrections would pop by and say, “Hey, are we going to get our amendment in HB 2703?” And I would say, “Yeah, I’m going to work on that,” while wondering whether I was even going to have time to eat lunch that day. And finally the deadline to pass the Senate came and I realized I was not going to have time to write the bill I wanted to write before this deadline. I knew that if I wanted to get this done the way I wanted to get this done, I would have to take the bill to conference. The way you take a bill to conference is you make sure it’s been amended in your chamber (we had done that by striking the title) and you pass it, and then the author in the other chamber rejects the amendment and takes it to conference. So, I simply ran it on April 21st (deadline day) on the Senate floor (with title off) and it passed 45-0.
Now, I knew I had another month to get this done, so I put it on the corner of my desk.
The story of the Oklahoma Legislature is one of deadlines. Session is a relentless series of deadlines, and they are unmerciful. After a while, you figure out ways to game the system to buy yourself more time (see my behavior on this bill), but eventually your time really does run out. And by mid-May, my time was running out. I had let everyone know that I wanted to write the conference report, and they were patiently waiting, but I was not producing. Finally, mid-May rolled around, other initiatives on my plate had reached their conclusion, and I finally picked up that pile of papers on the corner of my desk, turned to my laptop, opened a new Word document, and began typing.
The drafting of statute is a process I enjoy, but it is not one you can do while distracted. Especially when you’re trying to synthesize a bunch of ideas and make sure everything makes sense and nothing was forgotten. I sat for maybe an hour or two and did nothing but write a new HB 2703, occasionally pausing only to push my chair back and rub my temples. Finally, it was done. I ran it past Elise and the Health Department. I guess the Health Department didn’t really know what I had been planning all these weeks, and they weren’t exactly thrilled.
So, within 24 hours we sat down to go over the draft. There was giving and taking. I had moved the waiting period on birth certificates to 100 years from 125 years after birth. They said people over 100 are the most vulnerable to identity theft. I said, “Fine, but the oldest person on the planet is 117, can we shave five years off?” They sort of grimaced, and I just waved my hands and moved on. I had also moved the waiting period on death certificates from 75 to 50. They said that was not the model bill language.
“Model bill” is another way of saying statutory language that some other state or entity created that a lot of people have acknowledged is pretty good. Models bills might emanate from trade associations or think tanks or any number of groups. They are thoughtful and can be a good starting point, but my view is that you can’t be married to them. And in this case, citing “model bill” as the reason for the 75-year waiting period didn’t persuade me. I said that I really wanted 50. They said fine.
They also relented on lowering the waiting period for things to appear on their new online database. I took their other comments, many of which were very insightful and clearly demonstrated they knew their topic better than I did, and I drafted again. This second version they liked, and we moved forward with the conference committee process.
Basically, going to conference committee is like starting all over again. You have a bill, and you have to pass it through a committee in both chambers and on the floors of both chambers. But instead of spreading the process out over three months, it might all occur in 2-3 days.
In the House, there are conference committees that operate a lot like a normal House committee, and it meets in public. In the Senate, you are assigned a group of seven Senators, and you literally take your bill around to them individually, and they sign a sheet of paper signifying their approval. While Rep. Hall did her work over in the House, I spent most of a Republican caucus meeting quietly walking around and getting signatures.
A typical Senate conference committee has five Republicans and two Democrats. Normally, on a non-controversial bill, I would try to get the signatures of the Democrats, too. You only need four signatures, but a copy of the signature sheet will appear on the bill when it is heard in the full House and Senate, and I like sending the signal that the bill was bipartisan and that I took the time to visit the Democrats as well. In this case, time was the one thing I didn’t have. Once I had the Republicans, I walked the sheet over to Elise’s office. On May 26, she passed it 88-5. Now it was my turn.
This was the moment when my delays on HB 2703 almost cost me. As the final week of session evolved, it became evident I was going to present this to the full Senate on the final day of the 2016 session. I walked into the chamber that morning and told the Floor Leader I’d be happy to go anytime. He said he would “green me up” (because when an author tells him they are ready to go, he uses a green highlighter to highlight their name as it appears on the packet he carries with him all day).
I presented my bill, it sailed through (as I expected) on a 45-0 vote. And I sat down, having finally completed all of my legislative work for the year. There were maybe 15 bills left to go. Two or three bills later, the Senate abruptly adjourned for the year without notice to the members, killing maybe a dozen bills. Mine could have easily met that fate. But it didn’t, and the Governor signed it June 6th. It takes effect November 1st.
I never got a single letter about HB 2703. No one ever wrote an article about it. By reading this far, you’re one of the few Oklahomans who have ever thought about it, through between the online database and HB 2703’s other provisions, millions of people may one day benefit from it. And yet, HB 2703 never created strong opinions on either side, and probably would have passed in any condition. But HB 2703 is a great example of the Oklahoma legislative process, how deadlines drive action, and how we each strive to arrive at the best outcome for the people of Oklahoma, even when hardly anyone is paying attention.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills in 11 Days – Episode 3

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful.

The first page of SB 1029.

The first page of SB 1029.

Today, we continue with Senate Bill 1029, which allows municipalities to coordinate over the collection of utility bills. Wait, don’t stop reading. I know what I just wrote sounds really boring, but this bill is such a great example of the little issues that can be so important to a constituency, and this was probably my toughest bill to pass all session long (that actually passed).

My Senate district includes portions of Northwest Oklahoma City and Warr Acres. Warr Acres is very small in size and population, but it is a different municipality than Oklahoma City, with its own mayor and city services. It is entirely surrounded by Oklahoma City on all four sides. Warr Acres provides its citizens sewer service, but for whatever historic reason, Oklahoma City provides water service directly to the people of Warr Acres. This is pretty unique. In Oklahoma City, the typical arrangement is that citizens receive their water and sewer both from Oklahoma City, and they pay one bill. They don’t really think of water and sewer as separate services, they just think of it all as their utility bill. But people in Warr Acres pay for these two services separately.
Well, this division of labor allows some people in Warr Acres to game the system. They pay their water bill but they’ll refuse to pay their sewer bill. In Oklahoma City, if someone tried to just pay for water but not sewer, they’d essentially just be paying half their utility bill. Oklahoma City would have a pretty simple response – they’d cut off the water. That usually gets people to pay. But whether they pay or don’t pay, Oklahoma City doesn’t have to keep providing a service without receiving funds to cover the cost. We may like to think that government can give us something for nothing, but the reality is that your utility bills really do cover the cost of providing you that service. Without your payment, there would not be money to provide you water and sewer. And if just some people pay, the rest of us have to cover the cost.
Warr Acres, however, has a conundrum. It is impossible for them to cut off sewer service while a residence or business is still receiving water. The Department of Environmental Quality won’t allow it, and this is understandable, as it would be a clear public health issue. So, when someone refuses to pay their sewer bill to Warr Acres, they can try to refer it to a collection agency, but they lack the ultimate hammer – the ability to stop providing the service. Warr Acres estimates this is costing them tens of thousands of dollars a year. That would be pocket change for Oklahoma City, but it’s real money to a town the size of Warr Acres.
The Mayor of Warr Acres is a man named Patrick Woolley. He has come to me for years trying to find a solution to this issue. For a year or so, we worked with the City of Oklahoma City to see if they could just coordinate with Warr Acres. But Oklahoma City ultimately decided they weren’t authorized under state law to cut off water service that a person was paying for. So, we concluded we needed a legislative solution. I can’t even remember now whether we worked on this for one year or two years in the Legislature, but every attempt failed. Usually, our solution was in a bill with another issue, and for one reason or another, it always fell short. This year, I was determined to get this done for my district. So I introduced SB 1029, which was focused exclusively on this issue. I worked with staff but labored over the language myself to ensure we had a good bill. All it did was allow a city providing water to voluntarily elect to cut off water if another city providing sewer notified the city providing water that the customer was not paying their sewer bill. I’m oversimplifying, as the bill was actually several pages long, and there was a lot of notice built into it so that the customer could dispute the claim, or get their water promptly turned back on if they paid their sewer bill. Though I still don’t know of any place in the state that has a similar situation, it would theoretically be applicable anywhere, not just Warr Acres.
As simple as this sounds and as limited as it is in its application, it was a tough bill to pass. On February 15, I presented it in General Government Committee. The Democrats peppered me with questions. They were concerned at the ramifications for someone who didn’t have the money to pay their bills. My view was that sewer and water billing is not the place for social programs and that there are other methods to provide Oklahomans in need with their basic services. There were also concerns from Republicans about whether adequate notice had been provided to the customer. I struck title (as fully explained in Episode One, a gesture to show that you understand your bill needs work), and it passed on party lines.
Meanwhile, I secured Rep. Elise Hall as my House author. This made sense, as she also represents Warr Acres. Sometimes you pick a House author because they’re interested in the policy area, and sometimes you pick them for geographic reasons. In this case, there was no one else I would have approached other than Elise.
I then proceeded to the Senate floor, where I filed a floor substitute (as explained in Episode One, a new version of the bill) and an amendment to restore the title. It was my hope to pass the bill over to the House and not have to bring it back for any further votes in the Senate. For this, I needed to restore title.
Sometimes, you just walk on the floor and you present your bill and you hope for the best. You can do this when the bill doesn’t seem terribly controversial. Sometimes, you are wrong and the bill goes down in flames. Usually, you are right. But I knew in advance this was a hard bill. First of all, for the reasons it had challenges in committee, but also for the reason that some people had a hard time looking at utilities as one service. They would say to me that if someone paid their water bill, then their water shouldn’t be cut off. I would explain that in the vast majority of cities (perhaps all of them other than Warr Acres), you couldn’t do that, because your water bill is just part of your overall utility bill. In other words, why should these people in Warr Acres be allowed a loophole that essentially forces all the good actors to pay for services still received by the bad actors? The reality is, we were both right. This is a great example of a close issue. People often presume that they would walk into a Legislature and always know what to do. But the reality is you can look at this issue a different way every 30 seconds and come up with a different decision. I had made my decision, but now I had to convince my colleagues to see it my way.
As we debated other bills, for several hours over the course of two days, I walked up and down the aisles of the Senate chamber, whip card in hand, explaining my bill and asking for commitments. This is time consuming, but it is the only way to get it done sometimes. By whip card, I mean a little green piece of paper the Senate provides that has every member’s name on it and a place to mark “aye” or “nay”. You need 25 votes to pass a bill, and when I finally had a little over 25 commitments, I told the Floor Leader I was ready to present SB 1029.
If people tell you they’re going to vote for your bill, they know they better do it, so some members refuse to make a commitment either way, lest they hear a better argument later. It’s okay to make a commitment and then change your mind, but you better give the author notice of that before he or she is presenting the bill, or you’ll never have credibility again. I can’t specifically remember a time someone failed to keep their word with me, and this was no different. It’s a good thing, because after a few hard-hitting questions and debate, it only passed 29-14. During the vote, which can be open for a few minutes, one Senator walked over and asked “Did I tell you I was voting for this?” It was evident that if he had not told me he was voting for it, he was now inclined to vote no. I told him (accurately) that he had committed his vote. He nodded and walked back to his desk to press his green button.
After this close call, I have to admit, I was not expecting the bill to pass the House. Not that I didn’t believe in Elise’s abilities. I absolutely did, but I just knew this might be too heavy a lift for anybody. But, she passed it 4-2 through committee (one changed vote would have rendered a tie and failure). Then, on April 12th at 3:18 p.m., she texted me “1029 passed out of the house!” Texting is sometimes the only way legislators can find time to communicate during the hectic session. I responded, “Wow! That was a heavy lift! I’m impressed!” She replied, “Eh, don’t be too impressed. It only passed with 52 yes votes.” Indeed, it had, and if it had received just two fewer yes votes, it would have failed. But a win is a win, and Elise had done it.
This meant the bill had advanced to the Governor. You can’t ever presume that the approval of the Governor is a formality, and it’s just this kind of quirky bill that can meet a dire fate on the Governor’s desk. So, I sent a letter (as I always do), but also sent a couple texts to key staff to let them know that despite the appearance of being a minor bill, this was a legislative success years in the making for Warr Acres. To illustrate that, Mayor Woolley personally drove to the Capitol to deliver a letter of support to the Governor’s office. And on April 19, she did sign it. SB 1029 takes effect November 1st.
SB 1029 is just the perfect example of the many bills that fly under the radar but are important to someone, keep the core services of government intact, and require diligence and persistence to accomplish. It may never mean much to you, but in a small way, every time a drop of water flows through a tap in Warr Acres, or a Warr Acres police officer responds to a person who needs help, it will be made possible in a very small way by the results of SB 1029. And I can take as much pride in bills like SB 1029 as the ones that grab the headlines.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills in 11 Days – Episode 2

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over 11 days, I am telling the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful. #11BillsIn11Days
Today, we continue with House Bill 2967, which allows school districts to sign contracts with student teachers for employment the following year, and allows them to promise a signing bonus if the teacher stays for at least one year.
The first page of HB 2967.

The first page of HB 2967.

After the 2015 legislative session, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and the State Department of Education held meetings to come up with recommendations to address the state’s teacher shortage. One of those recommendations was to do more to get student teachers to actually become teachers. That recommendation turned into HB 2967. In February, Hofmeister’s staff approached me about serving as the Senate author, joining House author Rep. Jason Nelson. Though it is probably more common for the original author to line up the author in the other chamber, it is not uncommon for outside interests to do that work if they are the ones who instigated the bill. The hectic nature of the Legislature is something I can’t possibly exaggerate, and so legislators are generally grateful when others assist with these formalities. In the case of HB 2967, I don’t think Rep. Nelson and I ever even talked about it. That may seem odd, but again, it would be impossible to exaggerate how busy everyone is during session and how many plates we have spinning (does anyone even get that analogy even more?) If Jason and I needed to talk about it, we would have, but if we didn’t, there is little time for chit chat.

Being the author in the opposite chamber from the house of origin means I had no involvement in the original drafting. In my experience, being in that position can lead to many reactions. Sometimes, I have received a House bill and felt it was just great. Sometimes, I have received a House bill and felt it wasn’t exactly the way I would have written it, but it’s not worth amending and forcing the House author to run it again in the House. Sometimes, I have completely and utterly rewritten the bill (with the House author’s acquiescence) either because I didn’t like it at all, or because I needed to do so in order to pass the Senate. In this case, though the operative language of the bill amounted to just about one paragraph, we ran into so much trouble that a rewrite became necessary.
The original version passed the House on March 7th by a vote of 80-8. Over in the Senate, it was assigned to the Education and Appropriations committees. This meant it had to run a gauntlet of two committees, which is more than most bills. Such assignments are made when a bill has even the hint of spending money. The money to be spent in this bill was entirely voluntary and at the school district level (as opposed to money that would have been appropriated in the state budget), but it was still enough to trigger the double assignment.
On March 28, I presented HB 2967 in Education Committee. This original version was markedly different than the final one. It limited the application to districts with a high proportion of students either on free or reduced lunch, or with a high proportion of minority students. It allowed districts to pay the student teachers like a teacher, as well as sign a contract for the ensuing year. I received a blizzard of questions from the committee. Some were concerned that all districts weren’t allowed to do this. Some were concerned at paying student teachers as much as a teacher. Some were concerned about paying student teachers who might not stay. Some articulated that the point of the bill seemed to be to incentivize student teachers to enter low income districts, but their view was that student teachers don’t get a say in where they are assigned. One of the most concerned Senators was Clark Jolley, who also happened to be chair of the Appropriations Committee that HB 2967 was also assigned to. At the conclusion of all the questioning, and after I had struck title (yesterday I explained that striking title is a gesture to show that you recognize your bill needs work), I asked the committee to pass the bill with the understanding that if a new version doesn’t please Senator Jolley, then he clearly wouldn’t hear it in Appropriations (yesterday I also explained that committee chairs have absolute authority to hear or not hear a bill). This argument seemed to work and it passed.
Following that meeting, I worked with Hofmeister’s staff on a new, simpler version to address all the concerns raised in Education Committee. It was certainly watered-down, but it still accomplished some things. Under current law, districts can’t sign a contract with a student teacher. Now they could. Perhaps that would help concert student teachers turn into real teachers. Also, districts couldn’t offer a signing bonus while the student teacher was still a student teacher. Though to address concerns articulated in committee, the district couldn’t really pay the bonus unless the teacher stayed a year, maybe this would help, too. The alternative was to abandon the bill, but it seemed like a little improvement was better than none, and considering the importance of the teacher shortage issue, it was worth the effort.
Let me digress for a moment and say that I don’t think state law should even address these issues. I think school districts ought to be able to decide when they can sign a contract with student teachers and whether they get a signing bonus without ever having to ask the Legislature. The Legislature should be focused on a much bigger picture. The level of micromanaging that we do in state statute of education (and all agencies) is unreal. It’s to the point where agencies feel they need a state law authorizing them to do things even when the statute doesn’t bar them from doing those things. Our statutes could be cut in half if we would just give folks a little autonomy, but we’ve been on this path for a very long time and I’m not sure how to get us on a different one without starting all over or getting in a time machine to 1907. End of digression.
And so we proceeded to Appropriations Committee with our new version on April 6. Hofmeister’s staff had consulted with Jolley, and he approved it. It passed without much fanfare, though the Democrats suddenly locked-up against it. I never really found out why, although I presumed it was some sort of political statement about the teacher shortage being the Republicans’ problem.
On April 14, I presented it on the Senate floor. I had to file an amendment to restore the title, but otherwise, I didn’t change it. It passed 31-10. Because we had amended it in the Senate, it had to go back to the House. There, it passed 90-2 on May 17th. The Governor signed it on May 24th. It had an emergency clause, which means it is now law.
Emergency clauses are routinely misreported because the language is so extreme. Here is the Legislature’s standard emergency clause: “It being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, by reason whereof this act shall take effect and be in full force from and after its passage and approval.”
Was this bill really necessary for the peace, health and safety of the public? No, it’s legalese, and I wish we had language that was a little softer. But the end result is that the bill takes effect immediately upon the signature of the Governor, rather than a later date.
I fully recognize that the number one challenge to securing and keeping quality teachers is the pay. That’s why I introduced a comprehensive package of bills in January to give all teachers a $10,000 raise. But that did not succeed. I remain hopeful a teacher pay raise lies ahead, but in the meantime, I hope HB 2967 helps the situation a little bit.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.

11 Bills in 11 Days – Episode 1

This year, Governor Fallin signed 394 pieces of legislation. I was the primary Senate author of 11 of those bills. Over the next 11 days, I will tell the story of each bill – where it came from, how it progressed through the Legislature, and what it means to the people of Oklahoma. This is in keeping with my longstanding support of transparency, and hopefully you’ll find this exercise insightful. #11BillsIn11Days
Today, we begin with Senate Bill 1113, which allows courts to award attorney fees to people who successfully regain property that had been taken from them in the civil asset forfeiture process.
The first page of Senate Bill 1113.

The first page of Senate Bill 1113.

In the spring of 2015, Senator Kyle D. Loveless introduced legislation to reform the civil asset forfeiture process. This is the process by which law enforcement seizes property it alleges has been involved in criminal activity. Senator Loveless’s efforts to get a hearing for that legislation captured headlines when the chairman of the committee it was assigned to made it clear he was not likely to give it a hearing. In the Legislature, bills are assigned to committees organized around subject areas, and the chairmen of those committees have absolute authority over whether a bill receives a hearing or not. Most bills die this way.

Paid lobbyists supporting reform of civil asset forfeiture reform approached me about authoring this bill, which represented a small reform in this area, but nevertheless a positive one. Ideas come from lots of places, but it is not uncommon for lobbyists to approach legislators with ideas for legislation. I don’t have a problem with this, because sometimes they have good ideas, and I know it’s useful to have their help in getting a bill through the legislative process. When they have bad ideas, I say no. I also pride myself on introducing a lot of bills that have no lobbying support at all. Believe it or not (and you probably do) there are not a lot of bills introduced at the Oklahoma Legislature that were not suggested by a lobbyist. This disappoints me, but I digress…
In December and January, I worked with Senate staff to get the language just right for SB 1113. When a bill is especially important to me, or particularly complex, I have been known to draft it myself. But even when I let staff take the first crack at it, I generally tinker with it significantly, and sometimes I’ll rewrite it at each step of the process. In this case, the bill was pretty simple and short.
Once it was filed and session began in February, it was assigned to the Judiciary Committee. I began making the pitch to the chairman that this bill made sense. He was simultaneously denying a hearing to Senator Loveless’s more comprehensive reforms, and so I knew there was a strong possibility he would not hear my bill either. But, he eventually relented and gave it a hearing in the last committee hearing before the deadline that would have killed it. It passed Judiciary Committee unanimously on February 23rd.
Meanwhile, I was negotiating with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater over some of the language to ensure that law enforcement did not fight the bill. We struck the title in committee to continue working on those changes. Striking title means that you render the bill incapable of becoming law. You literally take the title off, just as you might remove the title of a book (and a book needs a title). Striking title is generally a gesture to show that the bill is a work in progress. Other legislators and outside interests might not fight a bill they otherwise oppose if you show good faith by striking the title.
A week later, Senator Loveless co-authored the bill (a gesture in the Legislature that doesn’t give the co-author any authority, but simply indicates that they really like your bill). Meanwhile, I worked on a floor substitute (a new version of the bill for consideration on the Senate floor). This floor sub represented my negotiations with law enforcement. I also separately had to file an amendment to restore the title. It was my objective to pass a bill out of the Senate that would not need to return. Generally, this is always my objective, but sometimes I have to keep title off. But when I do that, it means the bill will have to return to the Senate for another vote if it passes the House.
By March 7th, I secured Rep. Randy Grau as the House author. One has to have a House author because that is the person who will play the role for the bill that I did in the Senate. It is important to choose your author carefully. They need to like your bill almost as much as you do, or you’ll only get halfway to the finish line. On March 9th, the day before the last deadline for floor action, I presented the bill on the Senate floor, adopted the floor sub, restored title, and passed it 45-0. A surprisingly high number of votes in the Senate are unanimous. And in the Senate, securing a floor hearing is generally not that difficult. The Senate culture is to weed things out at the committee level. Once you get past committee, it’s generally up to you as the author whether your bill is heard on the Senate floor.
And so, SB 1113 now made the journey to the House. On March 22nd, Rep. Grau passed it through Judiciary Committee in the House. Simultaneous to this progress, I had signed up as the Senate author of a House version of the same concept. That version had passed the House and came over to the Senate. But considering the committee chairman’s concerns about civil asset forfeiture reform, it seemed to make the most sense to drop pursuit of the House bill and proceed with the Senate version, and so we did. After securing a floor hearing (which, in contrast to the Senate, can be difficult in the House) Rep. Grau passed the measure through the House on April 21st, the day of the deadline. I note the deadlines, because this bill pushed all them. There was no particular reason that occurred, but it’s worth noting because when you do that, you always run the risk that something crazy happens and your bill dies just because somebody ran out of time. It is worth recalling that many bills die at the Legislature for reasons that have little to do with their merits. This is not necessarily what they teach in high school civics, but it is true nonetheless.
The bill passed the House 78-6. There are 101 House members, but for reasons unknown to me, there are often a lot of non-votes in the House. It is also very rare for anything to pass unanimously (in contrast to the Senate).
Our bill then went to the Governor’s desk. I sent her a letter about it, and responded to standard inquiries from her staff. She signed it April 28th. The way it was drafted, it doesn’t become law until November 1st of this year, which is pretty common.
Hopefully, SB 1113 will encourage attorneys to take up the causes of those who have had their assets unjustly seized, and hopefully it will do some good. It certainly improves the situation. I recognize that more reform is needed in the area of civil asset forfeiture, but I was glad to have contributed to some positive action this session.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another episode of #11BillsIn11Days.