The 2017 Oklahoma Legislature wrapped up its legislative session two weeks ago, leaving many unresolved questions for the people of Oklahoma.
It would be easy for me to frame this legislative session as a victory for the Muslim community. A number of bills that would target the Muslim community were introduced but gained no ground and were never heard in committee. There were only two occasions of blatant Islamophobia from two legislators – one apologized and the other has a long history of this type of behavior.
As Government Affairs Director of CAIR-OK, I was able to have over 20 face-to-face meetings with individual legislators on both sides of the aisle and grew our coalition involvement significantly. We participated in direct action on numerous bills and saw more legislators involved with our Muslim Day at the Capitol than ever before!
For the first time in 5 years, we received an official citation from the House of Representatives recognizing the work of CAIR-OK and the contributions of the Oklahoma Muslim community. The support from outside of the Muslim community grew significantly in both donations and volunteer turn out.
Altogether, the 2017 legislative session was, from this perspective, a great success for the Muslim community. For our Oklahoma community, however, the post-session outlook is considerably more disappointing.
There were big problems to be solved this year: a $900 million budget shortfall, a failing criminal justice system, an overburdened physical and mental health care system, low teacher pay, schools on the verge of closure, and more.
CAIR-OK set an ambitious legislative agenda for 2017 on many of these issues, hoping to move the needle on funding for core services and encourage legislators to pass responsible fiscal policy. Despite numerous promises from legislative leaders, budget negotiations were not held until the last minute. These meetings took place late at night, without documents and legislation available to the public.
The budget that was passed is now facing legal challenges, does not provide the funding needed to raise pay for teachers, and claims to “hold harmless” countless other agencies – agencies that have been cut at alarming rates over the last six to ten years. In short, the state budget passed by the legislature was anything but responsible.
Other areas of this legislative session were disappointing too. Game changing criminal justice reform was left on the table, held up by a single member who refused to hear the legislation despite significant public support. More than one legislator made comments targeting marginalized communities – particularly women and non-English speaking children. Six different legislators resigned their seats, some due to disgrace and scandal.
I do not want to give you the impression that we should view the conclusion of this session with despair. Along with other professional and citizen advocates, I spent countless hours in the halls of the State Capitol both independently and as part of the Save Our State coalition campaigning to our legislators asking them to make responsible budget choices. We saw a larger more consistent turnout at our events encouraging engagement. People are seeking out information and taking action.
Coalitions are growing in the strength and so too are the advocacy efforts of many different types of organizations. Lobbyists are no longer the only frequent faces in the halls of the Capitol. There is a movement of people who are waking up and taking responsibility for the future of our state and our children.
As CAIR-OK’s Government Affairs department looks to the future, I see the Oklahoma Muslim at the forefront of this movement. During the interim session, we will be planning community meetings on issue areas and helping you stay connected with your elected officials, even when they are not at the Capitol.
We will continue to support and promote policies that maximize religious freedoms, Constitutional protections, and work towards eliminating inequality in Oklahoma. We look forward to your help making a more equal Oklahoma for all.