Week 6 Recap
The COVID pandemic has been a source of much contentious legislation. HB 3145, which attempts to consolidate school district policies surrounding communicable diseases, passed on party lines, as did HB 3159, a bill which gained media attention due to its proposal that students with communicable diseases such as head lice be allowed to continue attending school. While of course local control over school policy is important, we have seen through this pandemic that piecemeal approaches to public health measures rarely result in stopping the spread of communicable disease. These measures should be met with caution.
Positive public health movement addressed the issue of period poverty as SB 1499, which would provide for a sales tax refund on menstrual products, passed out of the Senate. Another bill which would require all tourism information centers to have a universal changing station for serving persons with disabilities, HB 3015, passed the House floor.
A Texas-style “vigilante bill” (HB 4327), which would allow an individual to receive up to a $10,000 bounty for reporting that another individual had accessed abortion care, passed despite a strong debate. A bill removing rights of minors to access contraception (SB 1225) was accompanied by a slew of problematic language surrounding the health of women. State interference in private medical decisions is a source of great concern and we will be watching these bills closely.
Criminal Justice Reform
Criminal justice bills progressed in both houses as drug courts (SB 1548), additional protections for victims of stalking (SB 1674), clearing records for occupational licensures (HB 3002), reductions in fees for courtroom interpreters (HB 3957), and reducing fines and fees for those who are found not guilty (HB 3270) all passed with little contention. The Senate also took a look at mental health services for law enforcement officers with SB 1613, a move met with approval from both sides of the aisle. Those reentering society after periods of incarceration will now find it easier to obtain proper ID (HB 4353) and return to the workforce (HB 4352).
Negative measures, however, show that we still have work to do to change our culture around crime and punishment. Despite strong opposition, HB 3383, which sets strict time limits on filing applications for post-conviction relief, passed along party lines. HB 4191, a hotly-contested bill that would criminalize many forms of protest and subject those arrested for “loitering on public property” to harsh penalties, passed along partisan lines. This is of particular interest to anyone who followed the racial justice and environmental justice actions that took place in recent years. In addition, the floor debate around this bill made news as the bills author claimed that his experiences as a person of short stature were equal to the experiences that Rep. Mauree Turner, the states’ first and only Muslim representative, faces daily in their work.
A benefit from the pandemic is that government processes are becoming more transparent and accessible to those with the ability to watch video/audio recordings of important meetings/hearings. HB 3415, clarifying language by which a public health emergency might lead state or local officials to move meetings online, passed with a strong majority.
HJR 1002 (requires initiative petitions to achieve requisite signatures in all 77 counties) passed despite strong opposition from voting rights advocates, who pointed out that many of the state’s most key reforms would effectively be hamstrung by such a requirement. Other measures taking aim at initiative petitions and legislative referendums passed similarly (HJR 1052, HJR 1058, and HJR 1059). HJR 1048 and a similar bill, SJR 27, which reiterates that non-citizens may not vote in the state of Oklahoma, took up a long period of debate but passed on partisan lines. While on their face these measures seem to be obvious restatements of law, they represent the targeting of minority and immigrant communities in the wake of heightened xenophobia and anti-immigrant bias.
Other Bills of Interest
A renewed conversation about corporate taxes was struck with the advancement of HB 4358, a sweeping proposed reform which would completely phase out corporate income taxes over an 8 year period, which would lead to a nearly $400million fiscal impact – in other words, a loss to funding that could support crucial social services in the state. While Oklahoma businesses could surely use a boost after the COVID-19 pandemic, many questions remain about whether these kinds of taxes truly lead to the economic prosperity they promise. In addition, core services such as education have already suffered measurable damage due to budget shortfalls. Think tanks such as the Oklahoma Policy Institute caution strongly against cutting corporate taxes and reducing state’s income during times of high social welfare need. We should be watching these moves closely.