OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma Senate has been busy with legislation ranging from contraband cellphones in prison, teacher retention and organ transplants.

Senate approves certificate of rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders

The Senate has unanimously approved legislation on Monday, March 2, to ensure nonviolent offenders in Oklahoma’s prison system are prepared to live independent, productive lives once released. Sen. Bill Coleman, R-Ponca City, said he authored Senate Bill 1298 to ensure inmates are completing all the necessary education, training and counseling recommended during their incarceration in order to successfully reintegrate into society.

The bill directs the Department of Corrections to create a certificate of rehabilitation that will certify what reentry programs an offender has completed while incarcerated. The measure states that the certificate may include social and behavioral programs, substance abuse counseling, mentoring programs, financial planning, physical and mental health programs, and housing and federal assistance programs in addition to educational and vocational programs.

“For too long our state warehoused nonviolent offenders without providing any services to address their problems, which left them completely unprepared to start a new healthy, independent life when they were released. In recent years, programs have been started to provide education, job training, life skills, counseling, addiction treatment and other services to address the issues that led to incarceration in the first place,” Coleman said. “This certificate will hold DOC staff more accountable to ensure these inmates are getting all the services they need. It will also give these offenders something tangible to work towards and a form of recognition for their dedication and hard work to better themselves.”

The Department will develop eligibility criteria to apply for the certificate and maintain a database that identifies granted certificates and revoked certificates. Violent offenders will not be eligible for the rehabilitation program. Courts receiving an application for the certificate are directed to notify the county’s district attorney that the application has been filed.

The measure now moves to the House for further consideration.

Senate approves tax credit accountability legislation

The full Senate has passed legislation that would require any new tax credits to have a maximum sunset of 10 years and a measurable goal that can be used as a benchmark for success.

Senate Bill 1280, authored by Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, addresses the issues found by the Incentive Evaluation Commission when they analyzed the state’s tax credits. The commission was formed by the legislature in 2015 to objectively evaluate Oklahoma’s economic incentives.

“From working with the Incentive Evaluation Commission, we’ve found that many of our tax credits have inadequate data to evaluate their results,” Kirt said. “This has resulted in the commission having to recreate the legislative intent of each credit. If we want our tax incentives to be successful, we must have measurable goals attached to each one so we can analyze their performance.”

Under the bill, a “measurable goal” would be defined as a statement explaining the expected long-term result of the credit to use as a foundation for data collection, comparison and evaluation.

“Any tax credit created to spur economic development should have two things – a sunset and a clear goal,” Kirt said. “This legislation provides accountability to confirm these incentives are working as intended. I’m glad my colleagues are committed to ensuring our tax credits are working for both Oklahomans and the state.”

The measure now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, is the House author for the bill.

Senate approves legislation modifying school attendance requirements

The full Senate has passed legislation that would allow absent students who complete assigned instructional activities or engage in online curriculum or programs provided by the school district to be counted as “in attendance.”

Sen. Mark Allen, R-Spiro, authored Senate Bill 1210 because of a changing educational climate where engagement can no longer be defined as sitting in a seat, he said.

“According to current statutes, students are counted as chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of school days,” Allen said. “However, attendance policies for class credit typically have an 80 percent attendance requirement. This discrepancy results in our schools being penalized on their A-F report cards with a low chronic absenteeism score even though students are actively participating to receive class credit.”

Allen said schools should not be punished since they cannot control if a student shows up for class or not, but if a student is actively working from home, completing class assignments on time or engaging in online curriculum, they should be marked as in attendance.

“We must look outside of the box for solutions to our chronic absenteeism problem,” Allen said. “I’m glad my colleagues agree that we cannot punish our public schools for something they cannot control, especially when these students are actively engaging in school curriculum.”

The measure now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau, is the principal House author.

Senate tackles contraband cellphones in Oklahoma prisons

The full Senate has approved a measure that would require the director of the Department of Corrections (DOC) to develop an annual report detailing issues related to contraband cellphone use in Oklahoma prisons.

Sen. Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher, proposed Senate Bill 1164 after hosting an interim study about the illegal use of cellphones behind bars. The measure would require the annual report to include the current status of contraband cellphones from the more than 30 DOC facilities across the state, the number of devices collected in the current year and an updated plan of action to address the issue. The yearly report would be given to the governor, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

“Contraband cellphones can pose serious security threats to inmates, correctional officers and civilians,” Jech said. “With cellphone access, inmates can initiate violence, make threats and participate in drug deals and other crimes all while still behind bars.”

In 2019, more than 150 inmates in an Oklahoma prison instigated acts of violence led by gang leaders and members behind bars. The acts were facilitated by cellphone communication and spread to five other prisons in the state.

DOC director Scott Crow has previously stated that contraband cellphones, which are often smuggled in by visitors, are the number one security threat in Oklahoma prisons.

“I don’t believe there’s a one size fits all solution for contraband cellphones in our prisons,” Jech said. “However, an annual report outlining the problem will help DOC and policy makers analyze the issue and provide a mechanism to track progress each year.”

The measure now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, is the House principal author.

Bill clarifying regulation of medical marijuana use in public places heads to House

The House will next consider legislation clarifying cities’ and counties’ authority to regulate the smoking and vaping of medical marijuana in public places. Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, is the author of Senate Bill 1296, which he says is needed to clear up confusion as to where citizens can use their medical products. The bill passed out of the Senate Monday afternoon.

“The bills we passed last year had some gray area and it wasn’t clear as to whether someone could consume their medical marijuana in smokable or vaping form in a public place. This legislation clarifies that cities and counties do have the authority to regulate someone’s consumption of these products through smoking or vaping,” Paxton said. “However, it would not stop someone, like a cancer patient, from taking their medicine in a consumable or edible form. They just wouldn’t be able to smoke or vape it in those public places where their city or county prohibits it because when you smoke it, it actually affects a lot of people around you.”

SB 1296 updates the Smoking in Public Places and Indoor Workplaces Act to add the smoking or vaping of medical marijuana to the list of public places where the smoking or vaping of tobacco or other lawful products is currently prohibited.

Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, is the bill’s principal House author.

Senate approves bill to allow more students access to apprenticeships

Legislation to help more Oklahoma students be career ready after graduation unanimously passed off the Senate Floor Tuesday. Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, is the author of Senate Bill 1532, which will allow sophomores age 16 and older to participate in the Apprenticeships, Internships and Mentorships Act of 2016.

“It’s important to learn how to read, write and do math but our students also need help finding what their passion is and what career they’d like to pursue before going into the workforce or on to college,” Bullard said. “This will give sophomores access to this program so they can get hands-on, real life experience in different fields and industries to help them better prepare for their future.”

Currently, the program is only open to juniors and seniors. SB 1532 also authorizes the governing body of participating schools to obtain liability insurance coverage to provide additional protections to students who participate in the program. It also prohibits the governing body from directly or indirectly charging a student or the student’s parent or legal guardian for the cost of the coverage and clarifies that failure to obtain insurance does not place a legal liability on the governing body of the school. Schools districts are also protected under the Governmental Tort Claims Act.

“Not being able to purchase liability insurance for students was a major roadblock for many schools in my district and kept them from allowing participation in apprenticeships. This bill will allow them to get the proper coverage to protect themselves from liability should a student get hurt while participating in an apprenticeship, internship or mentorship,” Bullard said.

SB 1532 also directs the State Board of Education to review apprenticeships, internships and mentorships to determine if they are eligible for academic credit toward meeting graduation requirements.

The bill now moves to the House for further consideration.

Senate approves telemedicine legislation aimed at reducing law enforcement mental health transports

The Senate has passed legislation that would provide mental health patients telemedicine healthcare access when a law enforcement officer is dispatched for assistance. Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, authored Senate Bill 1208, which he says is necessary to provide immediate patient care and reduce costly mental health transport

Under the measure, if an officer is called to assist a medically stable individual suffering from mental health ailment, the patient could be assessed by a licensed mental health professional via telemedicine if the capability is available.

“When called to a scene under current law, our officers are required to immediately transport a mental health patient to the nearest facility with a bed available,” Bergstrom said. “This can be extremely time consuming and costly for our law enforcement entities, especially in rural communities where there may only be a few deputies available each shift.”

Bergstrom said a sheriff’s department in his district implemented a telemedicine pilot program utilizing iPad technology for officers to use at these calls. Prior to telemedicine availability, officers were making 70-80 mental health transports per year. After the program was implemented, transports were significantly reduced.

“Based on the telemedicine program already in place in northeastern Oklahoma, we’ve seen that mental health patients receiving immediate access to medical care typically don’t need to be taken to a mental health facility,” Bergstrom said. “A faster diagnosis reduces patient trauma and allows for quicker treatment, reducing the number of required taxpayer funded mental health transports.”

The measure passed unanimously and now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, is the principal House author of the bill.

Senate approves Oklahoma Standby Guardianship Act

More than 1,500 students were stranded for several hours at schools across Mississippi last August after a federal immigration sweep of local businesses led to the arrest of nearly 700 undocumented citizens. To avoid such a possible traumatic incident for Oklahoma students, Oklahoma City Public Schools requested Senate Bill 1711 to create the Oklahoma Standby Guardianship Act. The bill by Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma, was approved Tuesday by the Senate.

“When parents are unexpectedly arrested because of immigration or other legal issues, their children can get stranded at school or daycare because there are no other guardians who can legally pick them up,” Brooks said. “This is a proactive measure to allow parents to select someone to be prepared should such an incident ever occur. This is just a matter of protecting their children and ensuring they’re with a trusted friend or family member and somewhere safe until their legal issues are resolved.”

The bill would allow a parent to put in writing a legal standby guardian and give the named individual the same authority of the parent while they are incarcerated or detained. The guardian would have authority to make all legal decisions for the child once the triggering event occurred and the necessary documentation and consent was received from the courts and parent.

Several other states, including Colorado, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia have standby guardianship laws to protect children.

Senate approves bill ensuring assisted living residents have right to video security

State Sen. James Leewright has won unanimous approval in the Senate for Senate Bill 1739, the “Barbara E. Hoover Act,” protecting the use of video monitoring in assisted living centers. The legislation, which was approved Tuesday, ensures all continuum of care facility residents have the same rights as nursing home residents.

“Several years ago, the Legislature passed a measure to safeguard the right of nursing home patients and their families to use video monitoring equipment in their own private room,” said Leewright, R-Bristow. “This legislation updates that law to ensure residents in assisted living centers and other continuum of care facilities have that same right.”

Leewright’s bill is supported by AARP, the Oklahoma Silver-Haired Legislature and the Oklahoma Alliance on Aging.

“I filed this bill because I had a constituent in my district living in a long-term care facility. The family had video monitoring equipment in her room, but they were threatened with eviction if they didn’t remove it,” Leewright said. “This legislation modernizes our state law to make sure all long-term care facilities are covered and prohibits eviction or retaliation against residents who use video equipment for additional safety and security.”

The measure now moves across the rotunda for further consideration. Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, is the principal author for the SB 1739 in the House.

Senate approves legislation to help urban gardeners “bee” productive

The Senate has approved Senate Bill 1388, which would sweeten the pot for urban gardeners to raise honeybees by giving tax exempt status to bee products sold at farmers markets across the state.

Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa, said she authored the bill after a food desert in west Tulsa led her to look at alternative ways her constituents could access fresh produce.

“Many people in my district have become urban gardeners because of the lack of fruits and vegetables available to them at their nearest grocery store,” said Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa. “Gardens are sprouting up across the area, but with few honeybees to pollinate the plants, they are struggling to produce. Growing our honeybee population would increase the success of local gardens that provide fresh produce for those who need it.”

While producers who sell agricultural products directly from their farm, orchard, garden or dairy are already exempt from charging sales tax, bee products are excluded under current Oklahoma law.

“I hope allowing beekeepers to make and sell their own honey, candies, soaps, lotions and candles tax-free will incentivize Oklahomans to look into the buzz surrounding the apiary industry,” Ikley-Freeman said. “Something as simple as a honeybee could give many of our citizens a second stream of income. I appreciate my colleagues for supporting an outside-of-the-box solution to fight food insecurity in our state.”

The measure now moves to the House of Representatives for approval. Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, is the bill’s principal House author.

Full Senate approves bill to modernize state agency spending

Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson has won full Senate approval for legislation to modernize state agency spending and create government efficiencies. Senate Bill 1422, by Thompson, R-Okemah, was approved on Tuesday.

Thompson said it’s been more than two decades since there has been a comprehensive and uniform review of the Central Purchasing Act, which sets limits on agency spending. SB 1422 will update agency spending limits to reflect the increased prices of goods and services and address additional modernizations.

“This legislation will bring more flexibility to the day-to-day operations of state agencies while ensuring accountability and oversight,” Thompson said. “We’re eliminating unnecessary red tape, clarifying language within the act and allowing for increased training of purchasing officers and more in-depth audits of agency spending.”

SB 1422 now moves to the House of Representatives where it will be carried by House principal author, Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston.

Senate Approves Teacher Retention Act

The full Senate has approved legislation to encourage and retain Oklahoma’s top educators. Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, is the author of Senate Bill 1127, the Teacher Retention Act of 2020.

The measure creates a process for teachers who complete their National Board Certification and meet other additional requirements to receive annual bonuses of $1,500 beginning in the 2020-21 school year. Under the legislation, depending on available revenue, that amount could be increased in subsequent years until it equals $5,000 when combined with other National Board Certification compensation.

“We approved much-needed pay raises for Oklahoma educators in 2018 and 2019,” said Standridge. “Senate Bill 1127 gives us another way to incentivize and reward educators who go above and beyond to enhance the educational experience of their students.”

If approved, beginning July 1, 2020, the State Board of Education would provide annual bonuses to teachers who have completed their National Board Certification and are teaching full time in an Oklahoma public school, and have met other requirements including serving as a mentor teacher and receiving recommendation for the bonus by their superintendent, principal and school board.

The measure now crosses over to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Senate supports entrepreneurism with passage of bill

Home-based bakeries and other types of food businesses are one step closer to being able to continue growing their small business without having to rent or buy a commercial property. Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, said he authored Senate Bill 1714 to allow these types of small business owners the freedom to decide when they are ready to move into a larger commercial location rather than the state forcing them.

"Small businesses are the backbone of our state economy. We must do all we can to encourage entrepreneurism and assist small business owners, and Senate Bill 1714 will help those working out of their home kitchens continue to grow," Pugh said. "Current law unfairly hurts these home-based businesses by requiring them to move into a commercial location once their gross income reaches $20,000 a year. After expenses, that is not enough money to support a commercial business. This bill will allow the business owner to decide when to take that next step and grow their business further."

The Homemade Food Freedom Act removes the arbitrary $20,000 annual gross sales limit placed on home-based food businesses, and requires ingredient labeling and notice that the product was made in a home kitchen.

"With the internet and social media, it's easier than ever to have a home-based business because your prospective customers are endless and you can essentially advertise your products for free," Pugh said. "Government needs to support business owners not burden them with regulations. I want to thank my Senate colleagues for approving this important bill and supporting Oklahoma's entrepreneurs."

SB 1714, coauthored by Garry Mize, now goes to the House for further consideration.

Anatomical gift legislation heads to the House

There are currently nearly 2,000 U.S. children under the age of 18 on the national transplant waiting list. The Senate passed Senate Bill 1359 late Tuesday to give Oklahoma judges the power to possibly save some of those children. Under the measure, if a court has to make the decision to withdraw life sustaining treatment of a child in state custody based upon the attending physician's recommendation, then the judge has the authority to authorize anatomical gifts.

"This bill was requested by a judge in my district who had to rule to turn off a child's ventilator at the recommendation of a physician. Already a difficult situation, he said it was made worse by the fact that he didn't feel he had the authority to agree to the donation of the child's organs," Howard said. "One donor can save eight people with organs and up to 50 with tissues. This bill will give judges in these difficult situations the ability to honor the child's life by donating their organs to save other children."

The judge said he was aware of nearly 40 cases where local judges were unable to donate a child's organs that was in state custody at the time of his or her passing.

According to the American Transplant Foundation, nearly 114,000 Americans are currently on the organ transplant waiting list. Every ten minutes, someone is added to the list, and 20 people die each day from the lack of available organs for transplant.

SB 1359 now goes to the House for further consideration.