Week 4 Legislative Wrap-up
Things heated up in Week 4 of the legislative session as bills either advanced or failed as “dead” bills. Things move quickly during this period of the legislative session as lawmakers rush to meet the third reading deadline on March 17, and debates heat up as important topics are brought to the floor.
We heard many ongoing conversations about free speech in the classroom, particularly the right of students to hear accurate, uncensored lessons about more troubling parts of American history. In the House, HB 3092, which would require that public school library programs be “reflective of community standards,” advanced 89-7. Although on the surface these bills seem to give more power to parents to determine what their children hear in the classroom, the fact is that these bills were written with the intent of stifling classroom conversations about topics such as race, gender, and dark aspects of history. Teachers and librarians already have to follow stringent standards in their work, and adding more burdensome and dangerous restrictions to their jobs only hurts our children.
In the public health realm, a number of alarming bills advanced along party lines. SB 1544 (would prohibit schools from entering into any transactions with entities that perform or provide abortion care); SB 1503 (a heartbeat bill); SB 1552 (special grants for crisis pregnancy centers); SB 1553 (prohibits any abortion more than 30 days after the beginning of a pregnant person’s last menstrual period); and SB 1555 (a Roe trigger, which will immediately outlaw all abortion care in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned); and SJR 37 (a legislative referendum on banning abortion care). While individual feelings about abortion care are complicated, every pregnant person deserves to be able to make the medical decisions best for themselves in privacy, with the assistance of the doctor or religious leader of their choice. These are not decisions for a state legislature to make.
Voting rights are again under attack as bills advance that would limit the ability of smaller election boards to obtain grants to fund their elections (HB 3046); would require additional hoops for those applying for absentee ballots (HB 3364); would set different standards for federal elections than state elections, potentially causing them to be held on different days (HB 3232); and would place onerous burdens on initiative petitions and legislative referendums (HJRs 1058, 1059, 1002). Oklahoma has one of the most secure voting systems in the country, and the number of proven cases of voter fraud is extremely low. Any attempt to make voting harder to access is an attack on our democracy which should be treated with caution.
Criminal Legal Reform
Criminal legal reform did see some advances as a bill to automate expungements of eligible criminal records passed almost unanimously (HB 3316, 87-4). The inability to expunge a criminal record holds back many members of the community who wish to hold down jobs, obtain steady housing, and return to being contributing members of society. Making this process easier helps to reduce the straitened circumstances that lead many into crime in the first place. HB 3024 increases the number of individuals who qualify for expungement, making this lifeline more accessible. In addition, we saw movement towards diversionary programs in HB 3053. Troublingly, we have seen fines and fees increase with HB 3026, which raises the amount that sheriffs charge for fingerprinting services, and attacks on commutations of the death penalty or life without parole (HB 3383 and 3903, SB 1738).
An interesting development is HB 3543, which passed along party lines, which would create the Oklahoma Free Speech Committee within the state’s Regents for Higher Education. While of course the protection of the First Amendment is a core value of any civil liberties institution, we remain concerned that bills such as this are passed without regard to the more insidious consequences, intended or not, that result in state legislatures trying to redefine core civil rights values.