OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma lawmakers will be confronted by familiar issues Monday when they convene the 2017 Oklahoma Legislature: a nearly $870 million state budget shortfall, teacher salaries that have not been increased since 2008, complying with a divisive federal anti-terrorism law involving identification cards and relieving pressure on the state’s overcrowded prisons.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate say they will focus on their priorities during the four-month legislative session.
The state faces a budget hole of almost $870 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 due to low energy prices and years of tax cuts and subsidies for businesses and industries. It’s the third consecutive year the Legislature will have to cut state services or find new sources of revenue.
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin will call for “a major overhaul of our tax system” when she delivers her state-of-the-state speech Monday, and as she did last year. Fallin will urge lawmakers to tap new revenue streams to help boost teacher pay and meet other needs.
Revenue proposals may include two that were unsuccessful in 2016: a new cigarette tax and a tax on some currently exempted such as barber and salon services, vehicle maintenance and various household services. Democrats have proposed rolling back income tax cuts and credits and indexing the gross production tax to the price of oil.
Oklahoma’s average teacher salary of $44,921 is last of the seven states in the region and among the lowest in the nation. Teacher pay has not been raised since 2008 and the state faces a chronic teacher shortage as experienced teachers seek higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
GOP House Speaker Charles McCall has said boosting teacher pay is this year’s top priority for House Republicans. And GOP Rep. Michael Rogers has filed legislation that would phase in a $6,000 teacher pay raise over three years.
But lawmakers have not developed a plan to pay for it. Rogers says a phased-in approach would allow the Legislature to manage declining revenue while still raising teacher salaries.
Following years of delays, Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they will pass legislation to comply with a federal law involving identification cards.
Legislative leaders have announced a bipartisan commitment to comply with the REAL ID Act, signed by former President George W. Bush four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
A 2007 Oklahoma law prevents the state from fully implementing REAL ID, which involves adding security features to state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. Opponents claim the law is an invasion of privacy and allows the federal government to establish a database to monitor citizens.
Non-compliant state-issued IDs will be accepted at federal agencies through June 6, but Oklahoma IDs cannot be used to board a commercial aircraft if they are not compliant by January 2018.
Lawmakers hoping to build on the success of two ballot initiatives have filed additional proposals to help reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population.
More than 61,000 people are either incarcerated, on supervision or in a county jail awaiting transfer in Oklahoma. The state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country and the highest imprisonment rate for women.
In November, voters approved measures to reduce penalties for some drug possession and property crimes and reallocate funds to diversionary programs, although several bills have been filed to overturn the measures. Other proposals include shortening criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders and offering parole to older inmates.
Conservative social issues will likely dominate legislative debate during the legislative session, including anti-abortion and firearms measures.
Oklahoma’s Republican-led Legislature has passed some of the country’s most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation, and many have been thrown out by the courts or temporarily halted while lawsuits are pending.
One anti-abortion measure introduced this year seeks to classify the procedure as first-degree murder, similar to a bill that failed last year. Other measures would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and require the written consent of the father.
Lawmakers have also introduced dozens of firearms bills, including measures to prohibit people living in the country illegally from possessing guns and placing armed police officers in private schools.
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