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.
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.