By Mindy Ragan Wood
New lawmakers are wading into deep waters as they prepare to pen their first bills.
State Representatives Brian Hill (R-Tuttle) and Jay Steagall (R-Yukon), joined a more seasoned lawmaker, Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon) at a forum hosted by the Countyline Republican Women’s club at the Yukon Police Department last week.
Hill was the first to mention what it’s like being a new lawmaker.
“Coming into this is different from anything you’ve ever been warned about,” Hill said. “The best description I can find for it so far is going to college and majoring every single subject and knowing there’s about to be a test and you have a month to cram.”
Both Steagall and Hill were optimistic that lawmakers can work together to find solutions. The two joined dozens of new Republican legislators at a caucus retreat last month.
“I thought there were would be more distractors, more people pushing back but that was not the case, from leadership all the way through there is a group of people who are excited, and they realize there’s a high expectation,” Hill said. “You can’t have a super majority of 77 and not get nothing done.”
Steagall seemed confident in the leadership of the Republican Party and the state’s new governor.
“This is a team effort,” Steagall said. “Now’s the time to be excited about what the legislature can do for us. We’ve got great leadership from the top down.”
The pressure on the GOP is mounting for education as rumors of an impending teacher walkout are swirling around the state Capitol. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is pressing hard for an increase to funding for projected prison growth and crumbling buildings.
Baker pointed out that it appears the legislature will enjoy a $612 million surplus in the budget, but that is not always an enviable position.
“Here’s what I’ve been told,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s sometimes harder to legislate when you have money because everyone has an argument for why they need the money. With that, I’ve had a lot of people coming forward…Kevin Wallace, our appropriations chairman said, ‘folks, we only have a certain amount of money and we’ve got the Department of Corrections to deal with,’” Baker said. “That is something we truly have got to focus on as well.”
Baker, who will again serve on the education committee, said she hopes a bill that will make it easier for out of state teachers to migrate to Oklahoma will pass.
“One thing we’ve heard over and over is that the teacher certification exam in this state does not make it easy for teachers going out of state or coming in to bring their certifications. I am running a bill that will allow teachers to come in with their certifications to immediately be able to get a job,” Baker said.
While some may argue that the certification process is a rigorous one, Baker said it is something “maybe we can debate later, but at this point we need to make sure we have access to teachers from other states that are coming our way.”
Consolidation of some school districts is in her mind another cure for education funding.
“We’ve known this for a long time, that we have far too many school districts,” Baker said.
“Our rural legislators are fearful of any talk of consolidation, so we have to make sure we talk to those (stakeholders) to look at ways we can maybe incentivize those smaller districts to pull together and maybe look at consolidation of administrative services. We recognize we’re not going to be able to do anything without some kind of incentive.”
Not all school districts would be good candidates, she said, but small struggling districts whose bus routes intersect in a small area could benefit from joining another district.
Baker pointed to districts that have consolidated in the western half of the state such as
Hydro Eakley as a wise move, but eastern Oklahoma districts remain less willing to consider it.
After a conversation she had with a former Speaker of the House in Arkansas during Governor Mike Huckabee’s tenure, she said it can be done and it can make education better across Oklahoma.
“They incentivized the districts and now they’re able to put more money in education and get it where needs to be instead of these high salaries for all these superintendents. I asked him so many questions and the one thing I learned from him is that if you do not have the governor, the speaker of the house and the Senate on board you will never get anything accomplished and it has to truly be a directive of the governor,” Baker said.
Hill, who has been appointed as vice chair to the appropriations and budget finance committee, said he has a measure that addresses the state’s failure-to-protect law.
The law often results in the prosecution of mothers who are in abusive relationships.
“We’re doing damage to our children and our women who are being incarcerated for many years when we have the perpetrator who beat their children are getting suspended sentences. We have a problem,” he said. “There’s a reason we’re the number one place to incarcerate women on the planet.”
Hill also hopes to see a bill passed that will require state DHS workers to perform a search for a child’s relative for adoption within three months of being taken into the foster care system. Foster families often raise a child for up to three years or more and then lose them to a distant relative located by DHS workers. He said it is a waste of taxpayer dollars and emotionally taxing on children and foster parents.
As the meeting drew to a close, the infamous letter from Canadian County’s Republican Party came up for discussion. A member of the audience asked the stances of the three lawmakers on the issues in the letter. The letter, written by Canadian County GOP chairman Andrew Lopez, was submitted to all Republican legislators.
The letter called for the abolishment of property tax, public education, and abortion among other roles in government.
All three lawmakers refuted the letter, citing the state constitution mandates public education.
“I think words matter,” Hill said. “I think that there’s a young generation that’s looking at us that wants to know what we truly care about. If I tell them I don’t care about the quality of their education, what does that say about their future and what does that say to them about being involved in this wonderful civic opportunity that we have to be part of this American dream? I take it personal in that light.”
Steagall said he respects the party’s freedom of speech but that he supports the government’s obligation to fund education. He is an unwavering supporter of pro-life beliefs.
“I’ll sign any pro-life bill that comes across my desk,” he said.
Baker, a former teacher, said had been upfront about her position against the letter.
“If that letter comes up, I will be very happy to debate that with anyone who darkens my door, however I will tell you none of them have,” she said. “They have not darkened my door to have a conversation with me, but I will tell you that if you look on social media, they blast me all the time. I did vote for the revenue (bill) to fund education. It’s shameful that we have to get on social media and degrade people for their viewpoints. If we have disagreements, let’s have them in a cordial way and respectful way. That’s the way I was raised.”