- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - With a key deadline just past them, Oklahoma lawmakers are finding out which of Gov. Mary Fallin’s legislative priorities might eventually be signed into law and which are likely to wind up in the trash bin.

Thursday marked the last day for bills to be considered by committees in their house of origin.

So far, the 2016 Oklahoma Legislature has embraced Fallin’s proposals to reduce mandatory drug possession sentences by non-violent offenders to reduce prison overcrowding, and lawmakers have supported reducing or delaying hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax breaks as state budget writers work to fill a $1.3 billion hole in next year’s state budget.

But a proposal to consolidate Oklahoma’s dependent school districts to trim school administrative costs and another to more than double the state tax on a pack of cigarettes to increase state revenue could be in trouble.

Measures that were not heard are likely dead for the year, needing certain legislative maneuvers to come back.

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EDUCATION

Proposals to consolidate the administrative functions of some of Oklahoma’s 515 public school districts have received little support in the House or Senate.

A measure to consolidate some K-8 dependent school districts into larger, independent K-12 districts was soundly defeated in a House subcommittee amid fierce opposition from teachers and parents. A similar measure by Senate Pro tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, was not heard in two separate committees to which it was assigned.

Fallin has said consolidating school administrative costs is a way to free up revenue amid a state budget shortfall and funding cuts to public schools. Some lawmakers fear it could lead to school closures, particularly in rural communities.

Bingman said he will continue to work on the idea in the hopes it can be resurrected later in the legislative session.

“It’s frustrating that another sensible reform has fallen victim to the desire to preserve the status quo,” Bingman said in a statement.

A separate bill to provide pay raises for teachers is still alive, but its author says there is no agreement on how to fund it.

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CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Still alive are bills to give prosecutors the discretion to file charges as misdemeanors instead of felonies in certain cases; reduce the mandatory punishment for certain drug offenses; raise the threshold for property crimes to be charged as a felony to $1,000; and make it easier for drug offenders to get into state-sponsored drug court programs. Fallin says it remains a priority to keep people safe, but that changes are needed in the criminal justice system.

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CIGARETTE TAX

Fallin says Oklahoma can raise $181.6 million by increasing the state tax on cigarettes by $1.50 per pack - more than double the current rate of $1.03, but the author of a tax-increase bill pulled the legislation from a House committee.

“At this point, any increase does not have the support,” said Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, an emergency room physician. “There’s still some lawmakers out here that don’t realize the severity of the budget shortfall and how we cannot cut our way out of this…We’re going to need a revenue stream. And I don’t think I’m going to get the votes until everyone realizes we need a revenue stream.”

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CRUMBLING CAPITOL

The House Appropriations and Budget Committee has authorized a second bond issue to repair the building. Lawmakers approved a $120 million bond issue two years ago and the committee gave preliminary approval to another $125 million bond issue to complete the work with new plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems.

“The first phase of the Capitol restoration was to make urgent repairs to keep the building open,” said House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview. “This building is a symbol of our great state’s history, heritage and culture, and we must preserve it for future generations of Oklahomans.”


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