Okla. Leg. to consider 2,000-plus measures in 2014
TIM TALLEY Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma legislators will have more than 2,000 bills and resolutions waiting for them when they open their session Feb. 3, including another attempt to lower the state’s income tax and efforts to restructure pay for state employees and retirees.
When last week’s bill-filing deadline passed, senators had put forward 976 proposals, plus 35 joint resolutions. House members filed 1,197 bills and 23 regsolutions. Appropriations bills are handled separately.
Gov. Mary Fallin, who intends to seek a second four-year term this year, said she wants to work on job creation, improving the state’s economy and eliminating government waste.
“Unlike Washington, Oklahoma lawmakers have a great track record of working together to help our families and businesses,” Fallin said.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said his focus in 2014 will also be creating jobs and growing Oklahoma’s economy.
“Of course, the overriding issue will be working with legislative and state leaders to ensure we balance our budget in a fiscally responsible way. I am confident we are up to the challenge,” Bingman said in a statement.
Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have filed tax cut legislation that would lower Oklahoma’s individual income tax rate to 4 percent within four years.
Last year, lawmakers passed a plan to lower the individual income tax rate to 5 percent, but that legislation was struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The state’s top income tax rate is currently 5.25 percent.
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, author of the Senate tax cut bill, said the state is in an income tax dilemma as it lies between Texas, which has no income tax, and Kansas, which has lowered its rate below Oklahoma’s.
“Economic growth and principles of a limited government continue to be held back by our relatively high income tax rate,” Holt said.
The author of the House plan, state Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, said cutting the income tax will allow Oklahomans to keep more of their income, providing a boost to the state’s economy.
“The state income tax has been lowered slowly over time from 7 percent to 5.25 percent. Nearly every time we have lowered the rate, we have seen a commensurate rise in tax revenue to the state’s coffers to fund core services,” Osborn said.
Lawmakers are likely to consider changes to Oklahoma’s compensation system for public employees, many of whom have not received a pay raise since 2006.
Members of the House and Senate have postponed consideration of a salary proposal for most of Oklahoma’s more than 30,000 state workers as they awaited completion of an independent study on state employee pay. And some expressed frustration in December after learning that House Speaker T.W. Shannon approved more than a quarter of a million dollars in annual pay increases for his staff.
The pay hikes for 52 House employees took effect July 1 and ranged from about 2 percent for a housekeeper to more than 30 percent each for three staff attorneys.
A state-funded study of compensation by Neville Kenning of Kenning found that state base salaries are more than 20 percent below the private sector while benefits are competitive. But the study said competitive benefits do not make up for the lag in pay.
Osborn, who has proposed implementing a market-based pay structure over a period of years, said low pay is creating high turnover rates and not giving taxpayers the level of service they expect.
“While we will be looking at a gradual, multi-year plan, I do believe we have the momentum and data to begin to implement changes in the upcoming session,” Osborn said.
Changes to public pension systems are also expected to be a priority during the 2014 legislative session. Lawmakers are expected to consider a plan to shift newly hired state workers from their current traditional pension system to a more 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.
Republican leaders also are pushing to consolidate the administration of the state’s seven different pension systems.
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